Virtual Democracy Could Kill Millions

Andrew Keen, author of Cult of the Amateur and previously mentioned on J’s Notes here, here and here, argues that Obama’s plan to provide all American’s broadband internet access could be very dangerous:

Imagine if today’s radically unregulated Internet, with its absence of fact checkers and editorial gatekeepers, had existed back then (in the 1930s). Imagine that universal broadband had been available to enable the unemployed to read the latest conspiracy theories about the Great Crash on the blogosphere. Imagine the FDR-baiting, Hitler-loving Father Charles Coughlin, equipped with his “personalized” YouTube channel, able, at a click of a button, to distribute his racist message to the suffering masses. Or imagine a marketing genius like the Nazi chief propagandist Josef Goebbels managing a viral social network of anti-Semites which could coordinate local meet-ups to assault Jews and Communists.

Keen sees parallels between the economic situation faced by the world and particularly Germany in the 1920s-30s and today.

The question is: In our democratized world of individual empowerment, how will the newly unemployed millions, the victims of the meltdown, react to their economic disempowerment? In a culture that prioritizes the personal, how will the masses vent their rage against a system that no longer personally works for them?

Keen displays a complete lack of faith not only in individuals to make right and rational decisions, but also in communities to do the same.  But this also smacks of a fear from those in power in empowering those without power, an argument that has been made against Keen for a while as he has argued that there is a need for “gatekeepers” for information.  When gatekeepers merely fact check this is not a problem. But if they seek to limit access to information, you deny people the right to be fully informed (or even mis-informed, such is life).

The largest issue here is the fact that access to broadband internet is already available – at a price.

Keen’s argument steers away from mere access to information to questioning the ability of entire classes of individuals to properly filter that information.  Broadband access by those that can afford it in New York or San Francisco is OK, but broadband access by those who currently can’t affort it in Nebraska or Arkansas is dangerous?

His examples are also faulty:

For another sneak preview of digital fascism, it’s worth looking at South Korea, another country with universal broadband infrastructure. In April, the new democratically elected South Korean President, Lee Myung Bak lifted a ban on imported American beef. This resulted in an eruption of anger on the Internet—first amongst teenage girls, then on the popular online portal Daum, and finally through teenage “citizen journalists” on blogs, videocasts, and social networks. The rumor spread that all the American beef was tainted with mad cow disease and an online petition for Lee’s impeachment got 1.3 million signatures in a week. And for an even more real-time example of digital fascism, take a look at the way in which this week’s raging anti government violence in Greece by the young and unemployed (already at over 9% in the Greek economy) has been coordinated by Facebook, Twitter and other viral digital networks.

In the South Korean example Keen ignores assorted pro-business reforms that Lee instituted and fed into this movement and huge protests as well.  This also shines a light on the inability of the South Korean government to properly inform and educate the populace with an alternate message.  In Greece, you’re looking at a simmering situation that reached a boiling point that, yes, was able to use the internet to coordinate, but lack of access to these services would not guarantee that this movement would not have happened.

As a counter to Keen: Just imagine what more Paul Revere could have done if he’d had Twitter and Facebook.

You do not empower and better a society by limiting it’s access to information.  By opening up the Internet, you allow people not just to find more information on what they already believe or what to hear (Cass Sunstein’s “Daily Me”) but also opens the door to the opposing viewpoint.
Certainly there is an argument to be made as to whether or not it is the responsibility of the government to provide broadband access when the free market is perfectly capable of determining it’s demand and production, but that argument can not be made on fear mongering based on elitism and a desire to keep the masses uninformed.

UPDATE: Another counterpoint, when accepting the Nobel Prize this past December, Jean-Marie Gustave said:

‘Who knows, if the Internet had existed at the time, perhaps Hitler’s criminal plot would not have succeeded – ridicule might have prevented it from ever seeing the light of day,’ he said.

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