Social media and democracy: A force moving beyond control

Back in the day, when a public figure could make a suggestion without filtering it through rigorous sensibilities, Theodore Roosevelt, speaking about diplomacy offered: “If you’ve got them by the, em, manhood, their hearts and minds will follow.”

He did not use the word “manhood” but if he were alive and felt the need to offer advice today he might suggest grabbing “them” through their social media portals.

Yesterday, Fine Gael’s director of EU elections Regina Doherty, warned media giants must do more to stop fake news.

She also conceded governments must enact better regulation — but that suggests a parity between social media empires and national governments that may no longer exist.

Hours before that optimistic intervention, the government in Sri Lanka, trying to contain the religion-driven violence that has left more than 200 people dead, blocked social media networks.

They recognised how power has shifted almost beyond democratic control.

As these malign, as yet unknowable forces — unless you’re the Facebook employee who cashes the cheques — are in play in the EU elections, journalist Carole Cadwalladr’s TED talk on how Facebook is undermining democracy and was so darkly influential in the Brexit vote seems mandatory.

She describes a world so orchestrated, puppet masters so off-radar, that it is nothing short of chilling. In the world she relates, Orwell’s Big Brother seems a harmless amateur.

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