Overview:

Elon Musk's recently reclaimed interest in buying Twitter touches on far deeper issues for our digital era. With international politics and tech advancements shaping the present and future of state democracies, when will we start taking digital citizenship seriously?

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On October 3, Elon Musk tweeted a proposal for “Ukraine-Russia Peace”, with a Yes/No poll that yielded 2.7 million responses (59 percent “No”). Because Musk is the richest person in the world, with a current net worth of around $230 billion USD from Tesla, SpaceX, and recent AI ventures, his views on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine apparently mattered enough to receive response from the Kremlin (positive) and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy (negative).

Also on Monday, Musk sent a letter to Twitter, offering to go forward with his original proposed purchase of the company, at $44 billion, if the company calls off its current lawsuit over his attempt in June to get out of the initial April agreement.

A deposition originally set for today, October 6, is now delayed while Twitter and Musk renegotiate. With significant mistrust between the parties, after Musk’s accusations when he tried to back out of the original deal, Twitter will want strong contractual protections to ensure that any agreement closes well. Meanwhile, Musk has now claimed that buying Twitter would be “an accelerant to creating X, the everything app”. His original bid was made under concerns about “free speech” on a platform he considers to be politically “left-biased”. Yesterday, while SpaceX launched Crew-5, which includes a Russian cosmonaut, to the International Space Station, Musk tweeted that “War is the ultimate Supreme Court” to his 108 million followers.

An era of digital politicking

This is not the first time we’ve seen such a mess of political and technological entanglements play out online. Twitter was also the staging ground for alarmingly public state foreign policy under past-US President Donald Trump, who then launched Truth Social as an alternative platform, in part after being banned from other social media after his presidency had ended, for various ToS violations.

Before that, the US struggled with Russian cyber attacks leading up to the 2016 presidential election. In 2018, its Department of Justice indicted twelve Russian Intelligence officials for “a sustained effort to hack into the computer networks of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic National Committee, and the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton”, with information then released under names like DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0.

Meanwhile, 1.4 billion human beings live in a country that blocks access to private technologies Westerners use as a matter of course, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, Dropbox, Slack, Spotify, and Google’s suite of work and entertainment tools. This ban is part of a massive international battle over digital technology futures as we settle into the 5G telecom era: a more advanced network with increased risk factors for state sabotage and spyware. Although the US mostly triumphed in its fight to restrict the Chinese government’s participation in developing these systems, Huawei, the private-public company at the center of this legal storm, is now gearing up to play a stronger role in the next leap forward.

Average participants in the online world can expect to see their access to various digital products and markets shaped by how such higher level disputes play out.

And therein lies the problem.

It’s not really about Musk

It’s easy to be distracted by the surface absurdity of state and international politics being set or advanced 280 characters at a time. But we cannot afford to buy into the “sensation” of such online antics. What this latest situation with Twitter and Musk amounts to is another illustrative example of the state of our digital citizenship.

Which isn’t great.

We still belong to traditional nation-states, of course. Specific governments still control the collection and issuance of data critical to our everyday lives. Even though most of us do not choose our citizenship, geopolitics around our birthplaces still determine the vast majority of our legal obligations, actions, and opportunities.

However, the internet has also brought humanity into a far more complex data relationship with itself. We haven’t fully figured out what that means yet, or what it should—but neither is the online world going to wait for everyday citizens, or the geographic states we belong to, or the international communities we’ve tried to build through them, to make up our minds.

Nor does the future promise to be any easier, if we continue on this current, passive course. The internet is oft-touted as a “democratizing” force, inasmuch as it puts us into more direct conversation with one another, and allows us to share ideas on a broader platform than any prior forum for civic life. And yet, private companies and billionaire stakeholders still centrally drive the pace of technological advancement, and set the terms of new financial and contractual obligations within it.

This state of affairs also places everything from data privacy to the robustness of our democratic processes directly under their purview, if not in their immediate control. Earlier this year, Twitter agreed to pay $150 million in a settlement with the US Federal Trade Commission over allegations that it secured user data under false pretenses (again), which it then used to “aid advertisers in reaching their preferred audiences”, according to the original complaint filed by the Department of Justice.

But that was nothing next to the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal, wherein a data analytics firm working with Trump’s election team (and Brexit) took personal information from Facebook without authorization to systematically profile and ad-target individual voters in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election. The compromised data affected some 87 million individual users.

Not that Facebook, now Meta, was any stranger to being a staging ground for democratically ruinous political activities: Its team was well aware of the fact that armed groups in Ethiopia and Burma (among other regions) were using its platform to incite violence up to and including war and genocidal action. Last December, Rohingya refugees filed a $150 billion class-action complaint against Meta Platforms Inc for its cultivation of an environment conducive to the mobilization of hate. However, because Section 230 of the US Code offers immunity from civil liability to any tech company acting as solely “publishers” of information by third parties, Doe v. Meta is in for an uphill battle legal experts expect the plaintiffs to lose.

Meanwhile, world watchers are now expressing concern that Meta’s influence in India, where it has almost 350 million users (and among them, Hindu extremists escalating hate against Muslims), could see a bloody repeat of recent history before the law catches up with the exceptional reach and political influence of digital technologies.

A Human Rights Impact Assessment (HRIA) Report released by The London Story this July on that very subject highlighted the international legal parameters (such as they are) under which such concerns might be raised. As its authors first summarized:

The release of Global HRIA is in light of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP-BHR).

Principle 13 of UNGP-BHR states that corporations have the “responsibility to respect human rights and are required to “(a) avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities, and address such impacts when they occur; (b) seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.”

The UNGP BHR make clear that “business enterprise’s ‘activities’ are understood to include both actions and omissions; and its ‘business relationships’ are understood to include relationships with business partners, entities in its value chain, and any other non-State or State entity directly linked to its business operations, products or services.”

