In 1974, when the Irish statesman and humanitarian Seán MacBride was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he delivered an acceptance speech emphasizing the urgent need for nuclear disarmament. But at a key moment, MacBride turned to the growing role of mass media in world affairs. The media’s exploding reach and speed, he asserted, could grant “a much greater degree of influence to public opinion in the world than it has ever had.” The US withdrawal from Vietnam proved it. For the first time, MacBride said, a country at war had been stopped in its tracks by public opinion—shaped through the media. But this shift in power was not yet fully understood. “Greater vigilance than ever will have to be exercised to ensure that the press and the mass media do not become controlled by governments or financial interests,” he warned.
Nearly 50 years later, governments and corporations have gained that control. The possibilities for human connection and mutual understanding promised by the World Wide Web in the early 1990s were choked off almost as soon as they appeared. The potentates of Silicon Valley used the power they accrued in the course of the Internet’s explosive growth not only to enrich themselves but to acquire still more power by buying up mass media properties—plus a member of Congress or two.
Simultaneously, the Arab Spring taught the world’s autocrats to fear the Internet. Online, journalists could discover and publicize corporate and governmental shenanigans to an unprecedented degree. The “Freedom on the Net” report reveals that in at least 53 countries, people faced legal repercussions for expressing themselves online, “often leading to draconian prison terms.” A record 533 journalists were jailed last year, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Legacy media, meanwhile, was consolidating fast. Today just a handful of corporations controls most of what people see, hear, and read. The Guardian reports that 360 newspapers have closed since 2020, all but 24 of them local weeklies. Last year saw the end of Bookforum, The Washington Post Magazine, and Astra, plus layoffs at BuzzFeed, CNN, and Vice.
The US Internet may seem relatively free and open, but Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter has exposed that freedom as fragile and even illusory. No limits remain on the power of the platform’s capricious owner—now leading a private company with no board, no public shareholders, and no SEC oversight—to silence his critics, expose private communications, or curb the reach of any voice he finds unpleasant.
Twitter already had its drawbacks. The swarm of bees it sets buzzing in your head keeps you thinking about whatever Twitter wants you to think about; it tries to make you mad about something, so that you find yourself complaining on Twitter instead of thinking or talking about what’s going on outside of Twitter. Musk, now the site’s absolute arbiter, is skilled at producing that buzz of distraction, much like Donald Trump was. As the linguist George Lakoff put it: “With his $44 billion purchase, Musk has become Twitter’s main algorithm.”
The sudden rush of clear brain space I regained after mostly leaving Twitter for Mastodon restored to me that most important benefit of social media: the ability to conduct a free and meaningful conversation with anyone, anywhere, from Kyiv to Lagos to Taipei, and find out what’s going on outside their windows. Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and others who have “gamified” this thing to make you spend so much time online doing what they want, in the dark about what you’ll be shown next or why—they are the ones who benefit from your distraction. They benefit from the suppression of real conversation. They don’t want us to be free.
That’s why readers, writers, artists, academics, and journalists must join forces to sound the alarm and protect the freedom of information. The way to fight is to develop and fortify publishing platforms, archives, social media channels, and other information flows that provide unmediated global access and can’t be bought, co-opted, or shut down by governments or businesses.
The good news is that we have some already! Social media platforms like Mastodon; cooperatively owned publishers like Defector and my own project, the Brick House; nonprofits like Wikipedia and the Internet Archive (including the Open Library, the Wayback Machine, and Democracy’s Library): These billionaire-proof bastions of freedom of information will serve as safeguards, providing even the most trustworthy legacy media—like the 157-year-old magazine in which you are reading this—a better and fairer “normal” in which to operate.
By focusing on the ideas MacBride laid out in his 1974 speech—limiting the control of governments and corporations over the media—we can still protect the freedoms enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” We need to keep that crucial idea in our minds, to never let the buzz drive it out and prevent us from making it reality.