Whenever technology or factory-automation threatens to put Americans out of work, libertarians often try to tamp down public outcry by invoking the Broken Window Fallacy. The philosopher and economist Bastiat described a scenario in which 30 men were standing in the street, contributing nothing, due to a window which was not broken. If a child threw a rock through the window, at least several of the onlookers could theoretically be employed to fix it, therefore “helping” the economy and widening the workforce.
The fallacy, of course, is that the money spent on fixing the broken window – and thus arriving right back at square one – could otherwise be used for improvement rather than simply repair, and help put citizens to work in a more gainful way.
Americans have seen versions of the Broken Window parable play out often over the past two decades. The advent of digital media and file-sharing, for instance, brought cries from the music industry to “break” Napster and later YouTube, and therefore help commerce by preventing consumers from downloading what they wanted. Years later, millions benefit from the digital-entertainment economy as artists or employees.
Similar debates swirl around the viability of Uber (costing cabbies jobs, but putting scores of struggling Americans to work), Airbnb (creating havoc for the motel industry, but throwing many homeowners a life-raft) and so on. Breaking those “windows” would be like planting a tree to keep a sunrise from occurring. The brands are arbitrary, the technology is here to stay.
President Trump and other labor-protectionists believe, at least partially, in the virtue of the Broken Window. Trump has railed against Amazon, the online-shopping giant which has put retail stores and workers out of action in the short-term. Even prior to being elected President, Trump wrote in a tweet, “Amazon is doing great damage to tax paying retailers. Towns, cities and states throughout the U.S are being hurt – many jobs being lost!”
Like most of Trump’s tweets, it wasn’t an outright lie but selective truth-telling and hyperbole. Yes, with the increasing usage of Amazon and Amazon Prime alongside other web-shopping options, major retailers such as Macy’s, Payless, and Sears have been forced to close hundreds of locations across the country. But Amazon is also helping to create jobs, hiring thousands of new employees with every expansion. Ironically and without a touch of recalcitrance, Trump took credit, including an announcement of 100,000 new Amazon jobs in a press briefing. “The announcement was made after the President-elect met with the heads of several other tech companies and urged to keep their jobs and production inside the United States,” said former White House press secretary Sean Spicer.
Those who believe the Donald Trump presidency will turn out to be nothing more than a massive “troll” of the establishment are not without argument. At times, the new President can seem like nothing but an exaggerated, vulgar version of corrupt “lifers” who keep the Washington machine running. Each folly is met with more folly, or at least a deadly-poison sticker disguised as a band-aid.
Need an example? Look at how the Big State is treating Big Tech. In the wake of Hillary Clinton’s election loss in 2016, Facebook, Twitter, and Google have found themselves at the center of an investigation into Russian influence on American voters. Twitter “bots,” fake news and other proliferation of anti-Clinton material on social media is thought to have perhaps made the crucial difference in President Trump’s narrow wins in key swing states.
Facebook is thought to have gotten the most attention from Russia during the 2016 campaign. The company has revealed that roughly 470 Kremlin-backed groups and accounts spent around $100,000 on political ads. These paid ads reached a rough estimate of 10 million people.
New research given by Jonathon Albright, research director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, suggests Russian trolls may have reached far more than just 10 million Americans. Albright’s data showing at least six of the Russian-backed accounts’ ads were shared some 340 million times. Those posts often came from Facebook pages masked as American political interest groups such as United Muslims of America, Blacktivists, Heart of Texas, Secured Borders, and LGBT United. In a closed meeting with Twitter and the Senate Intelligence Committee on September 28th, the company disclosed that 22 of the 470 Russian backed Facebook groups also had accounts on Twitter.
Conservatives are chiming in with their own claims of “fake news” on social media, though liberal opinion disguised as news tends to be more mainstream, or at least posted by Americans. Facebook stories such as “This is it – Trump is Resigning!” are published every day – Trump is scheduled to be “resigning” again tomorrow. Newsweek runs a weekly story about how Trump’s approval rating has hit its “lowest point ever,” though over time The Donald’s rating stays at about 40 percent. How an approval rating can sink lower and lower while holding at 40 percent is a paradox worthy of serious scientific study, or at least an M.C. Escher drawing.
The concern from both sides of D.C. about the political influence of Big Tech has prompted more civic leaders to “do something” about it, whether or not the endeavor is a wise one. Facebook is facing anti-trust lawsuits at home and abroad, with lawyers protesting that the company is too big and too influential to remain as-is under the law. To be safe from the Red Menace, social media must be divided up into smaller pieces which can in-turn be regulated by government.
Remember The Blob? In the original film’s comic-book companion, scientists consider blowing up the Blob. But that wouldn’t work, because it would simply create thousands of little Blobs. Anyone who thinks regulating or de-centralizing Facebook (into Nosebook, Eyebook, and so on) can prevent 18-year-old Russian boys with computers…ahem, Vladimir Putin’s secret Kremlin army of aliens from spreading disinformation is simply hallucinating. And the perils of regulating all of Facebook or Twitter at once could be even more counter-productive.
How did the military finally stop the Blob? They froze it. Let’s hope the Russia-scare doesn’t lead to lawyers and bureaucrats putting our social media on ice. Big Tech – or at least Big Web – deserves a better and fairer fate.