I recently attended two events connected to the role of social media in our daily lives. One was the much-reviled Social Media Summit held at the White House with President Trump in attendance. The other was the Global Media Forum held in Bonn, Germany by Deutsche Welle. That event was kicked off with a live interview with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
On paper, one would be hard pressed to find what was, in the eyes of many, a greater contrast. The media coverage of the Washington event was overwhelmingly negative and seen through the lens of American partisan politics. A right-wing troll fest, some dubbed it. The German forum was very much of a type revered by the mainstream media – global, liberal, and very much in sync with progressive worldviews. Yet if one listened closely, there was actually a lot of congruence from both events in the sense of deep disquiet and concern about where social media is taking us all. While the White House event focused on concerns of anti-conservative bias by social media companies, Steinmeier lamented that social media had changed the tone of political discourse, as “those who hold a contrary opinion are often labeled as an opponent or enemy.” He called for democratizing digitalization and breaking the stranglehold that a few large social media companies have on the market.
But it was another speaker at the DW Global Media Forum who underscored that both the U.S. and German presidents were on to something. Dreadlocked keynote speaker Jaron Lanier, dressed in black t-shirt and black jeans, began by apologizing for the role social media companies have played in changing the world today. An internet pioneer and visionary, Lanier has turned fiercely against the industry that he helped create.
Years before the rise of ISIS and the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA/Glavset), Lanier warned that the Internet dream of freedom was a mirage and risked becoming a virtual lynch mob unleashing forces beyond our control. Despite his fiery denunciations, Lanier represents a kind of court rebel, still doing research for Microsoft while having no personal social media presence whatsoever.
He began by apologizing for how social media has done so much damage by fomenting a rise of paranoia and irritability (which are variations of fight and flight reactions found in nature) or, as he described it, the growth of fear and anger politics around the world. Lanier bluntly outlined how social media algorithms routinely manipulate human beings. There seemed to be no sense of irony in how these new-wave media libertarians played such a key role in the rise of toxic identity politics.
Lanier added that one particularly dire result of this massive global experiment in social engineering has been to help weaken mediating institutions that play an important role between the individual and an abstract collectivity. He described his industry as not caring about democracy or press freedom or civilization or the human race and its survival, but as obsessed with who is going to win the artificial intelligence race. This is a cultural revolution as jarring as that of Mao – but accomplished unwittingly, with freewheeling capitalism as its eager handmaiden.
The great irony of any words by Trump, Steinmeier, and Lanier on this subject is that the great lessons of this new world have been best learned not by the digital robber barons of Silicon Valley but by authoritarians in Moscow and fanatics in Raqqa.
Simply put, Russian propaganda efforts largely represent a media model, one of disruption – while ISIS propaganda has perfectly embodied another media model, that of mobilization. Ironically, both ISIS and the Russians began working in earnest around 2013, even though there is a longer history of Soviet and Middle East terrorist propaganda efforts going back decades. Many bad global actors practice both styles of propaganda. The disruption model best typified by the Russian IRA is practiced by many dictatorships seeking to confuse and discredit domestic and foreign adversaries; the Chinese and Iranians are two prominent examples.
The ISIS type of online mobilization can be seen not just among rival jihadis but, more importantly, in far-right and far-left online and political activism that easily morphs into real-world violence. Scholar Thomas Hegghammer predicted this macro-nationalist confluence even before ISIS became a household word in 2014. At the end of the day, being motivated to hate and kill for the sake of a self-defined identity group called the Ummah or the White Race or the Proletariat seems rather similar.
This similarity in approach, if not always in content, is why MEMRI has, rightly in my view, has expanded its research and coverage to monitor online racist and neo-Nazi incitement. Unfortunately, neither jihadi nor far-right or far-left incitement and violence are decreasing. As far as European antisemitic harassment is concerned, it seems to be more often Islamic (30%) or far-left (20%) than far-right (13%).
The recent shootings in the U.S. and New Zealand by nationalist terrorists have prompted calls for all sorts of drastic actions. Some wise scholars and practitioners of the bitter and difficult fight against Salafi-jihadism have warned of the challenges inherent in blithely trying to wage ideological warfare amid the record of this struggle that is mixed at best. But, of course, governments and societies must do more to fight hatred that leads to mass casualties.
The larger problem is that in a world hollowed out of mediating institutions by social media, and beset by growing challenges related to climate change and migration, by economies increasingly battered by globalization and automation, and by extreme polarization and inequality in large parts of the globe, man does not want to be alone – alone, to be precise, in the face of those impersonal forces that would crush him. Those who are not benumbed must look for a banner and a cause, something greater than themselves. This is something that nationalists and Islamists seem to understand instinctively, and the terrible sectarianism, tribalism and ethnic politics we see in the Middle East looks like a kind of future.
In an age of great unmooring, the basic issue of belonging, of answering alienation and anomie with real purpose and clear identity, becomes even more important than ever before. Something will eventually fill that vacuum. Those wealthy exhausted souls who helped unravel the hoary pillars of our civilization, whether they perch in Washington or Davos or Silicon Valley, seem to have few answers.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is President of Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN). The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the U.S. government.
 Slate.com/technology/2019/07/trump-social-media-summit-facebook-twitter.html, July 10, 2019.
 Dw.com/en/steinmeier-social-media-has-a-clear-responsibility/a-48902738, May 27, 2019.
 Vanityfair.com/news/2019/07/trump-social-media-summit-far-right, July 8, 2019.
 Smithsonianmag.com/innovation/what-turned-jaron-lanier-against-the-web-165260940, January 2013.
 Theguardian.com/books/2018/may/30/ten-arguments-deleting-your-social-media-accounts-right-now-jaron-lanier, May 30. 2018.
 Edge.org/conversation/jaron_lanier-one-half-a-manifesto, October 11, 2000.
 Nytimes.com/2011/07/31/opinion/sunday/the-rise-of-the-macro-nationalists.html, July 30, 2011.
 Inquirer.com/opinion/commentary/anti-semitism-left-liberals-marc-thiessen-20190814.html, August 13, 2019.
 Theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/08/how-not-fight-white-nationalist-terrorists/595618, August 7, 2019.
 Theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/08/el-paso-shooting-how-can-we-police-ideology/595426, August 4, 2019.