My favorite story about the internet is the one about the anonymous Japanese guy who liberated Czechoslovakia. In 1989, as open dissent was spreading across the country, dissidents were attempting to coordinate efforts outside the watchful eye of Czechoslovak state security. The internet was a nascent technology, and the cops didn’t use it; modems were banned, and activists were able to use only those they could smuggle over the border, one at a time. Enter our Japanese guy. Bruce Sterling, who first told the story of the Japanese guy in a 1995 Wired article, says he talked to four different people who’d met the quiet stranger, but no one knew his name. What really mattered, anyway, is what he brought with him: “a valise full of brand-new and unmarked 2400-baud Taiwanese modems,” which he handed over to a group of engineering students in Prague before walking away. “The students,” Sterling would later write, “immediately used these red-hot 2400-baud scorcher modems to circulate manifestos, declarations of solidarity, rumors, and riot news.” Unrest expanded, the opposition grew, and within months, the Communist regime collapsed.
Is it true? Were free modems the catalyst for the Velvet Revolution? Probably not. But it’s a good story, the kind whose logic and lesson have become so widely understood — and so foundational to the worldview of Silicon Valley — as to make its truth irrelevant. Isn’t the best way to fortify the town square by giving more people access to it? And isn’t it nice to know, as one storied institution and industry after another falls to the internet’s disrupting sword, that everything will be okay in the end — that there might be some growing pains, but connecting billions of people to one another is both inevitable and good? Free speech will expand, democracy will flower, and we’ll all be rich enough to own MacBooks. The new princes of Silicon Valley will lead us into the rational, algorithmically enhanced, globally free future.
Or, they were going to, until earlier this month. The question we face now is: What happens when the industry destroyed is professional politics, the institutions leveled are the same few that prop up liberal democracy, and the values the internet disseminates are racism, nationalism, and demagoguery?
Powerful undemocratic states like China and Russia have for a while now put the internet to use to mislead the public, create the illusion of mass support, and either render opposition invisible or expose it to targeting. The paid bureaucrats in the Communist Party’s “50-cent army” flood debates on Chinese social media and message boards with nationalist propaganda. Russia’s armies of trolls smear critics, spread propaganda, and sow paranoia — both nationally and abroad, as when a cache of leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee drowned real news in innuendo and conspiracy.
It’s not only state actors who use the internet for illiberal ends. In Myanmar, where internet use has exploded from one to 20 percent of the population over the past two years, fake news about Muslims has “correlated with a surge in anti-Muslim protests and attacks on local Muslim groups,” reported BuzzFeed’s Sheera Frenkel. Here in the U.S., racist, misogynistic, and anti-Semitic trolls on Twitter harass journalists critical of Trump while a brigade of bots sing his praises under each of his tweets. On Facebook, a host of fake and misleading news sites has spread an epidemic of misinformation and propaganda.
Not all of this activity is motivated by hatred. Some portion of the illiberal rhetoric online is inorganic, funded or Astroturfed by third parties like Palmer Luckey, the 24-year-old virtual-reality wunderkind who admitted this summer to funding a political-action committee dedicated to “shitposting” in favor of Trump. Some is driven purely by the close-margin math of hucksters: Write a fake viral article and sell ads for miracle erectile-dysfunction cures. And some portion is motivated by genuine if misguided grievances, manipulated and accelerated through social media, which favors a politics that relies on fearmongering and heightened emotion, as appeals to tribal identity. This can lead to vital movements for justice. It can also lead to a man who called Mexicans “rapists” being elected president.
Silicon Valley is, slowly, coming to terms with the way its products have enabled the revival of illiberal populism around the world. Only a week after the election, Twitter finally introduced some simple anti-harassment tools that its users had been requesting for years. It’s not encouraging, by any means, that we’re reduced to begging powerful CEOs to institute changes to their popular products for the sake of democracy. At Facebook, frustrated employees formed a secret working group aimed at dealing with “fake news”; eventually, Zuckerberg declared that the company would take several concrete steps to address it. A week later, the New York Times reported that the company had been working on a censorship tool in an effort to reenter the Chinese market.
But the recent panicked focus on fixing the “fake news” problem itself seems inadequate, reliant on the belief that merely by ensuring that hoaxes and lies are unable to circulate on social networks, we can return to civil public discourse. That misinformation plagues our politics is a symptom of a larger, more existential problem: The tech industry has disrupted the public sphere and has shown neither the interest nor the ability to reconstruct it. No matter what Facebook might believe, there is no turnkey algorithmic solution that will ensure a perfect civic network. It will always be possible for people who take advantage of networks’ “dumb” nature — their inability to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate traffic — to flood them with junk.
Is it possible to encourage productive, meaningful speech online without regulating the speech itself? A stronger public sphere might emerge if the power of the few companies that determine the dissemination of news and ideas were greatly reduced. If Facebook’s effective monopoly on online distribution were broken, a new set of ways to report and share news could arise: a social network where the sources of articles were highlighted rather than the users sharing them. A platform that makes it easier to read a full story than to share one unread. A news feed that provides alternative sources and analysis beneath every shared article. We can’t believe that merely connecting people is enough to enable freedom. But if we abandon the air of inevitability that has surrounded the expansion of the internet and the politics we’ve too long presumed it enables, we may find that it still is a fantastic tool for democracy — in concert with a strong free press; transparent, independent institutions; and the old-fashioned democratic value of arguing with your neighbors to their faces, rather than with their Twitter accounts.
*This article appears in the November 28, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.