Social media is liberating — but it is threatening to enslave us all

Tom Bradby
Master manipulators: both Donald Trump and China's Xi Jinping are using the net to extend their grip on power: EPA

When historians write about the politics of this period in the years to come, they will almost certainly refer to it as the Social Media Age; an era in which Facebook, Twitter and the like changed everything for the better. And for the worse.

We’ve seen both quite clearly on display these past months. The Harvey Weinstein scandal is the most notable but far from the only example of the once all-powerful being held to account. From the lecherous MPs of Westminster to the world of those who hide their money away in offshore tax havens, there is no hiding place any more for those who abuse their power. Social media has — quite literally — given a voice to the once voiceless, and the world is changing visibly around us as a result.

But at the same time, go on Twitter any day of the week and you don’t have to look far to find the dark side of this revolution. Check out the comments aimed at pretty much anyone in public life (particularly women) and the vitriol simply takes your breath away. I am still addicted to Twitter. As a news feed, it is second to none. But it has also become a place where people go to hurl abuse at each other.

The net result is the increasingly tribal nature of our politics. People start with a view, or an idea, or a grudge, and they create a pathway to public life that quickly becomes no more than an echo chamber. They are emboldened to discover others with a similar outlook and each exchange amplifies that sense of identity.

Anyone who doesn’t share this world view risks being seen not just as an opponent — as they once might have been — but an enemy. And the politicians who thrive, such as Donald Trump, are increasingly those who manage to surf these waves. The idea that one political party, outlook or approach might hold the clue to solving all the world’s ills is patently absurd, when you come to think of it. But if in a rational world that might encourage everyone to treat opponents with cordiality, the reverse now appears to be happening. We are increasingly warring tribes.

Does all this matter? Well, yes, I think it does. An old friend sent me an article from a magazine called Wired the other day. The headline attached to it reads “Big data meets Big Brother as China moves to rate its citizens” and it outlines, in measured terms, China’s plans to make its social-credit system compulsory by the year 2020.

At the moment, this futuristic idea is a voluntary option and you could almost convince yourself it makes sense. At its heart is a basic idea; what if there was a national trust score that rated the kind of citizen you were?

I’d urge you to read the article in full, because it goes on to outline how this dystopian version of the Big Brother society appears to be integral to the future of what will soon be the most powerful nation on Earth.

In a nutshell, different pilot systems are being tried out but the aim appears to be to come up with a single trustworthiness rating. If it is high, it could be easier to get visas to travel abroad, or get your children into a good school. If it is low, you might quickly find something even as basic as getting a mortgage is a struggle.

In any society, this might be troubling. In the China of today, it is terrifying. Read the Chinese president’s (very long) speech to his party’s congress a few weeks ago and you can see that his agenda for his country is detailed and specific. It involves a world of tightening, and not loosening, control. And that has indeed been the story of modern China. I was ITV’s Asia correspondent at the time of Tony Blair’s first visit to Beijing in 1998. I can recall him insisting that China was moving towards political reform. But I have never seen any sign of it. In this context, its social -credit system starts to sound like something from Orwell’s 1984.

From China to Russia — and many dictatorships in between — leaders aim to exert total control at home even as they sow dissent abroad

Tom Bradby

In fact, the direction of most of the autocratic states in the world seems increasingly clear. Their leaders might loot vast billions from their own people just as they always have (see the Panama Papers), and they may still like to store much of this money in the West. But from China to Russia — and a multitude of dictatorships in between — leaders aim to exert total control at home even as they sow dissent abroad.

The attempts by Vladimir Putin’s intelligence agencies to disrupt Western democracies are now beyond doubt. And it is surely time we woke up to the dangers that face us.

Social media is liberating. It allows us to communicate as never before, to exchange ideas and thoughts with hundreds of thousands of people all over the world. It is the enemy of the powerful everywhere, because it can so easily be used by the once powerless to hold those above them to account. It is enervating, it is energising, it is liberating. But unless we get a grip on ourselves soon, it runs the very real risk of ruining us, too.

Sooner or later, Facebook and Twitter and all their ilk are going to have to do something about the attempt to undermine Western civilisation. But that is the easiest bit. The much harder part is to come up with a cure for the illness we are creating for ourselves. So, by all means, let’s keep hurling the abuse and insulting each other. Let’s drive everyone further and deeper into their trenches. But let’s not pretend we can do it without a cost.

Tom Bradby is the anchor of ITV’s News at Ten.