The Sixth Estate-Big Tech

Throughout known history, change is a constant factor.  Ancient kingdoms and their rulers have documented back thousands of years; with wars, conquest, subjugation, and enslavement being tragically common factors in human existence.  The Enlightenment brought mankind haltingly and unsteadily out of the Dark Ages, and rights for the “common” man slowly began to take shape in the 18th century.  The monumental concepts of governments as protectors of individual, innate, “natural rights” sprang forth with the foundation of governmental checks and balances in the form of distinct institutions to deter one branch from attempting to seize total control from the others.  Although they referenced the ancient systems of Rome and Greece, the stated proclamations, charters, and constitutions claimed to recognize “…certain unalienable Rights” among them.

Through the end of the 20th century, America had a fairly consistent system of institutional checks and balances – sometimes referred to as “estates” – a term popularized by 18th century Irish-born English Parliamentarian Edmund Burke.   The
constitutionally enumerated branches of the United States government are enshrined as:

  1. Legislative (Congress/ House & Senate)
  2. Executive (President & administration)
  3. Judicial (Supreme and lower courts)

Eventually, the proliferation of media, from manual printing presses of Colonial times, up through electronic mass media of the late 20th century, has often been referred to as the fourth:

“But beyond the three traditional branches of government, there is another that has often been described as a fourth branch: the free press. Edmund Burke reportedly said that ‘there were three Estates … but in the Reporters Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.’” [1]

Enter the early 21st century and the explosion of internet participation and activism, consisting of unofficial bloggers, pundits, and overnight on-line guerilla publishers:

“Definition of a Fifth estate:

: a class or group existing in addition to the traditional four“ [2]

 

For the past two decades, an unruly mob of energetic contributors have blessed – or cursed, depending on one’s outlook – the world with a prolific selection of screeds on every conceivable topic.  The Fifth Estate.  Truly, the collective body of human knowledge and opinion has expanded in the most exponential fashion imaginable, for better and worse.  Rarely accountable in a traditional sense, the 5th Estate was a sea change in international public discourse and critique. [3]

 

Enter the year 2020, and the most contentious election cycle in modern American history.  Division, dissension, violence, partisanship, chaos, and a change in the way information is disseminated.  The Twitter infused, non-conformist, firebrand, President Donald Trump circumvented the Fourth and Fifth Estates via his personal info-blasts, which turned the world on its head once again.  Not one prone to asking “mother may I,” neither likely to ask permission nor beg forgiveness, let alone sit down to one of FDR’s quaint Fireside Chats, President Trump engaged an entirely new concept of information dissemination: Big Tech platforms, primarily through a then relatively new media company called Twitter.

 

Twitter, Facebook, and similar platforms exploded from modestly successful venues in the early 2000s to some of the most wildly successful and lucrative companies on the planet.  Facebook alone now claims over two billion users.  As the world revolved and evolved yet again, the newest – and most widely used – means of communication did not even have to wait for a third party blogger or pundit to chime in.  One simply logged in, typed comments, hit “Enter,” and the known universe had the message.  Any message.  In theory at least.  Increasingly, the platforms themselves anointed themselves as editors, censors, and unilateral keepers of The Truth, based on a secretive consortium of “fact-checkers” and ultra high tech programs:.

“We use and develop advanced technologies – such as artificial intelligence, machine learning systems, and augmented reality – so that people can use our Products safely regardless of physical ability or geographic location.” [4]

“Big Tech” now claims preeminent status in the body of knowledge known to humanity.  It alone determines the truth, fact vs fiction, and who has the ability to communicate a message or be silenced, shut off, and shunned.  The stodgy old 4th Estate (Press) and 5th Estate (third party bloggers and pundits) now take a distant and dismal backseat to the BILLIONS of individuals impacted by the eminently powerful new 6th Estate: Big Tech.

