Social media are a world democratic tool. They free up information. Follow me while I think this through!
Can there ever be absolute freedom of information? No there can’t but maybe not for the reasons most people imagine.
There’s a German netactivist who is attempting to put everything about himself online so there would be no reason to snoop on him. But what is everything? As soon as you contemplate it it becomes clear that information is infinite. And it raises questions which are philosophically very deep – questions Ludwig Wittgenstein tried answer. You can’t atomise language into individual material units in the world. Language is contextual and active; there is no limit to what may be said or created in our messages to each other.
If information is infinite we have to make very restricted selections. Freedom of information means an overload we can’t deal with. Freedom of information is actually a misnomer for the right to know the contents of messages in communication channels. Who has this right? Even spooks have it. What the argument is about is not really free access to information at all but who has the right to control the channels.
This makes it an institutional question not a matter of information (although it is the input/output stream of info that ultimately concerns us). As an institutional question the matter becomes Who decides?
If spies and censors have the power, they can decide. When we think they are limiting our information, what they are really doing is imposing controls on channels. This is why Bradley Manning and Wikileaks and Edward Snowden are targets: they have broken the mould of control.
The spooks who are trying to control our channels of information can’t handle it when someone breaks out of those channels to reveal what’s in them. Surveillance and its twin, censorship, have to be highly selective out of an already very selective information universe; our selections are institutionally further narrowed by those who use the power of the state.
If public institutions are supposed to be accountable to the democratic body of voters, then presumably the democratic public should be the ones to decide what rules to apply to the channels. But this is where nation-state forms of democracy fail us. If the state (as supposed guardian of the nation) endows some with the power to control our information, we as voters who put the government in power have no real recourse except protest. What is at fault here is the structure of democracy based on sovereign states.
We need to think in global terms not in terms of the nation state. It is not up to Americans or Europeans or any other nation alone to decide how free the channels of information ought to be. The importance of social media – meaning all the associated leaks that social media disclose – is precisely that they bypass nation-state controls. Social media are a world democratic tool.
As time goes on we may come to paraphrase Jefferson’s famous sentiment that he would prefer newspapers to government. We will prefer Social Media to nation-states. Many people are already acting accordingly in the streets. There is no world government but there are free channels of communication and we must do our all to keep them open rather than allow spies and censors to misuse these channels for narrow statist interests.