From Trump’s troubles to Islamic State inroads, networks can destroy as well as build in a connected world
Niall Ferguson says a look at world news shows that the technology once hailed as a great force for building a global community has a dark side, pitting one against another
The world today is like a giant network on the verge of a cataclysmic outage. The US president tweets that his own intelligence agencies are illegally leaking classified information to The New York Times about his campaign’s communications with the Russian government, but he insists it’s all “fake news”. (Read that again, slowly.)
Meanwhile, having interfered in the US presidential election via WikiLeaks and an online army of trolls and bots, the Russians deploy a new cruise missile in breach of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and – just for good measure – send their spy ship Viktor Leonov to have look at the US submarine base at New London, Connecticut.
On the other side of the Atlantic, French and German politicians alike fret about Russian meddling in their elections. But the big story in Europe is the implosion of the 27-year-old YouTube star Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg, whose recent tangle with anti-Semitism has led to the cancellation of his deals with Google and Disney. No, dear reader, I had never heard of PewDiePie either, which just goes to show we are old. Fact: his YouTube channel has more than 50 million subscribers.
In the Muslim world, it gets a lot worse. The self-styled Islamic State publishes an online guide to propaganda, explaining to its supporters how to use the news industry’s desire for “clicks” to launch pro-IS “media projectiles”.
A report on IS-run schools in Iraq and Syria reveals that children are being asked to calculate the number of Shia Muslims or “unbelievers” that can be killed by a suicide bomber. To help them find the answer, an IS terrorist blows himself up in Sehwan, Pakistan, killing at least 75 people.
And in East Asia? The Chinese government relaxes its censorship of social media, but only because unfiltered blog posts make it easier for the authorities to monitor dissent. In Seoul, the heir to the Samsung electronics empire is arrested on suspicion of bribery, the latest casualty of the corruption scandal that has engulfed the South Korean president, Park Geun-hye, and her mysterious friend Choi Soon-sil, daughter of the founder of the Church of Eternal Life.
Meanwhile, in broad daylight, a woman allegedly poisons the half-brother of the North Korean dictator at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport. Her T-shirt bears the web chat acronym “LOL”.
Watch: Video clip apparently showing attack on Kim Jong-nam
Laugh out loud if you dare. Globalisation is in crisis. Populism is on the march. Authoritarian states are ascendant. How on earth do we make sense of all this? In pursuit of answers, many bewildered commentators resort to crude historical analogies. To some, Donald Trump is Hitler, about to proclaim an American dictatorship. To others, he is Richard Nixon, on the verge of being impeached.
But it’s neither 1933 nor 1973 all over again. Easily centralised technology made totalitarian government possible in the 1930s. Forty years later, it had got harder for the president to violate the law with impunity. Nevertheless, the media in the 1970s still amounted to a few television channels and press agencies. You cannot understand the world today without understanding how it has changed as a result of information technology. This has enormously empowered networks of all kinds over traditional power structures.
Networks were the key to what happened in politics last year. Russia’s intelligence network did its utmost to maximise the damage to Hillary Clinton’s reputation stemming from her sloppy email security. Attacks by IS lent credibility to Trump’s pledge to strip out “the support networks for radical Islam” in America and to ban Muslim immigration. Above all, there was the grass-roots network of support that Trump built using the power of Facebook, Twitter and the Breitbart news website.
It was this that defeated the “global special interests” that – according to the final ad of campaign chief executive Steve Bannon – stood behind the “failed and corrupt political establishment” personified by Trump’s opponent. Note here how one network attacks another.
The counter-attack by the US intelligence network has been impressive, claiming the scalp of Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn after just 23 days. Is Flynn the first national security adviser to have had contacts with a foreign power before an inauguration? No. Is there any evidence that he said anything nefarious to the Russian ambassador in late December? No, though he should have told the vice-president, Mike Pence, that he had discussed sanctions.
Is it proper that intelligence operatives are leaking information about Team Trump’s other contacts with the Russians to The New York Times? No. But this is how networks operate. They cut across the official chain of command that is the spinal cord of any state.
It all goes to show networks are transforming not only the economy – through viral advertising, targeted marketing and “sharing” of cars and apartments – but also the public sphere and democracy itself. Memes can spread even more rapidly than natural viruses. But the notion that taking the whole world online would create a utopia of “netizens”, all equal in cyberspace, was always a fantasy.
On Thursday, Facebook’s co-founder, chairman and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, posted a long defence of that ideal of an interconnected “global community”, arguing that his company’s role should be to promote “meaningful” local communities, to enhance “safety” (by monitoring content with artificial intelligence), to promote diversity of ideas, and to foster civic engagement – even at the global level. “As the largest global community,” Zuckerberg wrote, “Facebook can explore examples of how community governance might work at scale.” The example he cited was last month’s anti-Trump Women’s March.
The reality is that the global network has become a dangerously unstable structure. Far from promoting equality, it does the opposite, by allowing hyperconnected “superhubs” to emerge. Surprise, surprise, from Trump to PewDiePie, these turn out to be rather the reverse of saintly role models.
Far from spreading truth and love, the network excels at disseminating lies and hatred, because those are the things we nasty, fallen human beings like to click on.
As I write, Zuckerberg’s letter has been “liked” more than 66,000 times on Facebook and 2,400 times on Twitter. The following tweet was liked by twice as many people on Facebook and 35 times as many on Twitter: “Stock market hits new high with longest winning streak in decades. Great level of confidence and optimism – even before tax plan rollout!”
That tweet came from Trump. If, 20 years from now, someone asks you what finally crashed the global network, you’ll want to mention the @realDonaldTrump virus.
But remember: the flawed design of the network made the outage inevitable. And for that, Chairman “Zuck” is much more to blame.
Niall Ferguson’s new book, The Square and the Tower: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Networks, will be published in the autumn