Social Media vs. Establishment Gatekeepers

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Reality Check (July 15, 2011)

Social Media vs. Establishment Gatekeepers

Almost ten years ago, I first applied the term “gatekeepers” to the media’s control over what ideas get to the public. I wrote to Matt Drudge about it, and he and I corresponded briefly. I regarded him as the premier example of crashing through the gates: his 1998 report on the spiking of the Clinton-Lewinsky story by “Newsweek.” The master of political direct mail, Richard Viguerie, picked up the phrase and graciously gave me credit. I may not have been the first to use the phrase in this context, but I was an early adopter.

The gatekeepers in any society are those officials and members of the priesthood or the intelligentsia who police the spread of ideas. Through formal and informal systems of control, they suppress ideas that constitute a threat to the existing Establishment. This can be accomplished through legal suppression. It can be through state licensing. It can be done through screening out unfavorable ideas in the tax-funded educational system. It can be through control of the distribution channels.

The gatekeepers from the beginning of time have attempted to control the flow of information. They are basic to every Establishment, meaning every civil government. They control the flow of information upward to the rulers. This affects the decisions that rulers make. The gatekeepers also control the flow of information downward from the rulers by methods of interpretation of “what the rulers really meant.” In our day, the lawyers who write the rules in “The Federal Register” each year tell us what Congress really meant. They write 70,000 pages of rules each year. By comparison, Congress dithers.

Gatekeepers feather their nests by raising the cost of the flow of information. They are threatened by any system of information production that bypasses the licensed producers. They are also threatened by innovations that reduce the cost of distributing this information. Both systems of control are vital. But the control of distribution is far more vital than the control over the production of new information. If new ideas cannot get to readers, the producers are neutralized. By reducing the cost of distribution, sellers of information can bring ideas to buyers who are willing to pay. Lower prices increase the quantity demanded, which furthers the production of new information. The bids of the buyers can reach the wallets of the producers.


Think of the lowly pamphlet. It is cheap to produce. But what if the distribution channels are controlled by gatekeepers? Cheap pamphlets get far more expensive for the final reader. This reduces demand for pamphlets. It also reduces demand for pamphlet producers.

Think of the early stages of the Protestant Reformation in the 1520s in the German principalities. Luther’s pamphlets were printed by the tens of thousands by printers who stole Luther’s words and paid him no royalties. Luther was the original master of the pamphlet. He understood the power of “steal this pamphlet.” The printers stole them with relish. Luther smiled.

The pamphlets were hauled by cart or wagon from town to town. In some cases, they were smuggled in.

The Pope hated this and tried to stop it through local princes. But a printer could set up his press in the jurisdiction of a prince who favored the break from Rome, because he wanted greater independence from the Catholic Emperor. Charles V. The distribution channels were steadily decentralized. This favored the spread of information that was under the ban of the central government.

There were still gatekeepers. The peasant revolts of 1525-35 were suppressed by princes. But there would never again be the degree of central control over the flow of information.

A century later in Great Britain, during the Civil War (1643-49), the king and Parliament fought each other. Neither side could control the flow of political pamphlets. The great era of popular political debate began. It has never ended.

The history of liberty is the history of the flow of unofficial information. As with all mass movements, this was the product of two factors: new technologies of production and new channels of distribution. Both were driven by price competition. Both were driven by the quest for profit in one form or another. The profit-and-loss system sorted out the winners from the losers. The biggest losers were the monarchs and oligarchs whose centralized rule required gatekeepers. Price competition undermined the power of the gatekeepers.

The last hurrah of monarchs was World War I, which was run in Europe by Queen Victoria’s three grandsons. In 1918, the kings departed, thereby ending a system of control that had prevailed for millennia. As the puppet King Farouk of Egypt put it, “There are only five kings remaining: the king of England, and the kings of hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs.”

One by one, price competition has brought down the Establishments of the world. This process is not going to be reversed.


I have been part of the famous “cloud” of the Internet since 1996. I set up my site, in that year. That makes me one of the old timers.

I made the transition from paper-based newsletters (begun in 1974) to fully digital publishing (2005). I moved from physical book publication to ebooks in 1996.

