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How social and political networks disrupt official power

Niall Ferguson: The Brexit referendum was “a victory for a network over the hierarchy of the British establishment”. Photo/Alamy

Controversial historian Niall Ferguson takes a critical look at the uneasy alliance between official power and the disruptive influence of social and political networks. 

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No one knows what edifice is planned for the empty plot in Jerusalem, leased to the US for a new embassy since 1989 – and ignored by every president until now – but if it is built, its size will no doubt match its inflammatory symbolism. This is the nature of towers.

For the title of his latest book, The Square and the Tower, controversial Scottish historian Niall Ferguson, who has just been named Columnist of the Year (Broadsheet) at the UK’s Press Awards, turned to the Italian town of Siena, where the towering 14th century Torre del Mangia, the seat of the town council, presides over the public square, the Piazza del Campo. The tower, writes Ferguson, represents order and hierarchy. That is where official power resides. The public square represents the more disruptive influence of social and political networks.

“It was a perfect image for the contrast between the informal social networks you might be part of in the town square and the tower where authority in all its might tends to reside,” he says on the phone from his office at California’s Stanford University, where he is a senior fellow at public policy think tank and research institution the Hoover Institution.

“Historically, there is a symbiotic relationship between the tower and the square, between authority and social networks, but at times, that can become a relationship of tension. It is in the square that the network can turn revolutionary and topple the tower.”

Siena’s towering Torre del Mangia and the public square. Photo/Getty Images

A wave of religious revolt

In his book, Ferguson warns his readers never to underestimate the power of such networks. More than 500 years ago, the new technology of the printing press, developed by German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg, gave history-changing traction to Martin Luther’s detailed critique of the Roman Catholic Church. Without Gutenberg, says Ferguson, Luther might have become just another heretic burnt at the stake. Instead, his invention helped unleash a wave of religious revolt that challenged Rome’s cultural and religious dominance, launched the Reformation and paved the way for the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment and, later, the American and French revolutions.

“From Boston to Bordeaux,” writes Ferguson, “revolution was in large measure the achievement of networks of wordsmiths.”

As well as fuelling the spread of Protestantism, the networking power of the printing press coincided with a bold new era of world exploration and free trade. From Rome to the ancient Incan capital of Cusco in Peru, towers were toppled, cities sacked, coffers plundered. But it was a short-lived era – from the 1790s to 1970, Ferguson says, European imperialism, then the new order of autocratic “empire-states” – Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s Third Reich, Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic – tilted the axis of power back to top-down hierarchical control.

Without Johannes Gutenberg, Martin Luther, pictured, might have become just another heretic burnt at the stake. Photo/Getty Images

Not until the last part of the 20th century did the newly unleashed market forces and increasing financial interdependence of globalisation successfully challenge those systems of control. Across Europe, borders collapsed, trade barriers fell, autocratic regimes were overthrown and new information technologies challenged the power structures of Ferguson’s towers.

Today we are in the midst of what Ferguson describes as the world’s “second networked age”, built on the vast networking capabilities of the internet and the hyper-linked world of Facebook and Twitter. Again, the results have changed the course of history in ways that no one, not even Silicon Valley professionals, would ever have dreamt.

The Brexit referendum, writes Ferguson, was “a victory for a network over the hierarchy of the British establishment”: Vote Leave campaign director Dominic Cummings knew how to use Facebook; David Cameron’s team did not. Similarly, Team Trump’s use of social networks in 2016 defeated Clinton’s “hierarchically organised” campaign. It was Trump’s network, he says, and the exploitation of Facebook and Google’s advertising platforms by Russian operatives that influenced a groundswell of American voters. As Ferguson says, no election is ever going to be the same again.

Zuckerberg. Photo/Getty Images

“I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg, when he set up Facebook in 2004, thought in his wildest dreams he would end up with two billion users. And he certainly didn’t imagine in his wildest nightmares that that social network would help Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election and that Russian intelligence would successfully penetrate it.

“But if you apply network science consistently to the past, you find that it was always quite likely Facebook would be used for ill as much as for good, and it was quite likely that crazy stuff as well as good stuff would go viral. The problem with Silicon Valley is that great computer scientists don’t know much history, and that lack of interest led people to make very naive assumptions about what would happen if they built vast online social networks.”

He points to Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s shock at the idea that Facebook users could use its advertising tool for nefarious purposes. It would not take much historical research, he argues, to know that delegating unprecedented power to private actors can end badly.

The steps of Freemasonry. Photo/Getty Images

Conspiracy theories

Ferguson is more a man of the tower than of the disruptive square below. In his previous books, he has focused on money and empire, the rich (the Rothschilds, the Warburgs) and the powerful (Henry Kissinger). Trusting in networks to run the world, he writes, is a recipe for anarchy.

