Not long ago I watched an episode of “The Orville,” Seth MacFarlane’s funny and perceptive science-fiction series on the Fox broadcast network. The episode was called “Majority Rule,” and it was as powerful a piece of social commentary as I’ve seen.
It dealt with a society very much like ours, or at least like our society if it arrives at the destination where it’s currently headed. In MacFarlane’s fictional society (on some distant planet), all the decisions are made based on people’s social media up- and down-votes. The people learn what little they know of a situation or person by cellular telephone videos added to a national stream – think Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. If a video receives sufficient down-votes, its subject is effectively lobotomized.
It illustrated how wrong things can go when the online mob takes over.
I was much taken with the episode, which was originally broadcast year before last, because it’s painfully close to things we’re seeing here and now. So I was primed and ready for what I read from the Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia, Sunday afternoon.
Sanger is calling for a strike – a moratorium, really – against social media July 4 and 5, which is to say this Thursday and Friday. It is in support of what he calls the “Declaration of Digital Independence.”
“This means we will not use social media on those days, exceptto post notices that we are on strike,” Sanger wrote in an article posted to his website. “We’re going to make a lot of noise. Nobody will be able to ignore what’s happening. We’re going to flex our collective muscles and demand that giant, manipulative corporations give us back control over our data, privacy and user experience.”
Sanger, 50, is not some random online flake. He has been behind numerous useful Internet projects since he was awarded his doctorate from Ohio State University, where he has taught philosophy. He is a respected, serious guy. He split with Wikipedia some years ago when it became clear that expert knowledge of the subject was no longer required in formulation of Wikipedia entries.
He has suggested that Thursday and Friday people limit their social media posts to declaration that they are on strike, links to the “Declaration of Digital Independence,” and posts encouraging others to join the strike.
What does Sanger hope will happen?
“Your followers will start seeing strike notices in their feeds on July 4,” he wrote. “Probably, most will ignore the first messages. But more and more notices will appear. Strikers will start calling out scabs for posting when they should be striking. With luck, by sometime on July 4, feeds will be absolutely flooded with strike notices. When that happens, the news media at all levels will have to report on it.”
This, he says, will draw attention to the “possibility of decentralizing social media, which is wildly popular whenever proposed.”
It’s a good idea. It is an even better idea in the details.
We should together demand, Sanger says, that our data remain ours and ours alone, not commodities to be combined and sold among corporations seeking to make their marketing more effective. Likewise, our privacy is ours and ours alone. And censorship, no matter whether its source or intention, is not to be tolerated,
Alas, it does not in my view do much to restrain the mob, which is as serious a threat as corporations are. Much – no, all – of social media today resemble an electronic version of the French revolution (and France, 125 years after the fact, still hasn’t fully recovered from that event). The social media mob is a terrible unchecked power. People have lost their jobs because of social media mob. Voices have effectively been silenced because of the electronic pitchforks-and-torches crowd.
Mobs are almost always collections of people who individually are cowards. Social media make both cowardice and mob membership easier. And by sheer size the mob has often made cowards out of its targets, including the professional media.
The gigantic, monolithic social media only make it worse. They’re the central repository of would-be mob members, looking for new things to be angry about and new doctrinal impurities to condemn. Sending them to smaller gathering places, where the foam from their mouths won’t flood nearby streets in waves of outrage and misinformation and rabid spittle, is a good thing.
Sanger’s complaints, though as he admits they are not comprehensive, are valid. A good slap across the face of Facebook, an instant stop to Instagram, and well-placed kick so as to raise Twitter’s voice to a high-pitched tweet are all worthy endeavors.
Much is at stake.
As it was 50 years ago tomorrow and Friday, when people gathered at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland to form a group called the “New Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam.” That organization would join with others of like mind to create the Oct. 15, 1969, and even larger Nov. 15, 1969, Vietnam War moratoria. The stakes this time are different, but the principles are every bit as profound.
I fear the battle is already lost, as it would later turn out to have been a half century ago when despite the protests and demonstrations, the war ground on for another five years.
Still, Sanger’s strike is worth the attempt. If everyone, or a sizable fraction of everyone, stays away from social media Thursday and Friday, it might get the attention of the big social-media companies. It will certainly get the attention of elected officials, who are already looking for ways and reasons to curtail them.
It would have an additional effect, letting the government know that people are paying attention so that the social media do not get fashioned into even worse tools reflecting the whims of the day.
For that, though we all do have to be paying attention.
I’m a little constrained here, though: I can’t boycott social media, because I’m alreadyboycotting them, for the reasons listed above and then some.
Editor's note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears every Thursday in The Athens NEWS. You can reach him at email@example.com.