I have been part of Agora’s team of editors. Agora pioneered the digital newsletter marketing industry, beginning in 2000. The firm went from a very successful paper-based newsletter company to an international empire based on email, physical newsletters, and word-of-mouse.

I have a subscription-based site. That has been a profitable venture for me. I have run it on a full-time basis ever since 2006.

With this as background, let me add my two cents’ worth on the social media.

The revolution, as usual, has been two-fold. First, the creation of Websites and then blogs reduced the cost of producing new information. A generation ago, A. J. Liebling quipped, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Now anyone with an Internet connection can own one. There are over 275 million sites out there (, plus 50 million blogs just on (

But that was only half of the revolution. The key factor was distribution. How could people who wanted to read new ideas discover the producers of the kinds of new ideas they wanted to read? There were two ways: email, which I dubbed word of mouse, and search engines. Alta Vista appeared in December 1995.

RSS feeds were added in this decade. But the big breakthrough has been the arrival of social media. Social media are something radically new. They constitute a revolution within a revolution. They are generating wealth for investors far faster than Apple and Microsoft did 30 years ago. They are having far more impact.

If we think of Websites and blog sites as the weapons of Establishment destruction, we should think of the social media as the delivery system that gets the weapons into the hands of people who will use them.

Google and search engines allow people to go looking for information. But these are essentially lonely quests. Email allows the spread of information, but the distribution channel is linear. One person sends a link. Then another forwards it.

Social media are far more interactive. The participants interact far more easily than with email. The spread of information is far more rapid. The existence of rapid feedback offers readers a degree of exchange far greater than email.

The digital technologies have made operational Hayek’s concept of the intellectual division of labor, which he presented in a classic essay, “The Use of Knowledge in Society” (1945). It’s here: Hayek argued that the free market offers people ways to supply their specialized knowledge profitably with others. The widely dispersed knowledge possessed by individuals is vast compared to the centralized knowledge of a committee or a planning board. The free market lets us gain access to this widespread knowledge.


Two of the most successful situation comedies in television history were “Cheers” and “Friends.” Why? Because they came in an era of community breakdown. These were comedies for couch potatoes. They offered people a sense of participation in a fantasy world in which there was no real participation. Reality survivor shows offer similar entertainment.

As we get more isolated, we search for participation. Technology has turned us inward. Think of radio vs. the circus or a play in a local community theater. A couch potato is grown in a darkened room lighted only by a television screen.

Then came the Walkman, followed by the iPod. Earplugs send a visible message: “I don’t want to talk with you.”

As we turned inward, we lost community.

As we lost community, the sense of loss became a potential market.

How did Facebook get to 700,000,000 members in less than eight years? By plugging into the desire of people to participate in communities. These are called virtual communities, but they are not virtual. They are real. Why? Because thy let people shares ideas and feelings with other people they trust. This is the heart of community.

The advent of Google Plus indicates that Google’s entrepreneurs perceive demand for the next step in the process: the segregation of friends into interest groups. This, too, is an aspect of real-world community. We have different circles of friends. These are usually distinguished by specific interests: work-related, leisure-related, religion-related, ideology-related.

Sending an email is one-on-one. It is not participation in a community. Searching for information is one-on-none. The person at the end of the search must be contacted by email, if you want to contact him at all, which you probably don’t. There is no community. With social media, there is community.

Why? Because there is feedback. There is interaction. There is confirmation.


Confirmation is basic to integration. To the degree that integration is integral to community, conformation is vital. Confirmation reinforces our commitments. We seek conformation.

Confirmation is crucial for community. It’s a matter of “I’m OK, you’re OK,” as well as “they’re nuts.” We respond to recommendations by friends who share the same interests. I may not respond favorably to a recommendation by someone in an unrelated interest group, but I do take seriously a recommendation by someone in a related interest group.

Think of northern Germany in 1520. A printer has printed up 1,000 copies of a pamphlet by Luther. There is a local tradesman who sees an opportunity. He can buy all 1,000 copies and load them into four carts headed for different towns. He sends them off.

When the cart arrives in a town, the hired hand unloads them. A local bookseller buys them, possibly paying cash, but probably by a deposit in a local bank in the cart-operator’s account. He may be able to place them in his window. But, in some towns, distribution is clandestine.

