None of the twitter left influencers are the good ones.
As a leftist tech nerd in my mid-thirties I remember a time when information should be free was a common phrase. At the dawn of high speed internet in the home, following from the success and demise of napster, and the growth of bit-torrent there emerged an almost accidental political movement.
While the concept of intellectual property had never been unquestioned, in fact for most of human history it has never existed, the ability to efficiently distribute large amounts of data without much effort ignited a minor revolution in the way mainstream society treats intellectual property. As so often happens to revolutions though, this was defeated by a well heeled counter revolution. Like piracy replaced CDs, legal streaming replaced piracy. While some major torrent repositories still exist, the strategy of inconveniencing people that want to access media by blocking domain names and offering tolerable subscription prices effectively killed the political movement of information should be free in the public consciousness.
Long before Spotify adopted the model of creating a captive market then stealing from the artists though, there was Elsevier. Elsevier is a scientific publisher. Their business model is to charge scientists for submitting documents, copyrighting them, having other scientists peer review them for no pay, then selling them with none of this money going to the author. They don't keep all this money though; in the years 2019-2020, Elsevier's parent company, RELX donated a record $900'000 dollars to US Democrats and Republicans. Also in 2020, by sheer coincidence, US company PayPal suspended the ability to donate to a website called Sci-hub.
Sci-hub is something of a remnant of the information must be free philosophy. Founded in 2010 by Kazakhstani computer scientist Alexandra Elbakyan, Sci-hub is a free online repository for scientific papers that does not recognise copyrights. Although obscure to most people, an (admittedly unscientific) poll by Science magazine suggests 60% of respondents (the sort of people that read Science magazine) regularly use the site and 88% do not see it's use as wrong.
Sci-hub is facing multiple lawsuits attempting to shut it down, most, those in the political west are being ignored, but Elbakyan has chosen to fight a challenge brought to them in the Indian high court. Elsevier along with other scientific publishers Wiley and ACS are attempting to block the only access many Indian educators and researchers have to scientific literature.
This is an assault on what the fashionable people of Twitter and academia would refer to as the global south. The ability of poor nations, poor people, all of humanity really, to progress is being choked by billion dollar companies that do literally nothing except rent-seeking and political lobbying to protect their right to profit from others' work. So why is it that you're more likely to see support in this international battle against global capital on liberal-left than left-not-liberal Twitter?
Could it be that all this STEM stuff, this movement led by a woman is just tech-bro shit? This fight to improve education and development in poor countries is cultural imperialism maybe? Maybe it's the fact that due to economic blockades, this project which needs money is only able to take donations using cryptocurrency. And due to crypto's association with American style right-wing libertarianism, donating to the communist-leaning Elbakyan's project to make education accessible to all is just a little bit too tainted by the uncool.
Even those that see past all this aesthetic leftism and only want to talk about material conditions, those so far left they don't even recognize what passes itself off as the left anymore, and now have to refer to themselves as post left or simply as marxists, seem so distracted by their campaign to connect with the ordinary man, (the ordinary man they increasingly appear to have never seen except through the selectively edited agenda driven voxpops of conservative media) fail to recognise a genuine, popular, crucial and potentially winnable battle of people against power; of labour against capital.
Sci-hub may be among the most spectacular holdouts in the war against tech feudalism, but other, less extralegal branches of the resistance do exist. These branches, potential bulwarks against capital, however, appear to be dying before they can be fully born. Dying because apathy, fear and trend hopping amongst those imploring us to fight the power is preventing they themselves from seeding the new community owned landscape of tomorrow's internet.
While Elsevier and co. maintain power through extortion in a racket barely known to those of us who aren't scientific researchers. The well known social media companies use a different model to exploit us all. Instead of charging money, because as addictive as it is, nobody needs to pay for Facebook, our data is traded. This data is analysed to detect each individuals' intellectual vulnerabilities and sold on for profit. This data is then used by the rich and powerful to create personalised propaganda to manipulate us into giving them more riches and more power. On the run up to the UK general election of 2019 a massive 88% of Conservative party adverts were misleading. And although there are other reasons for Labour's defeat, namely dithering on Brexit. Anybody who door knocked or argued with family members knows, (even though this has now been made politically incorrect to say, ironically by anti-political correctness warriors among Frank Furedi's disciples) that social media misinformation played a massive part. It wasn't down to individual arguments but the relentless advertising barrage paid for by the powerful that created a vague but perilous sense of unease among many of the electorate.
