Social Networks Challenge Government

Democratic government is threatened by the Internet on two fronts.

Posted Apr 13, 2018

Technology changes societies. Just as the Industrial Revolution stole power from the landed gentry, online social networks challenge government authority. This is equally true of large Internet companies and global terrorist networks like ISIS.

Following the 9/11 attacks, many people grew concerned about invasions of privacy by US security agencies under the Patriot Act. In recent years it seems like the shoe is on the other foot. In other words there is concern that government is being overwhelmed by the skills of electronic social network companies on one side, and terrorist networks on the other, according to historian Niall Ferguson (1).

The Terror Networks

Ferguson emphasizes the inherent flexibility of online terror networks in the face of military attacks and contrasts this with the slowness of governments to change.

Jihadi terrorists, in particular, have evolved into a worldwide association of like-minded local groups. These are independently run with a diverse range of affiliates whose operation is often directed via local cells.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of the contemporary terror network is that it is immune to defeat. Instead of being a monster that can be decapitated, it is distributed and difficult to attack effectively without extensive encroachments on individual liberties, such as those currently practiced in China, Iran, or North Korea. Of course, civil liberties are also threatened by government spying on citizens in free countries. The killing of Osama Bin Laden symbolized the end of top-down control rather than the defeat of Al Qaeda.

Networks have a resiliency that is sometimes compared to biological ecosystems. If one species goes extinct, others may benefit from the additional food that becomes available (1).

Terror networks have become skilled operators on the Internet using alternative as well as mainstream platforms. Their foreign focus has shifted from organizing attacks themselves to inspiring domestic actors who are too thick on the ground to be easily monitored, or thwarted.

Given the inexpensive nature of Internet propaganda, national governments are poorly equipped to respond. The necessary level of control to regulate Internet communication after the manner of the Chinese government seems impossible in a free society. It would be the equivalent of using arsenic to treat syphilis. Electronic networks are far from being inherently evil but nevertheless constitute a threat to democracy as we have known it.

Silicon Valley

The power of online social networks was illustrated by the Arab Spring phenomenon in Tunisia and other North African countries with the widespread use of Twitter to organize protests and outwit government authority by informing the public of activities by police and military.

The telling point of these protests was that social networks are an effective way of expressing, and organizing, dissent through channels that the relevant governments could not control. Although this movement essentially fizzled and got suppressed, it showed that social networks could bring down governments by providing an organizing force that was outside the authoritarian structure of a government, yet considerably more effective.

Fast forward to Russian interference in the 2016 election and Mark Zuckerberg's appearances before Congress (April 10-11, 2018) and we see the conflict between government and social networks being openly expressed. Government representatives expressed many concerns about social media undermining democracy itself through their assaults on basic rights, including privacy, and undermining the freedom of the press by disseminating fake news and propaganda originating, in some cases, from hackers in hostile countries such as Russia.

When Zuckerberg meekly agreed that his business would benefit from regulation, this marked a victory for government.

Online networks are bad at regulating themselves and Ferguson argues that all social networks go off the rails in the absence of an external authority. One example is the fixing of prices by groups of merchants.

The US government had long been on the defensive as Companies like Apple refused to buckle before NSA browbeating and unlock its operating system for their benefit. On the other hand, it could be argued that American political parties are themselves fighting a losing battle against social media.

Who Is Really Winning?

The importance of Internet platforms was brought home by Barack Obama's second Presidential election. In the 2016, Trump had about 32 percent more Twitter followers than Clinton and 87 percent more supporters on Facebook (1). Similar Internet dominance was seen in other social media platforms.

Use of the Internet by the British VoteLeave campaign was another come-from-behind victory that was probably attributable to social media influence.

We do not really know what role Russian hackers and troll farms played in these victories but we do know that they were highly active and operating unopposed by, and hence facilitated by Twitter, Facebook, and other social media.

This dark side of the Internet makes it very difficult to believe in a Utopia of “Netizens” where the citizens can make their wishes known to governments in instantaneous polls.

It is also difficult to see restrained democracy triumphing over the mob rule of social media.


1 Ferguson, N. (2018). The square and the tower: Networks an power from the Freemasons to Facebook. New York: Penguin.