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Niall Ferguson says we should be alarmed by the polarization associated with social media

Historians in the News
tags: social media, polarization, Niall Ferguson



When historian Niall Ferguson moved from Harvard to Stanford two years ago, he was struck by Silicon Valley’s indifference to history. The hubris he saw reminded him of what he encountered on Wall Street as he researched a book about the history of banking during the years before the financial crisis. He became convinced the technology sector was careening toward its own crisis and decided to write about it.

The crisis has finally arrived, thanks to Cambridge Analytica, conveniently timed to coincide with the publication of Ferguson’s new book on the history of social networks, from the Freemasons to Facebook. “The Square and the Tower” is a cautionary tale that challenges the conventional wisdom that growing interconnectedness is inherently good for society. “Our networked world is fundamentally vulnerable, and two-factor authentication won’t save us,” Ferguson said at the Hoover Institution, where he is a senior fellow.

Since President Trump’s victory, much has been written about parallels between the present and the rise of authoritarian leaders in the 1930s. Ferguson thinks that’s lazy analysis. For most of the 20th century, communications systems were amenable to central control. This was a fluke of the Industrial Revolution, which produced telegraphs and then telephones. These technologies had an architecture that allowed whoever controlled the hub to dominate the spokes, which led to more hierarchical power structures.

To understand the current era, Ferguson believes we need to look more at what happened after Johannes Gutenberg developed the printing press. Like the Web, the use of these presses was difficult to centrally control. “At the beginning of the Reformation 501 years ago, Martin Luther thought naively that if everybody could read the Bible in the vernacular, they’d have a direct relationship with God, it would create ‘the priesthood of all believers’ and everything would be awesome,” said Ferguson.

“We’ve said the same things about the Internet,” he added. “We think that's obviously a good idea. Except it's not obviously a good idea, any more than it was in the 16th century. Because what the Europeans had was not ‘the priesthood of all believers.’ They had 130 years of escalating religious conflict, culminating in the Thirty Years War – one of the most destructive conflicts ever.”

The more he studies that period, the more echoes Ferguson sees in the 21st century. “What one can see in the 16th and 17th centuries is polarization, fake news-type stories, the world getting smaller and therefore contagion is capable of spreading much faster,” Ferguson said. “These big shifts in network structure led to revolutions against hierarchical institutions.”

Ferguson points to recent studies showing that fake news can spread faster and farther than real news when it’s especially sensational. “The crazy stuff is more likely to go viral because we're kind of interested in crazy stuff, but this is not surprising historically,” he said. “The idea that witches live amongst us and should be burned went as viral as anything that Martin Luther said ... Indeed, it turned out that witch burning was more likely to happen in places where there were more printing presses.”

In a sobering 90-minute conversation, the author said he’s driven to sleeplessness when he thinks about how some of the dynamics on social media will play out in the future. “I'm much more worried than a non-historian by what I see because history tells me that the polarization process keeps going, and it doesn't just stop at verbal violence because at a certain point that's not satisfying,” said Ferguson. ...

Read entire article at The Washington Post

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