The social media that was once expected to liberate us has now been turned into a means of control. This town square is now full of neon billboards, touts, secret police and fraudsters. It is controlled by the highest bidder. He who has most power and money can speak loudest and be heard by all, and he who has least can be disappeared or ostracised on our unknowing behalf. Free speech is not the problem on social media, paid speech is. It's not individual articles but the slow relentless grinding campaigns by those with bottomless pockets that can force us to listen to them for months on end until we've forgotten what normal is.
Democracy is in peril because of Facebook and we cannot expect regulations to fix it. Those laws would be written by the very people who maintain their power through the ability to manipulate us through these personalised propaganda campaigns. The relationship between Facebook and politicians is a mutually beneficial one. Political campaigns can lie, and when they win power they will not interfere with Facebooks business. Any entity that operates by market logic will inevitably evolve to extract more and more from those it claims to serve. Any checks on power will only lead to innovative circumventions of those checks to extract even more. The reality is that in order to save democracy, commercial social media must be destroyed in it's entirety. It is down to us to do this, and it can be done by replacing it with something that is under our control.
So far, all attempts to move en masse away from centralised social media have all fizzled out or tended towards niche insular communities. Mastodon, while the most successful project often feels stale and overly civil. For better or worse it is not the Twitter killer most would like. The Secure Scuttlebutt network/protocol and it's Facebook lite style clients are even more niche with the majority of social activity surrounding the developers themselves. Peertube, an intended alternative to Youtube, half heartedly embraced by the left appears to now mostly be french antivax videos and conspiracy theorists too crazy for Youtube.
The main problems preventing the mass movement from the huge data siloes of corporate social media to non-commercial community owned infrastructure at first seem insurmountable. Firstly, all these platforms have captive audiences. Any rival would need a huge outlay budget for advertising and creating enough content to keep users engaged long enough to add to it. Secondly, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are unhealthy addiction engines. Not only would it be technologically difficult to replicate the way in which they feed you information, it would arguably be immoral.
Replacing Youtube, Twitter and Facebook appears for now to be a non-starter, but one of these networks, Twitter, does have a vulnerability which can be exploited. This vulnerability is not on the platform itself, but due to the fact that it is a market place of self promotion. Any content of any value delivered on Twitter is most likely hosted on a second layer of social media: SoundCloud, Patreon, Medium, Substack and self hosting.
These websites in themselves do not rely on internal content discovery portals. Nobody visits to browse SoundCloud, they follow links to specific episodes of specific podcasts. While Peertube is nowhere near the YouTube alternative it proposes to be yet, it is already better at being SoundCloud than SoundCloud is. If podcasts that were intended to only be reached via Twitter and other link sharing sites were hosted on Peertube, that would begin to solve the content problem and eventually make it worth visiting just to browse.
Medium and Substack can already be replaced by Writefreely, the software running this blog. I can honestly see no benefits they have over this platform. Writefreely even allows payments through web monetization.
These potential replacement platforms; Peertube and Writefreely, are both open source and integrate the ActivityPub protocol. This is the same protocol used by Mastodon and several other federated social media platforms. This allows various interactions between all the different sites that use them. Beyond this, larger new media platforms that host their own articles, audio and video could migrate their data to Peertube and Writefreely backends and using CSS to reskin the front end or redirecting APIs, integrate ActivityPub into their own websites without changing the look and feel of their own brands. Allowing viewers and readers to interact with this media without having to create a new account, as well as subscribe to it on portal of their choice.
Once there is enough content to warrant users collating their own feeds of conversations, blogs and podcasts on one feed, then we can start to think about the problems around more ethical algorithms for recommendations.
If left wing influencers are serious about fighting back against the pernicious influence of capital, then what I've described here are realistic and attainable steps toward moving from the walled gardens of current social media in which we are analysed and manipulated, into a social media landscape which we control.
Oh and the next time you see a musician complain about Spotify, tell them to use resonate.is
For more information on sci-hub, watch this video by medlife crisis.