How powerful? Well, how about having more cash and assets on hand than most “first world” countries?  The Top 5 U.S. companies: Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Alphabet (Google), and Microsoft had cash holdings at the beginning of 2020 of $122,000,000,000 (122 billion), with an additional $418 billion in marketable securities, which is actually a sharp decrease from 2017 in some areas. [5]  Contrast that with the wealth of the economic powerhouse of the European Union – Germany – whose cash assets in the same time period were listed at roughly $37,000,000,000 (37 billion) [6], less than 1/3 of just the Top 5 U.S. firms, and less than Apple, alone.  In another sense, the technology involved when misused has some consequences.  For instance, the “United States Federal Trade Commission’s investigation of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal. The FTC found that Facebook violated the privacy of millions of its users, and it levied a record-breaking fine of $5 billion on the social network.” [7]  It reminds one of the infamous quote (falsely?) attributed to the late U.S. Senator Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”  Additionally, in the post-election turmoil of big tech assaults on unfavored political positions, banning legions of opponents, shutting off the sitting President’s preferred method of communicating with the American people, and destroying a competitor, Facebook and Twitter stock values plummeted a combined $51,200,000,000 (51.2 billion) in a matter of days, and are off 8% and 12% respectively just this year. [8]

In a practical sense, Facebook, Twitter, and others seem to have embarked on a campaign to silence political opposition via the much loathed “Fact Checkers” who have veered so off course they now post warnings of “Missing Context.” [9] What’s next, a “Missing Nuances” label, followed by required social distancing from the neanderthal who dares strike such a pose?  Or, crushing more competitors with the highly suspect claim of their concerns over content protections as they did when they bully-ganged the new kid on the block, Parler? [10]  Big tech now faces big-time antitrust scrutiny from a phalanx of attorneys general both here in the United States [11] but also abroad under the European Union’s Digital Services Act, which has already slammed an $8,000,000,000 (8 billion) fine against Google. [12]

That trend is likely to continue.  Or will it?  In the topsy turvy world that is American politics, we are seeing profoundly mixed signals from the outgoing and incoming administrations.  Both President Trump and President Joe Biden, have histories of chastising big tech – and rewarding them in their own ways.  President Trump’s executive order squaring off against tech giants and online censorship [13] now looks like this on the new official White House website:

https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/executive-order-preventing-online-censorship/

“404, PAGE NOT FOUND”

The incoming U.S. President notably stated of mega tech overlord Mark Zuckerberg; “I’ve never been a big Zuckerberg fan,” Biden said. “I think he’s a real problem.” President Biden has now predictably flipped the script by naming a galaxy of 21st-century technology executives to his thoroughbred stable of incoming policymakers, [14] reminiscent of the 19thcentury “robber barons” of the railroad, steel, and manufacturing industries.

As winter sets in for the northern hemisphere, the blue globe continues its path around a cold sun.  Seasons – and allegiances – change, as do the realities and tectonic shifts in Washington D.C.  What was unfathomable to most a mere generation ago is now the way things are, “…for richer, for poorer, in sickness, and in health.”  Astronomic wealth, worldwide business influence, now official political power at the highest levels; our new 6th Estate: Big Tech, has eclipsed the 4th & 5th Estates and arrived with a vengeance.

 

If you would be interested in becoming a member of The Republic Watch team send an email to editor@therepublicwatch.com

 

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Sources:

  1. The Fourth Estate As a Final Check, Delbert Tran, MFIA, Yale Law School
  2. Merriam Webster
  3. Who Is the Fifth Estate….? Roy Peter Clark, “Poynter,” April 28, 2009
  4. Facebook Terms of Service, emphasis added
  5. Tech Giants Boost Cash Holdings to Record Highs, Nicholas Dunbar & Manpreet Singh, “Business Insider,” February 17, 2020
  6. German Banks Are Hoarding So Many Euros…., Nicholas Comfort & Stephan Kahl, “Bloomberg,” January 31, 2020
  7. If We Don’t Raise the Costs of Corporate Crimes….” Paul Constant, “Business Insider,” December 11, 2020
  8. Twitter and Facebook Have Seen $51 Billion…., Ben Winck, “Business Insider,” January 13, 2021
  9. Conservatives Flock to Mercer-Funded Parler…., Shannon Bond, “NPR,” November 14, 2020
  10. Apple and Google Are Likely to Slow Down…., Gerrit De Vynck, Reed Albergotti, & Jay Greene, Washington Post, January 12, 2021
  11. These Are the U.S. Antitrust Cases Facing Google, Facebook, and Others, John D. McKinnon, “The Wall Street Journal,” December 17, 2020
  12. EU Throws New Rule Book at Google…., Foo Yun Chee, “Reuters,” July 1, 2020
  13. Stung By Twitter, Trump Signs Executive Order…., Bobby Allyn, NPR, May 28, 2020
  14. If You Think Biden’s Administration Will Rein In Big Tech…., John Naughton, “The Guardian

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