The rise of digital societies around the globe is the natural by-product of humankind’s insistence on efficiency, which started with the industrial revolution, when automatization displaced most manual methods of production. While mobile phones and credit cards already seem like inventions of the past, some other efficiency-driven products, such as online education platforms (e.g. Coursera) and virtual job markets, are still in the process of supplanting their traditional counterparts.
One of the leading trademarks of digital societies is social media, which facilitates the information outpouring, ranging from personal opinions to news pieces, of the unprecedented magnitude. As informative instruments, social media platforms not only complement other traditional forms of media, such as newspapers and TV, but in certain demographics, specifically the youth, completely supplant them. According to the 2019 Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, at least 50% of young adults (18–24) come across news stories via social media, compared to one-third of adults over 55.
Given the high effectiveness level of social media in reaching a vast number of individuals in a brief period of time, many political figures, including heads of state, frequently use such platforms to communicate directly with their supporters and to spread their political and personal messages. US President Donald Trump, for example, tweets 10–12 times on a typical day. As the White House Press Secretary has said, Trump’s tweets are to be considered as official presidential statements. As social media, on the one hand, has increasingly become a political tool in recent years and, on the other hand, most of the world’s population is home, spending most of their time online amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the question of social media regulation is more relevant now than it has ever been.
According to the 2019 Free Speech and the Regulation of Social Media Content Report of the Congressional Research Service, governmental restrictions on the social media sites’ ability to moderate user contents can be analyzed through three possible frameworks. First, treating social media sites as state actors like company towns whose conduct, even in the absence of legislative regulation, the Constitution itself constrains. Second, viewing social media sites as special industries like broadcasting and telecommunication, which the Court has historically regulated to more extent in terms of neutral content. Third, perceiving social media sites as news editors whose editorial decisions, in general, receive the full protection of the First Amendment that guarantees freedoms concerning religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition.
The optimal regulation option would be integrating all three frameworks, so that the Internet authority of social networking technologies, especially from security and privacy standpoints, is subject to constitutional checks and balances, user contents deviate from the neutral medium within a reasonable range, and users are not afraid of censorship. If any particular framework is more heavily applied, the aspect of social media that is the most relevant to the chosen framework becomes disproportionately drawn out, which disrupts the holistic perception of social media. It can also create the forbidden fruit effect, for example, constantly censoring certain material only surges the public’s interest in it. In any case, state regulations imposed on social media must be exclusively policy-oriented without compromising the open flow of communication and the free exchange of information, leaving all sorts of moral judgment up to society.
Governments also need to find a balance between upholding the principles of free speech and protecting citizens, especially those belonging to minority groups, from hate speech. This balance is particularly tricky in the context of socio-political movements, as the shared morality sensitivities of those who support the given movement and of those against it tend to fall on the opposing ends of the political correctness spectrum. One of the most prominent faces of the #MeToo and #Time’s Up movements, American actress and activist Rose McGowen, for example, was suspended from Twitter after a strong-worded tweet addressed at Hollywood star Ben Affleck, whom she deemed complicit in the sexual abuse culture pervasive in the film industry.
Beyond politics and social movements, the issue of social media regulation is even more heated in the case of a teen suicide caused by derogatory and hateful online messages. Examining this very topic in her book Social Media and Morality: Losing Our Self Control, sociologist Lisa S. Nelson argues that social media has burdened us with “an overwhelming sense of compression of our spatial and temporal worlds…making us more immoral than schizophrenic in the process (p. 154).”
Although social media has broadened interpersonal interactions in technical dimensions, it has degenerated the human moral compass through the networked time that breaks down both spatial distance and embeddedness in the clocked time, establishing a virtual reality devoid of the gravity of consciousness. In this reality, personal agency-informing normative reasons to act demand less self-reflection and justification and favour unrestrained reactive attitudes, sustaining the unparalleled diminishment of lived experiences of others versus ‘I.’
Nevertheless, as the world is becoming more and more volatile, be it due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic crisis or various political conflicts, such as the Syrian civil war, humankind is ready to take the demand for efficiency further than ever before, including exploring alternative, that is more efficient, forms of warfare on top of those of citizenship.
One such potential form of warfare is space-based. The militarization of space, which uses the outer domain to gather information from satellites for strategic, planning, and surveillance purposes, such as locating sites of undisclosed nuclear facilities, began simultaneously with the technological domination of space by then rivals the USA and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The looming weaponization of space, on the other hand, will make a more direct utilization of space as a dimension for military attacks carried out by space-based weapons systems directed at both the orbit itself and back to the Earth. It can be argued, therefore, that space weaponization is space militarization at its most efficient, demonstrating a belligerent aspect of the constant push for more efficiency in digitally advanced societies.
In 2007, China experimented in this emerging field of warfare by completing a successful anti-satellite destruction test. If the country keeps pushing in this direction, of course, the USA and Russia will follow, generating an explicit disturbance in the mutually assured destruction scheme holding peace via deterrence among superpowers. Such a scenario is unfavourable for all three countries, yet Moscow and Beijing, who jointly proposed the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) Treaty, which builds on the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and calls for the ban of “any kinds of weapons” orbiting in the space but allows for the ground-based systems directed at space (at the 2002 UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva), appear to strain more than Washington in this regard.
In 2019, US President Donald Trump signed the order to build a space force. To that end, defence officials requested an allocation of $304 million for the development of space-based weaponry, such as anti-ballistic missiles, defence lasers and neutral particle beams, excluding the budget that will be necessary to train the operating personnel. Yet in the dawning age of cyber technologies that enable the total occupation of a country without any bloodshed, investing in space weapons is particularly redundant alongside maintaining nuclear arsenals. Like the latter, though, the former is destined to persist, because efficiency has become not only synonymous with rationality (even if research suggests otherwise), but also a lust of its own in today’s society — Eros et Thanatos, at least Freud would agree.
In addition to highly efficient forms of warfare, modern technologies authorize digital citizenship. Although all implications of how the hegemony of the Internet has shifted individual participation and engagements with the state’s socio-cultural and polit-economic environment are yet to fully precipitate, online platforms can be clearly effective in revealing both systematic and single-instance corruption cases present at the top state echelons. WikiLeaks, an international non-profit organization that publishes news leaks and classified media provided by anonymous sources, for example, has disclosed such controversial information as the Afghanistan war expenditures and Hillary Clinton’s emails.
As efficiency-obsessed digital societies worldwide are headed towards the future in which Star Wars seem real, it is the ultimate collective duty of all citizens to monitor governments, which regulate technologies that shape lived experiences, especially social media.
From our partner RIAC