But he calls for an understanding of history that goes beyond the well-archived stories of hierarchical entities: the militaries, monarchies, papacies and states that dominate our history books in capitalised authority. By ignoring the history of networks, he says, we leave the field to overheated conspiracy theorists – according to a 2011 survey, 51% of Americans believe the world is controlled by a small and secretive group of individuals, and a fifth think billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros is behind a hidden plot to destabilise the US Government and “put the world under his control”. Ferguson encountered this level of fear and fearmongering in writing his 1999 book The House of Rothschild.

“A lot of conspiracy theories greatly exaggerate the power of the Rothschilds,” he says, “so part of the task in writing that book was to show those theories were largely if not wholly fictional. Only then could I start telling the real story of a bank that did tremendously well – but didn’t rule the world.”

The Illuminati were “not important” and were co-opted by the far more successful Freemasons, but their reputation continues to suffer. Photo/Getty Images

Below the radar of academic research, the influence of many networks has been inflated. Take the Illuminati. Founded in Germany in 1748 with the goal of ridding the world of superstition and prejudice through “the sun of reason”, it was small, local and deeply hierarchical, but within a decade, its membership included princes, clergymen and intellectuals across Germany. In themselves, he writes, the Illuminati “were not an important movement” – they were co-opted by the far more successful network of Freemasons – but their reputation has been left to fester, with portentous walk-on parts in televangelist Pat Robertson’s conspiracist rant The New World Order, Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons and even the 2001 film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

It’s a similar story with the Round Table movement. Formed by a group of Britons, many of whom had served in South Africa under Lord Alfred Milner (and known as Milner’s Kindergarten), they championed South African union and, ultimately, an imperial federation of the British Empire. Influential, yes, but not a secret society plotting to take over the world.

And the extant Conversazione Society or Apostles – rooted in Cambridge’s exclusive “intellectual aristocracy” – was, he says, exalted, elite, effete, liberal and insufferable. While initially apolitical, it later became a recruiting ground for the Cambridge spies.

Social networks helped the Trump campaign succeed. Photo/Getty Images

The unconstrainable network

Such networks, however, are insignificant compared with one born on October 29, 1969, when computer first spoke to computer. Since then, Ferguson says, the internet has become both “unknowably large” and seemingly unconstrainable.

Like the Garden of Eden, he writes, the utopia of a fully networked cyberspace has its serpent and its sinners: malicious game players, real-world criminals, unfettered commercialisation and state and non-state manipulation. Their target: us.

“We are still naive enough to think of ourselves as consumers getting a free service, whether it’s Google, Facebook or Amazon, whereas what we really are is the end use – we are the product. Our data that we give these networks for free is what they make money from. The threat is we don’t have the kind of open and relatively trustworthy public sphere that democracy has tended to depend on. It ends transparency in politics, because I don’t see the advert you see and you don’t know where the adverts come from and it allows politicians and other actors to say things to you that are quite different from what they say to me.”

Yes, the big tech companies are promising they’ll do better. “But should we believe those promises? They are incentivised to make money from selling advertising to whoever will pay and to help big advertisers target successfully their markets. It is a very powerful business model generating stunning amounts of money. Can we believe they are suddenly going to change their spots? In the absence of any regulatory pressure, I am not sure I do.”

Strengths and flaws

Ferguson is an entertaining and provocative writer. In the past, he has blamed Britain for World War I; his comments on John Maynard Keynes were described as homophobic (he later apologised); his pronouncements on the role of Britain in India made him appear an apologist for Empire.

The square and tower of his new book, he agrees, is something of a false dichotomy. History has shown the number of steps from the revolutionary network to totalitarianism to be “surprisingly few” – under Stalin, the Soviet Union was one of the most hierarchical states of all time. Similarly, a hierarchy can operate as a network. And boundaries are not fixed anyway. We can work within a highly hierarchical organisational structure, but at Friday night drinks, those ordered tiers can be abandoned altogether.

Looking at history through the lens of hierarchies and networks reveals the strengths and flaws of both: the ability of the tower to uphold stability and security but also to entrench autocratic power; the remarkable potential of the square for innovation, rebellion – or obfuscating noise.

“The Enlightenment was a network of correspondence. The result of that network was some of the greatest philosophical writing ever produced. The networks of today are fantastically good at producing unmanageable volumes of crap – if there is genius being generated, it’s hard to find. I can’t help feeling this level of global chatter is just noise that makes the signal of deep thought harder to get to. We are in a sense in an incredibly noisy restaurant in which it is getting harder and harder to hear oneself think and harder and harder to have a serious conversation, because all you can really do is yell.”

This article was first published in the March 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.