Social networks, blessed or cursed?

By: Gabriel Guerra Castellanos
President of War Castellanos and Associates.
13, January, 2021.

The year 2010 was coming to an end and we looked with amazement at what was happening in the streets and squares of Tunisia, first, then Egypt, and little by little what looked like a kind of inverted crescent on the map: the Arab world was discovering the fragility of its authoritarian and despotic regimes, societies and citizens woke up, hope was reborn.

The Arab Spring was rather short, because dictators and tyrants soon returned, as in the case of Egypt, and some never left, as in the case of Syria, but the message that the whole world was left with was that of power not only of society, but of social networks and messaging applications, which were extremely useful both for the dissemination of news and for social mobilization, evading the controls of police states in which censorship prevented any approach to reality .

Ten years and a month later, those same networks and messaging services became essential elements for the biggest assault on the democratic institutions of the United States of America since, in 1812, British troops attacked the seat of the Legislative Power, the Capitol . A mob made up of uncountable thousands of citizens sympathetic to the still President Donald Trump pounced in defense of his supposed victory, easily overcoming the few barriers in their path and coming within a trice of literally having legislators in their hands.

Unexpected? unimaginable? Well, notice that no, dear readers. The call and much of the organization of the march/assault took place openly, through several of the social networks that just a decade before had been the “architects” of the democratizing wave and that have now become tools of sedition. Days before, several traditional media, including the Washington Post, had raised their voices to warn of the nefarious intentions and preparations. Local and federal authorities did little or nothing to stop it.

But the events of January 6 were nothing more than the logical and inevitable culmination of years and years of propaganda and lies circulating on social media. From the absurd rumors about the birthplace and religion of Barack Obama to the deviant theories of groups like QAnon, from the aggressions of Trump's first campaign to the falsehoods to distort the vote in the second, the networks were a vehicle, platform, megaphone for the largest experiment in mass deception since the times of European nazi-fascism.

Too late, like someone who comes to plug the proverbial well, Twitter and Facebook closed the accounts of President Trump and several thousand spreaders of lies, after having succeeded for years. Late too, Amazon decided to remove the far-right network Parler, which was intended to be an alternative to Twitter, from its servers.

Many applauded, forgetting the complicity by omission of the large consortiums. But they do not take into account that in addition to being late, these actions will be useless, because the extremists have had plenty of time to connect, to set up alternative options on the Internet, or to go to the clandestine world of the network, the Dark Web, which makes them honor to his name.

If keeping them in sight the authorities could not stop them, what will happen now that they go underground? How will the self-victimization narrative of Trump and his supporters be countered?

I am very afraid that January 6 will have been just a warning of what is to come.

Networks: regulation or censorship?

By: Gabriel Guerra Castellanos.
February 10, 2021.

Last week I told you a little about the dilemma, false in my opinion, that has arisen around social networks, dear readers. They have been placed, in the absolute terms that the Manichaeans like so much, as allies and promoters of dictatorial populism or as indispensable tools for the promotion or defense of democracy and freedoms.

A glance at the existing use and regulation is enough to realize that neither of the two extremes applies, for the simple reason that networks are only tools for transmitting information and everything that it contains: they can be broadcast channels of ideas and knowledge as vehicles for banality; tools of the post-pandemic trade or cave of speculators and scalpers; lifeline or guillotine of traditional media. And also, of course, forums for discussion and exchange of thought or closed and exclusive channels that promote "unique thinking", as if such an oxymoron were possible.

So networks are what we make of them or what we are allowed to make of them: there will always be the temptation to control instead of regulate, to close instead of open, to prohibit instead of allow. It is a very slippery path, because we have already seen what the abuse of this tool can lead to, although the same could have been said at the time of others that at the time were great technological advances that widened the lanes through which information travels , but they did not replace the issuers (or the contents) of it.

In Mexico, the debate quickly became politicized, as was to be expected. Many of those who applauded the cancellation of Donald Trump's Twitter and Facebook accounts, in part because they saw there an omen of something that could be applied to the president of Mexico, suddenly changed their minds when they learned of an initiative to "regulate" the networks. presented by Senator Ricardo Monreal, an ally of the president. And it is that, like so many other serious and substantive things in our country, everything seems to revolve around the presidential figure.

The issue is too important to be lost in the morass of the obsessively single-issue discussion that national politics has become.

Many experts have already ruled on whether or not the aforementioned proposal contravenes international treaties signed by the Mexican State. Others have expressed concern about the possibility that the government tries to "control" what is said and thought on the networks. And there are those who think that the companies that own the networks and platforms already have excessive power, dominant as experts on economic competition would call it, and that they should be regulated or “put in their place”.

The truth is that those who control technological tools today are owners of a large part of the modern world: from online shopping platforms to entertainment services, through applications for buying and delivering food or for daily coexistence, today they have a monopoly and monopsony power that puts individuals, communities, societies and nation states against the wall.

That is the reality: attempting to regulate or control something that has already happened is doubly difficult, and even more so when technology advances at quantum leaps while regulatory capacities do so at a snail's pace.

Those who aspire today to confine global information flows must promote a broad and inclusive dialogue with the many actors involved, including, of course, those of society.

Otherwise, their attempts may do little good, but much harm.