The bookseller wants a local network of Luther pamphlet buyers to get out the word. Word of mouth takes over. “The latest pamphlet is now on sale.” Buyers come to the shop. Maybe they know a password. Anyway, the seller knows the “friendlies” from the informants, or thinks he does. The pamphlets get bought, read, and maybe handed on.

This was a social network. It undermined both church and state in some towns.

Social networking is basic to every revolt. A revolution is not just the charismatic speaker, who can be arrested. It is not just the rhetorically gifted author, whose manuscript can be confiscated. It is not just the midnight printer, whose printing press can be confiscated. It is not just the distributor, whose piles of inflammatory pamphlets can be seized and burned. It is not just the local bookseller, whose shop can be closed down. It is not just the clandestine community, which can be infiltrated. It is all of these.

At every step in this linear process, the flow of information can be interdicted.

Today, the distribution system is not linear. It is multi-channel. Yes, Facebook can be monitored. But how does any system of informants monitor every group? Ask Hosni Mubarak.

Closing down Facebook would create instant political retaliation. “Where’s our Facebook?” The government might as well submit a letter of resignation. Can you imagine the effects at the next election? Whichever party’s President tried to do this would face a mobilized opposition party within hours. These people are sharks. They smell blood in the water. Any Administration so desperate as to shut down Facebook would already be in hemorrhage mode. The only hope is that Facebook will blow up because it uses SQL, which is not suited for 700 million users. ( I suppose that is Google’s dream.

The Web has created the ultimate price competition for communication. Websites and blogs are authors with printing presses. Search engines are the first stage of distribution. Email adds word of mouse. But none of this constitutes community. Social networks do. These are the most efficient means of mobilizing people. These are the most effective way to create community integration.


As these communities multiply, the unity required to sustain any Establishment erodes. Every new network builds up a new communications system, each with its own presuppositions, each with its own commitments, each with its own hates. The networks reinforce a “them vs. us” outlook. For every entry point inside there is a departure point outside. For every boundary, there is an inside and an outside.

Never before in recorded history has it been less expensive to create a new network. Never before has the threat to every Establishment been greater. The Establishment insiders who control money also seek to control political power. The existence of networks undermines their quest to maintain themselves through power. If they can meet market demand, they can keep their money. But their ability to defend their enterprises politically from competition based on changes in customer demand is coming to a well-deserved end. The cartels are facing the greatest threat in their long history.

What is this threat? The disintegration of a national unity of confession. National confessional unity is built on shared ideas, shared emotions, and shared enemies. But with the multiplication of social networks, each with its own commitments, the cost of maintaining a widespread unity favorable to the expansion of the state increases.

The Establishment has its own conflicts: establishments within the Establishment. The people who meet annually at Davos, Switzerland have some unifying issues and goals, but they are more of a confederation of special interests than an international world order. They cannot impose sanctions systematically and universally. Asia is not playing ball. Meanwhile, the social networks are multiplying at a rate unprecedented in history.


We are seeing the end game in the attempt of the New World Order crowd to use political power to defend their profit-based empires. There is no order in their New World Order, other than the order imposed by the free market, where customers are in control. The Insiders seek to control these market forces through politics. But politics requires consent, and the social networks are undermining consent.

The social networks are undermining national governments’ legitimacy. Every rival conspiracy theory circulating in the networks undermines a national government’s legitimacy. Every report on the threat of default by governments undermines legitimacy. The networks are political acid, and they are spreading fast.

The New World Order rests on control over the media. The Insiders are losing this. It rests on the ability of political leaders to mobilize support. The networks are undermining this. Control is based on the ability of the governments to shut out or de-legitimize opponents. The networks are undermining this ability. It is based on the ability of national leaders to gain widespread trust. The networks are undermining this trust.

You know the saying: “A lie spreads around the world before the truth reaches the front gate.” Civil governments are the biggest liars on earth. They had the advantage in lying for millennia.

The networks have sped up the spread of the truth. The lies may get around the world fast, but the refutations are only a couple of hours behind. Governments cannot implement their policies in a couple of hours. They cannot react fast enough. The spin time is longer than the network communications time. Explaining away the refutation is a big task. Meanwhile, the networks are calling attention to the government’s waffling.

When you think “Establishment,” think “Hosni Mubarak.”

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