LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Brexit and Facebook might not seem to have much in common, other than that they are both made-up two-syllable words which are currently gathering a lot of negative publicity. However, there are three deeper, and deeply alarming, similarities between Britain’s departure from the European Union and Mark Zuckerberg’s social network. They can be summed up in simple slogans.
First: freedom is simple. For many British voters who supported leaving the EU, Brexit promised the freedom of national sovereignty. There would be no more obligations to obey foreign laws and rules, and no more compulsion to let migrants in. Some of the richer backers of the campaign were also interested in the prospect of freer trade and fewer regulations.
The internet promised a more positive sort of freedom: a greater ability for people to learn, communicate and act. In 2000, then U.S. President Bill Clinton said of the new technology that “liberty will spread by cell phone and phone modem”. Zuckerberg’s aims were not so grandiose when he founded Facebook four years later. But by 2008 the corporate mission was defined as liberation through communication: “To give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.”
Many backers of Brexit may have been cynical and Zuckerberg was at best naive. However, the myth of easy freedom helped the “Leave” side win the 2016 referendum and until recently helped persuade legislators and regulators that Facebook was broadly a force for good.
In reality, though, freedom is almost never straightforward. There are too many complex ties between the UK and EU for Britain to simply take back any type of control. For every freedom gained, others will be lost. Take, for example, the freedom of British people to live and work all over Europe. Clever people and malicious governments used the freedom to post or buy advertisements on Facebook to trick and deceive users.
Second: history is on our side. Brexit supporters often look back to the time when Britain ruled the waves. For them, the country took a detour from its historical destiny when it joined the European project. They believe the UK deserves to take its superior place in the world order. Or if they must work with others, that the United States is a more natural ally.
As befits a young company, Facebook’s vision is more forward-looking. From the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California, the expansion of social networks can easily seem like the next natural step in the unceasing and unstoppable pattern of technological progress. Zuckerberg, the company’s chairman, chief executive and controlling shareholder, often talks as if Facebook is the willing agent of historic forces which are beyond anyone’s control.
History, though, never tells a single clear story. To most continental Europeans and many pro-European Britons, the more accurate narrative is of a post-imperial nation finding a new identity as part of the increasingly unified European economy and society. Facebook may well be caught in a more familiar cyclical pattern where arrogant, powerful companies are unexpectedly stopped by even more powerful political and legal forces. Hubris breeds nemesis.
Finally: fantasy is safe. The leaders of the Brexit movement willingly crossed the line between compelling dreams and dangerous illusions. Few of them tackled the complexities of modern trade relations, or the impact of their plans on the more than 3 million EU citizens living in the UK. Instead, they left Prime Minister Theresa May and her civil servants to negotiate some sort of deal. Now they complain that her best efforts do not live up to their totally unrealistic expectations.
At Facebook, the fantasy that bad agents will not take advantage of a powerful and almost unpoliced network was kept alive as long as possible. It was easier for Zuckerberg and his second-in-command Sheryl Sandberg to hope for the best, until it wasn’t. Facebook is now in trouble for, among other things, enabling lying propaganda which distorted elections in the United States and stoked violence in Myanmar.
So it is not only the names of Brexit and Facebook that have something fanciful about them. They also share an embrace of unreality. Indeed, the two are related by more than the likely influence of Facebook posts on the results of the Brexit referendum. Both are signs of the times. This is an era when the embrace of fictions, or of quarter-truths, can bring great success to blindly foolish optimists.
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