Political theatre in Washington

This morning’s Observer column:

Summing up: the companies have no incentive to change their ways. And there’s no real political will in the US to make them. All of which perhaps explains why Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t on Capitol Hill but in China to meet the great Thought Leader Xi Jinping. Now there’s a politician worth sucking up to.

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Google+ is a social network? No way, says Google

Lovely NYT report today:

SAN FRANCISCO — After years of trying unsuccessfully to build a social network to rival Facebook, Google finally got something out of all of its failures: cover.

Members of Congress grilled the executives of Google, Facebook and Twitter this week in a trio of hearings focused on the role that social media played in advancing a Russian disinformation campaign before the 2016 election. Google’s representative at two of the hearings, Kent Walker, the company’s general counsel, made a point of distinguishing the search giant from its internet brethren. Repeatedly and unequivocally, he answered questions at the hearings by saying, “We’re not a social network.”

Tech companies have taken a pounding in the court of public opinion in recent months. In the eyes of their critics, they have become too big, too powerful and too unmindful of their influence. And this week’s congressional hearings cast added and unflattering light on the industry’s growing embarrassment over the Russian election meddling.

Funny the way ‘social’ has suddenly become toxic.

Democracy as an ecosystem

Marvellous Guardian OpEd by Rafael Behr. Here’s the nub of it:

Inability to accept that truth and justice operate independently from the person who wields power is the essence of Trump’s unfitness for office. It is what makes him not just intellectually incapable of doing the job, but morally hostile to American political tradition. Elections, parliaments and courts are the necessary apparatus of democracy. But, as I witnessed in Chechnya, they can be quickly assembled in flatpack form. Russia’s constitution promises political rights that have no bearing on Vladimir Putin’s governing methods. The 1936 Soviet constitution guaranteed elections and a free press. It did not inhibit Stalin’s atrocities.

Democracy can be enshrined in words but it thrives through an accumulated culture and habit of honouring those words. It is an ecosystem, like a coral reef that is marvellous not just because of its solid structures but because of the diverse flora and fauna they host – the competition for resources, the interaction of predator and prey, all sustained in delicate equilibrium.

Spot on. Reminds me of something Ralf Dahrendorf wrote in 1989 in Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, where he talked about democracy being a pretty fragile plant which grows only in certain, well-prepared soils.