(Un-)Freedom in the Age of Social Media

(Un-)Freedom in the Age of Social Media
Christian Fuchs


By Fekner (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Immanuel Kant defined the liberal concept of freedom in the context of the autonomy of the human will that he saw as “the supreme principle of morality” (Kant 1785, 109). He conceptualised freedom as humans’ understanding of how to make “public use of man’s reason” for “addressing the entire reading public” (Kant 1784, 4), whereby enlightenment would become possible as “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity” (Kant 1784, 7). Jürgen Habermas (2011, 14) has pointed out that Kant’s concept of freedom and his categorical imperative that is grounded on it form the foundation of the liberal principles of human rights. The principle of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that all “human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and “are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” (§1) reflects Kant’s philosophy.

Karl Marx and Max Horkheimer criticised the individualism characteristic for Kant’s concept of freedom. Marx wrote: “Kant was satisfied with ‘good Will’ alone, even if it remained entirely without result, and he transferred the realisation of this good will, the harmony between it and the needs and impulses of individuals, to the world beyond” (Marx and Engels 1845, 208). Horkheimer (1933, 24) pointed out that Kant’s philosophy has an “idealist trait, according to which all would be right in the world so long as all were right in Spirit”.

On a practical and political level, the legitimation of the individualistic concept of freedom that proclaims unlimited freedom of private property expresses itself in an antagonism between the freedom of private property on the one hand and social freedom as well as social justice on the other hand. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights this circumstance manifests itself as an antagonism between §17 (Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others) and §22 (Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security). The increase of distributive injustice at national and global level in the context of 35 years of continuous neoliberal regulation of capitalism shows this foundational antagonism between liberal ideology and capitalist reality (Therborn 2013).

How do the conditions and possibilities of freedom look like in the age of so-called “social media“ such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Weibo or Wikipedia (see Fuchs 2014b)? Tabloid media, populist politics and one-dimensional academia often argue that social media caused Twitter and Facebook revolutions in the Arab Spring, result in more democracy, freedom of expression and a diversity of opinion, as well as an increase of general wealth. These liberal promises of freedom are however confronted with an antagonistic reality of unfreedom and control on the Internet.

Apple promises the users of iPads, iPhones and MacBooks “wireless freedom“, whereas this “freedom“ is grounded in the actual material unfreedom of hardware assemblers in Chinese Foxconn factories, where they manufacture Apple and other technologies under inhumane working conditions, including long working hours, poor pay and military controls (Fuchs 2014a). Facebook says that it gives users “the power to share and to make the world more open and connected”. Google praises itself by claiming that it makes “money without doing evil”. At the same time both companies have outsourced their financial structures to tax havens so that in 2011 they respectively paid only 1.5% (Google) and 0.1% (Fabeook) of their annual British revenues in corporation tax, although the corporation tax rate was 26%. Neoliberal states reacted to the global crisis of capitalism by ”socialism“ for banks and the rich that used working people’s taxes for bailouts to rehabilitate the financial system. States’ main reaction to the resulting budget holes have been austerity measures that hit the poorest and weakest, whereas global Internet companies (and other corporations) hardly pay taxes and legitimate this circumstance with the argument that they do not operate within nation states, but in the placeless space of the Internet.

Right-wing politicians demand on the one hand privacy and secrecy for military and secret service operations, in which civilians and journalists are killed and millions of citizens are being spied on, and criminalise those who strive to make such circumstances public with the help of the Internet (WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, The Guardian). On the other hand they treat privacy with a class moral that wants to restrict its protection for those in power, whereas the personal data of millions of Internet users are controlled by a military-industrial surveillance complex (Prism), in which secret services collaborate with private security companies such as Booz Allen Hamilton and communication corporations such as AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Paltalk, Skype and Yahoo!. Facebook, Twitter and Google exploit users’ digital labour by commodifying their personal data as part of new capital accumulation models that use targeted advertising.

Whereas the Internet’s dominant ideology promises freedom, the reality is that capitalist and state actors are in the online world “freer“ than others, which shows this space’s actual unfreedom. But we can also hear the protest voices of actors such as Anonymous, hacker organisations, the movement for free software and open access, investigative journalists, consumer protection organisations, media reform movements such as Free Press or the Media Reform Coalition, human rights organisation, pirate parties, watchdog organisations and WikiLeaks. They call for more Internet freedom and privacy.

These actors illustrate the negative reality of the dialectic of Enlightenment and liberalism’s limits: the practices of data commodification, capitalist media control, corporate and state surveillance limit the liberal freedoms of freedoms of thought, speech, press and assembly as well as the security of the people’s persons, houses, papers and effects. When the Internet and “social“ media are, as Horkheimer and Adorno (2002, 73f) say, “harnessed to the dominant mode of production”, the enlightenment that these modes of communication promise, “nullifies itself”.

So when for example the Anonymous movement questioned how police violence limited Occupy activists’ freedom of opinion and assembly, it strictly affirmed liberal values, but showed at the same time how state institutions violate liberal values in the land of unlimited “freedom”. A liberal critique of the unfreedom implied by the control systems that liberalism has created is however insufficient. A comprehensive system of participatory democracy is needed to overcome the limits of freedom cause by capitalist and state control of the media, the attention economy, power, reputation structures and the public.

Profitable global corprorations control the Internet and social media. Whereas in Europe there is a tradition of public service broadcasting and of acknowledging public service’s importance for the flourishing of democracy, we are so accustomed to Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft’s control of the Internet and digital media that the idea of a public service Internet seems completely alien to us. At the same time Prism and the continuous public criticisms of Google and Facebook show the need for alternatives. There are just 2 alternative models among the 100 most accessed web platforms in the world: the BBC’s website and the non-commercial online encyclopaedia Wikipedia.

It is about time that we start thinking about re-inventing the Internet, decolonising it and transforming it into a true public sphere. Based on Mahatma Gandhi, who when asked what he thinks about Western civilisation answered “I think it would be a good idea”, we can today say: Social media would be a good idea if it were truly free and public. Social media is possible, but for the time being remains a Blochian not-yet.

Christian Fuchs is professor of social media at the
University of Westminster and author of the book “Social Media: A Critical Introduction“. The topic of Internet freedom, social media and the public sphere will be subject of his inauguration lecture “Social Media and the Public Sphere“ on February 19, 2014, and his keynote talk at the conference Freedom of Information under Pressure: Control – Crisis – Culture (Vienna, February 28-March 1, 2014).

Fuchs, Christian. 2014a. Digital Labour and Karl Marx. New York: Routledge.

Fuchs, Christian. 2014b. Social Media: A Critical Introduction. London: Sage.

Habermas, Jürgen. 2011. Zur Verfassung Europas. Ein Essay. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Horkheimer, Max. 1933. Materialism and Morality. In Between Philosophy and Social Science, 15-47 . Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Horkheimer, Max and Theodor W. Adorno. 2002. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Kant, Immanuel. 1784. An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? In The Idea of the Public Sphere. A Reader, ed. Jostein Gripsrud, Hallvard Moe, Anders Molander and Graham Murdock, 3-8. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Kant, Immanuel. 1785. Groundworks of the Metaphysics of Morals. A German-English Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 1845. The German Ideology. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

Therborn, Göran. 2013. The Killing Fields of Inequality. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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