Online social networks are worsening political polarization in many democracies today, says Niall Ferguson, a Stanford scholar who also points out the beneficial aspects of social change.
A historian and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Niall Ferguson is optimistic that open societies, such as the United States and other democracies, can successfully adjust to the confrontations between old power hierarchies and new social networks proliferating through technology. He wrote about it in his new book, The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook (January 2018).
Ferguson was recently interviewed on the subject of technology, societal power, and democracy:
Why are social networks and their use of emerging technologies threatening to power hierarchies in society?
Social networks are not something invented over the past two decades by Silicon Valley companies. They have always existed and are indeed one of the defining ways in which we, as a species, organize ourselves. All that has happened in our time is that technology—personal computers, smartphones, and the internet— have combined to make social networks bigger and faster than ever before. There is a close analogy with the way that the printing press expanded and accelerated social networks in sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and eighteenth-century Europe, except that our revolution in networking has happened an order of magnitude faster.
Now, as then, established hierarchical structures— the papacy and Holy Roman Empire then; states, political parties, and established media companies now— face disruption. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but we should not delude ourselves that this disruption will be without its collateral damage. A good example is the way online social networks appear to be worsening political polarization in many democracies today.
How do power hierarchies flip technology to use for their advantage in stifling democracy?
Just seven or eight years ago, it seemed clear to Jared Cohen and Eric Schmidt (technology entrepreneurs) that the internet was on the side of democracy and would help topple authoritarian rulers. That seemed to be true during the (misnamed) Arab Spring. Then, we all underestimated the ability of undemocratic, or semi-democratic, regimes to adapt to the new technologies, and especially to find ways to exploiting network platforms.
Exhibit A has been the way the Chinese Communist Party has made it hard for US companies to flourish in China, encouraging domestic tech companies such as Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent, which are much readier to cooperate with the government’s policies of social control. Exhibit B is the way the Russian government of Vladimir Putin has not only established state control over social as well as old media, but has also found ways to exploit the opportunities afford by Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to destabilize the election process in the United States and elsewhere.
How does a symbiosis between networks and hierarchies lead to stable rule?
I am not sure it’s as simple as your question implies. As I show in the book, there isn’t really a clear dichotomy between networks and hierarchies: there’s a continuum from very hierarchical or centralized networks to very distributed or decentralized networks. Neither of the extremes is desirable: one gives too much control to a single “node,” the other runs the risk of anarchy.
So, successful institutions tend to be hybrids, combining some hierarchical structure with a measure of decentralization. In the international system, I point out the relative success of the pentarchy (the universal rule over all of Christendom by the heads of the five major episcopal sees of the Roman Empire) in the period 1815–1914. Yet that system was also sometimes called the ‘concert of Europe.’ Lesser powers were not powerless; they were just not as powerful as that particular ‘big five.’
What is your prognosis for the future of US and Western democracy, given the current tension between hierarchies and networks in our societies?
I remain an optimist. Despite all the alarms and excursions around the 2016 election, and the forebodings of those who believe the republic is in danger and democracy in a global “recession,” in truth the outlook remains brighter for democracies (provided they maintain the rule of law and a vital civil society) than for autocracies, or even illiberal democracies. The United States has survived worse than this; American society has been more deeply divided, and much more prone to political violence, than it is today. As for our most committed antagonists— Iran, North Korea, Russia— they are weak, and their repressive regimes are a reflection of that weakness. Even China may be running the risk of overconfidence these days.
A one-party state calls into being the biggest bourgeoisie in history at its peril! The societies most likely to strike the right balance between old hierarchies and new social networks will be the open societies, where appropriate regulation of big tech companies is more likely to be worked out than in closed societies.
Clifton B. Parker, Hoover Institution: 650.498.5204, cbparker [at] stanford.edu