There have been, over recent days, two important contributions to the debate on who controls and, more importantly, who is responsible for the accuracy of online information.
In recent weeks and months there have been examples of how that information, sometimes toxic misinformation, is manipulated to serve malign purposes.
The father of the web, Tim Berners-Lee, launched a global plan to save the web from political manipulation, fake news, privacy violations and dark forces that promise a “digital dystopia”. Despite his idealism, that horse has bolted — as Russian puppeteering in elections confirms.
Whether the horse can be recaptured is a pressing question.
At the Anti-Defamation League’s Never is Now summit in New York, Sacha Baron Cohen described Facebook as “the greatest propaganda machine in history”.
He outlined how the Silicon Six put profit before the integrity of democracies, historical accuracy, or even climate change. His targets are all American billionaires, Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, Sundar Pichai at Google, at its parent company Alphabet, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Brin’s former sister-in-law, Susan Wojcicki at YouTube, and Jack Dorsey at Twitter.
“This is ideological imperialism — six unelected individuals ... imposing their vision on the rest of the world, unaccountable to any government and acting like they’re above the reach of law.
It’s like we’re living in the Roman Empire, and Zuckerberg is Caesar,” warned Cohen. It is impossible to dismiss his wake-up-and-join-the-dots arguments.
Britain’s chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, has done just that. He has intervened, reluctantly he says, in the UK’s election and accused Jeremy Corbyn of allowing a “poison sanctioned from the top” to take root in Labour, saying Jews are justifiably anxious about the prospect of the party forming Britain’s next government.
Labour has denied suggestions it has not confronted antisemitism. Mirvis’ remarks, endorsed by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, must be coloured by resurgent antisemitism in Europe.
It would be dangerously unwise to pretend the fantasy world of unanswerable social media has not led the revival of Europe’s antisemitism — just as it has been a catalyst for anti-immigration policies, climate change deniers and even those who reject the proven science of vaccinations. Trump and Brexit too.
It impossible to imagine the protests around proposed direct provision centres would have gathered momentum without social media drum-beating.
It may be, but not certain, that two of the candidates in this week’s Dáil by-elections regret using social media to target minorities. It is not hard to argue, either, that myriad online hate fests sustain sectarianism on this island even though the great majority want to live as good neighbours.
But what can a small country do in the face of “the greatest propaganda machine in history”?
Our best hope of averting a “digital dystopia” lies in working with the EU to confront these monsters but, ironically, this tsunami of data imposes an obligation on all of us to do more to win now fact from poisonous fiction. And preferably before the idea of truth is made as redundant as wax tablets.