Turning Against the Silicon Prophets: The Walling off of the Digital West

By James Hiebert 

In 2009, Foursquare set out to change the way media consumers interact with the internet. Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai, two young entrepreneurs, thought that users should explore the world beyond their screens. The app allowed users to “check in” to locations in real life and compete with their friends. The creators envisioned internet as a tool to connect people, encouraging them to adventure outside, to see the world, and to make friends. The clique was part of a troupe of Silicon Valley professionals that thought that they could end illiteracy with laptops, encourage democratic political change, and empower artists and romantics around the world. Buoyed by that spirit of tech optimism, Crowley and Selvadurai thought that they were the generation that would fundamentally change the human experience. 

That optimistic stance on the internet's potential for social development peaked in the spring of 2010 with the Arab Spring. Pundits linked the democratizing movements across the Middle East, Occupy Wall Street, the Chilean Free Education movement, the Spanish Plazas movement, Israeli youth protests, Greek anti-austerity marches and 2010 Iranian elections as a global liberal mega-event, boosted by the role of technology. Facebook and Twitter widely publicized users’ efforts to connect across continents and foment political change. While protestors used social media to organize their movements, CEOs and executives proudly showed off their political capacity to democratize. 

Seven years on, that spirit of tech optimism seems amusingly naïve. The Prophets of Silicon Valley were wrong. The much expected end of history remains as elusive as ever in the Digital Age. Occupy Wall Street slowly asphyxiated without a definite end game. The specter of austerity lingers across Europe. Of the nations involved in the Arab Spring, only Tunisia has made lasting democratic reforms. Egypt waded through a series of political upheavals and Syria has shattered into civil war. The political effectiveness of the internet is not doubted, but the optimistic liberal disposition of tech entrepreneurs has vanished. 

With the rise of populist leaders across the West2016 represents a low point of that tech optimism. The liberal tech world has struggled to respond to the right’s co-option of Internet platforms. Donald Trump’s presidential run, the Brexit campaign and Marine Le Pen’s bid for French leadership represent divisions antithetical to the spirit of global unity professed by tech leaders in 2010. All those movements, however, have seen the internet as a key source in political development. The_Donald, a Trump focused message board on the website Reddit, was key in distributing and spreading information. Importantly, the board found itself at odds with the site’s leadership, accusing the CEO of participating in the surreal “Pizzagate” scandal, a conspiracy theory that accused global leaders of participating in child sex trafficking ring based out of a Washington D.C. pizza shop. Facebook removed the page “Followers of God Emperor Trump.”  Trump supporters Milo Yiannopolis and Martin Shkreli were banned from Twitter for violating community standards. No longer are CEOs praising the political participation of their communities. 

At the same moment, left leaning politicians like Bernie Sanders, Martin Schulz and Jeremy Corbyn have been the centers of internet culture. The important takeaway however is not that far left and far right politics has emerged in opposition to the global optimism of tech leaders, it is that those movements are decidedly Western in focus. No longer do far left movements associate with non-English speaking internet communities. While the traditions of left leaning action have not disappeared in those nations (Podemos, the far left party spun out of the plazas movement was a major contender in the 2016 Spanish elections), the global spirit of unity that existed across these movements is gone. No longer are activists in Tahrir Square tweeting at Wall Street Occupiers. 

More dramatically are the far rights claims to be defenders of Western culture, and their conflicts with groups based in Europe. Users on r/The_Donald routinely upvote posts about French, British and Dutch politics to its front page, hammering the similar positions of immigration and Western purity. Over a two-week period in April of 2016, r/The_Donald, r/Sweden and r/De (left leaning message boards for Sweden and Denmark) entered into a “meme war” where users posted adversarial and mocking political images and jokes. The meme of “Deus Vault”, a rallying cry of medieval crusaders and now white nationalists, is derived with distinct pride for Europe’s “purer” past. Internet political culture has shifted from the global purview to a fundamentally regional focus. 

International relations scholars long lambasted Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations in the new global era, downplaying the future of ethnic relations in a global world. However, that image of a democratizing global world led by tech leaders, a common one in the optimism of 2010, seems overly simplistic in 2017. While digital communication has lowered the barrier to all forms of political action, the shift towards a decidedly Western focus signals a recent regional and ethnic development of internet political culture. The digital prophet’s global vision is dead; in its wake rests a renewed tradition of Western-conscious politics.

James Hiebert is a sophomore at UPenn, where he studies political communication and economics.