Principle 14 of the UNGP-BHR clearly lay that the responsibility to respect human rights is proportional to, among other things, the size, scale, scope and irremediable character of the enterprise’s impact on human rights. Therefore, the severity of the impact is to be judged⁠—not just the size of the enterprise.

Do you see the problem?

Even though international guidelines strive to mitigate the impact of any digital operations that might allow a private platform sourced in one country to affect another country’s outcomes, enforcement remains primarily a nation-state issue, beholden to laws like US Code Section 230, which offer significant cover from greater legal consequences for any human rights nightmares they create.

The internet has brought humanity into a far more complex data relationship with itself. We haven’t fully figured out what that means yet, but neither is the online world waiting for everyday citizens to make up our minds.

Digital participation, citizenship, and democracy

These are not abstract problems, and they’re not going to get any easier if we remain passive participants in our shifting realms of civic life and responsibility. Even though digital citizenship begins with the simplest of activities—signing up for online accounts, posting content, buying e-commerce goods and services, visiting websites to receive news and other information—those activities form part of a broader system that profoundly transforms our individual and collective impact.

Youth are now taught the basics of responsible digital citizenship: online etiquette, digital literacy (especially with respect to identifying false or misleading data), online safety (both from human harassment and bot-driven cyber attacks), and some semblance of a difference between “private” and “public” information.

But the “adult” world of digital citizenship has not advanced much beyond those principles, despite the fact that we’ve been discussing our digital challenges for decades. Even more recent papers on this problem, like Ulrike Reisach’s 2021 “The responsibility of social media in times of societal and political manipulation”, can still only gesture at qualitative moral conclusions. For instance, Reisach argues that

[i]n the current setting, neither the social media platforms nor their users are subject to journalistic accountability standards. Nevertheless, social media platforms should be guided by what serves the good of the society.

And yet,

Even though the above-mentioned social media platforms [Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram] are global players and rank among the biggest and most profitable companies in the world, there are no global responsibility standards for this kind of companies. This vacuum is surprising, considering the cases of (unintended) problems … Potential reasons for the lack of explicit responsible actions are:

• Their self-definition as a “facilitator” for presumably good purposes,

• The strong focus on shareholder value, and

• A lack of long-term societal focus on potential risks which do not yet directly affect the company and their revenue until such risks become a public issue in the press and media.

Anticipating, recognizing and openly discussing the positive and negative societal impacts of content and processes, requires people, budgets and a long-term strategy. If shareholders do not appreciate these, because of quarterly profit goals and quarterly reporting, the companies’ directors probably have a hard time addressing long-term responsibility issues. Different opinions regarding the impacts for their own and other societies, or certain political orientations, might additionally influence the willingness of board members to decide between societal harmony and profit maximization.

In other words: We know the problem. We’ve known the problem for some time. But we still lack the democratic tools required to compel any legal changes that private companies and players do not themselves themselves wish to see.

A difficult and uncertain road ahead

Nor do we see many promising signs of this situation improving. Reisach’s paper further bleakly notes that “[r]esearch on the effects of digitalization seems to prove that pre-existing inequalities are being increased”—and because of money: because “high quality sources are costly, and who doesn’t pay gets free, but often lesser quality or partisan information.”

But we already knew this, didn’t we? If we didn’t buy the product, we are the product.

Going forward, though—and especially in a world of advanced recognition programs—we can expect even less privacy than we currently enjoy. We’ve also already seen cyber attacks compromise multiple state democracies, and disinformation campaigns incite almost unfathomably brutal human rights disasters. We should be under no illusions that the issue of digital sabotage will resolve itself any time soon.

So what can be done?

We need to innovate ourselves, to prepare for further such challenges.

The internet offers us the illusion of having entered into an era of global egalitarianism: a massive digital commons connecting humanity over state borders, and creating more participatory opportunities for the species as a whole.

And maybe we’ll get there, one day. Who knows? But for now, it’s more like we’re living in a series of separate VR rooms, each filled with compelling simulacrums of participatory citizenship that offer a deceptive sense of access and opportunity. Sometimes we can connect with “citizens” in other VR rooms, but not always, because we don’t get to decide how all these silos link up, or whom they leave out.

Even more confusingly, sometimes we can connect with people around the globe, but we’re still fuzzy on the ethics of direct interference in other local contexts. Sure, we can signal-boost what another demographic is trying to do internally, but we remain a mess of moral contradictions with respect to “letting a people decide for itself”—yet also wanting to rally global resources to help their local causes.

On a corporate level, though? Such direct global-local influence happens every day, and with far less compunction about the ethical implications of dabbling in or even directly dictating another region’s affairs. Which means… what, exactly, for the “future” (and the present) of our democracies?

Back to the inanity of Musk—and beyond

Every time we witness a spectacle like this latest with Musk and Twitter (or Musk and Ukraine and Russia; or human rights crises like Meta and India, or Facebook and Ethiopia and Myanmar; or electoral issues like the one raised by Cambridge Analytica) what we’re really witnessing is the hard reality that we’re living under a more dynastic and tech-driven approach to global governance.

So maybe democracy was always the illusion.

Maybe the internet and related digital technologies have empowered us—if only to see more plainly just how much corporate rule yet shapes our world.

Either way, we’re left with pressing questions: as digital citizens, and human beings.

What do we owe each other, as our sense of community broadens through new tech to include more of the world, while our legal obligations lag so far behind?

How can we make better individual choices as we navigate this complex data realm?

And is it too late to reshape our local systems, including our nation-states’ legal codes of conduct? Is there still any hope of pursuing the original “democratizing force” that, once upon a time, it seemed at least possible the internet could become?

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.