The internet offers governments unprecedented access to information about us, and a level of control previous generations of politicians could only dream about.
I wrote earlier this week about Israel’s daring foray into social media marketing, in which the country’s military tweeted, YouTubed and Flickred a military operation in Gaza that included at least one assassination. It was a brassy move – and one that probably backfired, in public relations terms.
Israel’s glossy, social media enabled war reporting was a first, at turns compelling and horrifying. It was significant for the internet, because it was the first instance I can recall in which a national government has used the digital tactics of terror more commonly the province of Islamic extremists and other crazy ideologue types.
And it was significant for journalism because it represented a distressing evolution of reportage, one that cuts out professional journalists entirely – or at least relegates them to the status of analysts, rather than reporters. In my view, my colleagues provide an utterly essential curb on the worst excesses of “war porn” and, even if the global media does, and it does, give Israel an appallingly tough ride, at least there is a mediating layer between government propaganda and the public.
But what has only dawned on me this weekend, after finally reading Nick Cohen’s excellent new treatise on censorship, You Can’t Read This Book, is what Israel’s slick and technologically sophisticated version of live-blogging represents about social media and government across the developed world.
We like to scoff at government for being hopeless with technology. Indeed, I’ve written many columns making precisely those sorts of remarks over the last half-decade about both the legislature and the judiciary. But it isn’t always true. Israel, for instance, has one of the most technologically competent governments on the planet: one capable of devising computer viruses that can knock out nuclear reactors.
And Britain, of course, does have plenty of world-class geeks locked away in Thames House and elsewhere, whose jobs, while perhaps not quite as nail-bitingly thrilling as those depicted on Spooks, nonetheless require formidable nous.
So it isn’t fair to say there’s no one in the public sector anywhere who can reformat a hard drive, easy though it is to assume so when you listen to our elected representatives holding forth on the subject. Frankly, that Tom Watson and the absurd Julian Huppert are the savviest among our legislature is cause for shame in itself.
Elsewhere, in the military and the civil service, the picture is more complex. Vast networks of Government operatives, egged on by those technologically illiterate MPs, are engaged not just in essential national security duties but also in a burgeoning catalogue of civil rights abuses as the state’s overweening desire to know everything about us spins out of control.
Daily Mail stories about city councils snooping in your back yard are an unfortunate distraction from what’s really going on, because the comic potential of these hapless local bureaucrats and their expensive microchipped wheelie bins draws attention away from more sinister activities in Whitehall.
The truth is, the more we use social media, the more easily the Government – and corporations – can learn everything they might possibly want to know about us. Social norms are changing. We are making the private public. If you think that’s hysterical, and that it’s only in places like China and Iran that citizens are subjected to invasive surveillance, think again.
Consider the so-called “snoopers’ charter” the present Government, picking up where Jacqui Smith’s wicked machinations left off, is determined to enact. And then ask yourself this question: was Israel’s social media broadcast a watershed in journalistic process, or did it really mark the ascension of state power on social media?
Let me explain. Governments generally cotton on late to technological advances. But, when they do, they have the resources to leverage the instruments of dissent far more powerfully than the innovators from which they learn the ropes.
As Cohen points out toward the end of his book, what cyber-utopians like Clay Shirky, who thinks technology like Twitter will usher in a new age of transparency and peaceful revolution, forget is that governments may begin by fumbling over legislation and licensing of new technology they can’t control, but they quickly do something more effective: start using the tools of revolution themselves.
(You can’t compare Britain with, say, North Korea in terms of government oppression. But rich Western liberal democracies take an alarmingly similar approach to spying on their own citizens, even if the endgame is pointless prosecutions for perceived insults and new revenue streams for the public sector’s insatiable coffers.)
Thus it was with Gutenberg’s printing press, which may have provided the tools for dissemination of translated copies of the Bible and of political pamphlets and new, transgressive thinking, but which was also used heavily throughout the repressive monarchical centuries that followed its invention.
You won’t hear this said on a New York University journalism course, but the printing press did oddly little to enlighten Europe, prevent war or empower citizens: rather, it was instantly seized upon by the elites as a new tool which which they could solidify their grasp over the people and used for centuries thereafter as an instrument of power.
Cohen makes the point that few dictatorships seek total control; only what he calls effective control, which means tolerating dissent while drowning it out in a sea of “approved” messages and letting revolutionaries know there are consequences for disobedience. Hence the longevity of Putin’s Russia. And the reason it doesn’t matter if the Government is lousy at enforcing its unworkable internet legislation.
Israel demonstrated this week that it can use social media as fluidly and effectively as any Islamic terrorist. In so doing, it gave the game away: governments and corporations, particularly in the West, are catching up with the rest of us. They may not be furiously tweeting, commenting and uploading, but you can be sure they’re watching.
And they’re probably doing it with the full co-operation of the American corporations so desperate to appear on the side of the angels, but which each demonstrate repeatedly how comfortable they are with the idea of cosying up to rich but noxious people and institutions.
The sinister and silent mastery of social media by states and by corporate interests, from which Israel’s publicity stunt this week sprang, will come to be more keenly felt in the next few years, with more prosecutions for apparently innocent tweets and status updates and ever more snooping into our digital lives. Be afraid.