The news of the day is that Elon Musk took control of Twitter and promises to abolish censorship. At the same time, the platforms most plagued by censors, FB for instance, are taking a bloodbath in the market. It is part of the evolution of the Web, an entity much too complex and structured to be controlled by dumb creatures such as “fact checkers” and their AI henchcreatures. We don’t know what Musk has in mind with his takeover; he may plan to become the next US president or maybe to rule Mars as Grand Duke. In any case, he may well understand better than many others how to use social media as communication tools.
It is said that the Grand-Duke, of Tuscany, Cosimo 1st, (1519 – 1574) used to sit behind a low window of his palace, in Florence, to hear what people passing by were saying. He wanted to know what his subjects were thinking of him. It was part of his ruling method. He used an iron fist when needed, but he would also use a velvet glove to turn enemies into friends. For instance, the masterpiece of statuary known as “Perseus and Medusa” was cast by a former enemy of his, Benvenuto Cellini, whose skills Cosimo admired.
The “Perseus” is still standing in Piazza della Signoria, in Florence. With it, and with other pieces, Cosimo 1st was carrying out a propaganda campaign where he presented himself as the “monster slayer” Perseus: a stern, but just, ruler. Then, as now, there was a need to know how a message fares with its targets. In the case of the Perseus statuary piece, the citizens of Florence themselves informed Cosimo by commenting aloud when looking at the statue (probably knowing that the Duke was listening) and writing their comments on small pieces of paper that they glued to the pedestal. We don’t know what they said and wrote, but, apparently, they thought that the statue was too much on the “stern” side and too little on the “justice” one. The Duke was disappointed enough that he never paid Cellini for the work he had done. I told this story in detail in an earlier post
There are many ways to operate a propaganda campaign. In ancient times, of course, they didn’t have the technologies we have nowadays, but the problems were the same. Rulers could not reach citizens individually, but they would “broadcast” their power by means of impressive imagery and buildings. Then, the people had a certain capability of sending messages back to the rulers. And some enlightened rulers, such as Cosimo 1st, knew that a ruler who doesn’t know what his subjects think doesn’t survive for long. But, to hear what the citizens say, there is a need for a certain level of freedom of expression left to citizens. It was a good way of ruling: Cosimo was a true Renaissance Man, who patronized art and science. He reigned for 32 years and started a dynasty of Grand-Dukes that lasted up to 1737.
In time, propaganda has evolved, and not always in a good way. The “mass media,” first the press, then radio and TV, started being fundamental during the 20th century. They are great broadcasting technologies, but they are extremely poor in terms of two-way communication. With the dictatorships of the 20th century, people were receiving messages from their rulers but they could not talk back to them, at least not using the same methods. The only way for governments to know what people were thinking was to rely on spies, but that was usually overdone. In the Soviet Union, in Iran at the time of the Shah, and in many other places, what you said to a friend could end up being reported to the police and you risked disappearing in the night, forever. You can understand that, soon, people lost all interest in expressing their opinion to anyone. That led to the development of the totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century developed.
The problem with totalitarianism is that it is rigid and inflexible. The rulers tend to think that the fact that nobody criticizes them means that nobody disagrees with them, they get absorbed into their internal squabbles, and they soon lose track of what the real problems are. That’s one of the reasons why totalitarian states are not usually long-lived. A good case is that of the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini, in Italy. One of the most totalitarian states of its times (and perhaps in known history), the total control of the media by the state was matched only by the total incompetence of the government. And it ended with the great leader hanged upside down
, as it was perhaps unavoidable.
How about our times? By the end of the 20th century, Western propaganda was a sophisticated machine that worked on the principle that “The devil’s best trick is to convince you that he doesn’t exist” (Baudelaire said that). It allowed a certain degree of criticism, and that gave the citizens the impression that they were free to express themselves. It was obvious, though, that opinions contrasting with those of the government would always remain confined to spaces occupied only by visionaries and crackpots. It was a form of “invisible totalitarianism.”
But technology always changes things. The Web and social media were the equivalents of a monkey wrench thrown into the works of the smooth Western propaganda machine. The elites soon realized that they could hardly control the system when anyone could use it at a low cost. And anything could go viral, out of control, no matter how subversive. That led to a scramble to take control of the Web.
So far, the action has been mainly with the search engines: those who control them, control the Web. If you have experienced “shadow banning,” you know how effective it is, and how defenseless you are against it. In more recent times, we saw a more direct action: no just soft banning, but true banning. A large tribe of so-called “fact checkers” appeared on the main social platforms, cracking down on whoever said something that their employers didn’t want to see diffusing on the Web. With the idea that social platforms are private spaces, it was argued that the 1st amendment does not hold there, The account of a former US president on Twitter was canceled and even top-level scientists were censored. Sometimes, just linking to peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals could lead to your account being forever axed.
Some people absolutely love censorship. But many (perhaps most) users of social media didn’t like to be watched from over their shoulders by those overzealous nannies who pretended to know better than them what is true and what is not. That generated criticism, and some attempts to rein in the censors. But, so far, we only saw censorship increasing its reach and becoming more pervasive.
Except for the news of the day: the bird is free! Elon Musk bought Twitter and promises to eliminate censorship.
What’s happening? There are several possible interpretations, but at least something is clear: those who rule us are not a monolithic entity, as the Communist Party was in the Soviet Union. There are several would-be rulers who are vying for power behind the scene. Musk may actually be smarter than most of them and able to understand that you gain nothing by silencing those who disagree with you. Suppose he wants to become the next US president, or maybe the Grand Duke of Mars, then he has to think like the Grand Duke of Tuscany did. He needs to know what people think because he can rule only if people agree that he is the ruler. Ruling by force and oppression is inefficient and, often, the ruler ends up hanged by the feet. So, Musk may well understand that he needs to leave some space for people to express themselves. The bird may not be completely free, but it has to be able to fly.
We seem to be in a transition moment (we always are). The Internet is under pressure with the attempt of controlling it and turning it into a tool for a totalitarian government (in China, the government may have succeeded at that). But, at the same time, some members of the elites are realizing that the Internet is a much better tool if used according to its characteristic of a two-way communication system. The Internet may allow us to generate a new governance system that might be more effective and just than the old totalitarian systems. It might be part of a “new Renaissance” that could take some aspects similar to the way Cosimo the 1st ruled in Tuscany during the 16th century. Maybe. But, as always, the future will surprise us.
Originally appeared on The Seneca Effect