Social media: the state of things to come

Social media: the state of things to come, by David Gunnlaugsson. former Prime Minister of Iceland.

Rioting was tried once, in 1949, when Iceland joined NATO. …

Then came social media. Icelanders were quick to appreciate the internet’s potential and acquire the tools…. Iceland soon became, and probably still is, the most ‘connected’ country in the world. Close to 100 per cent of its population have access to the internet (I’ve experienced a far better internet connection on top of an Icelandic glacier than in many of the towns around London). Social media was also an instant hit. Blogging soon became a favourite pastime, and by 2009 Iceland had achieved, by far, the greatest Facebook penetration of any country in the world. …

It was not long before social media’s attention turned to domestic quarrels. The previously protest-shy public took to the streets to demonstrate with growing intensity. …

I was shocked to witness how quickly the anger got out of hand. The police were stretched to the limit defending parliament buildings, parliament employees were assaulted, MPs had to flee through underground tunnels, and ministers’ cars were attacked. These were things that I would previously have thought unthinkable in my small and peaceful country.

All this happened in a country where unemployment had not even reached eight per cent and inflation was far below what Icelanders had experienced in earlier decades. This was not a population in the depths of a deep depression. This was a population shocked by the frailty of the financial and political establishment as well as by their latest mortgage bill, and, crucially, a population discussing these matters and the appropriate response on social media. …

It was not the people who had experienced the greatest personal ordeals that were the most fervent rioters. The senior citizens who had lost their life savings and the hard-working tradesmen who were in danger of losing their homes were not the ones throwing excrement at parliament or attacking ministers’ cars.

Apart from opportunistic criminals, the rioters were largely made up of the most radical members of the chattering classes and others primarily known for being active in the blogosphere and on internet message boards — people, that is, who saw the financial crises first and foremost as an opportunity and as validation for their years of committed dejection. Finally, their time, as they continue to see it, had come.

Consensus has become impossible:

In the age of social media and internet news, a consensus on anything of political significance is simply impossible, no matter how straightforward the issue or clear the facts in question.

The unlimited access to unedited information, good or bad, constructive or plain crazy, and a system of interactions where the discourse is often led by the most outrageous participant, will not yield a consensus or increase trust. …

Events move too quickly now, so even minor incidents become catastrophes:

In Autumn 2017, having gone to my bedroom in a cabin in my constituency, I watched how Facebook communications brought down Iceland’s government in a matter of hours, the final decision being taken in a hastily summoned late-night meeting following discussions over the internet. Most people heard the news when they woke up the next day but those that followed the online ‘chatter’ had already seen what conclusion had been reached on Facebook even before the formal decision was made.

Leaving aside the reasons for the collapse of that particular government, it has become clear that things that previously might have been considered minor or defused in a matter of days in the media (or over several years in an enquiry) now have the potential to start a ‘nuclear chain reaction’. This is the new political reality. …

This will not just affect party politics. A prominent member of a union told me as prime minister: ‘It used to be that the old guys who knew the ropes would have the last word [in the union], there might be unrest, but control was maintained in the end. Now the one that makes the biggest claims on Facebook is the leader.’

hat-tip Stephen Neil