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The power to change what we are: Social media as the new 'Fifth Estate'

The power to change what we are: Social media as the new 'Fifth Estate'
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Could Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey ever have imagined that his social media platform would become a U.S. president’s preferred manner of communicating with the American electorate and beyond? It did, and the pattern became a familiar one: President TrumpDonald TrumpProject Veritas surveilled government officials to expose anti-Trump sentiments: report Cheney: Fox News has 'a particular obligation' to refute election fraud claims The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? MORE tweeted out to his Twitter “followers” — mostly his political base — but also, compulsorily, to those in the news media. Journalists then projected his 148-character statements to the country and the world. Trump ended his single presidential term banned from the platform, severely hobbled politically in part because of that.

By now, articles on every topic, from politics to sports to culture, embed tweets and links to actual pages. Since to view these one must possess an account, the ubiquity of the Twitter platform — and others like it — only increases. Putatively, at least, one must be on them to be informed. Whether Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat or another site, social media now wield power beyond what possibly could have been imagined at their inception.

Some legislators and editorialists wonder whether this makes us vulnerable to the whims of unelected individuals, in the form of the owners of social media companies. If an American president can be muzzled, can’t anyone?

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In the wake of not only President Trump’s social media banishment but also the Gamestop/Reddit episode, the Russian bots employed in the 2016 presidential election, arguments over silencing the Twitter feed of Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei, and the spread via these platforms of the George Floyd video which gave rise to a transformative social movement, this all provokes interesting questions. But my mind goes here: How do we define social media, particularly in the context of the forces that have always shaped who and what we are as societies?

As early as the feudal period, as Chaucer referenced in “The Canterbury Tales,” and, later, during the French Revolution, three such forces traditionally were recognized in Western polities. They were called “Estates,” a term derived from the French concept of pouvoir, or “power.” There is disagreement over whether it was Irish philosopher and British statesman Edmund Burke or British essayist William Hazlitt who first described the press as “The Fourth Estate” in the late 18th century, adding it to the three societal elements recognized at the time on the European continent as comprising the make-up of nations — the First Estate being the nobility, the Second Estate being the clergy, and the Third, the so-called commoners or citizenry.

Once a free press began to exercise meaningful power, thinkers such as Burke and Hazlitt contended that journalists who made up that “Fourth Estate” could influence the future of nations just as meaningfully as the nobility, clergy or citizenry. Some observers, such as Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde, argued that its impact could be far greater and, often, more insidious.

In the United States, where we like to claim we don’t have a nobility, assertions as to the identities of the first three estates vary. Some argue that, in our culture, the nobility of Europe has been replaced by those who govern as the First Estate. Following this, the clergy continue to occupy the Second Estate, and the rest of the citizenry represents the Third Estate, with the press still the Fourth.

Where do social media companies belong? Are they effectively part of the broader media, as the name would suggest? For this to be true, those who originate social media content — former President Trump being the most notable example — would, by definition, be “journalists.” Clearly they are not, however, which suggests that far from being a subset of the Fourth Estate, what occurs on social media is, by definition, separable.

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Are social media then simply an extension of speech? Only in the same way that one can argue that journalism is, with protections under the Constitution’s First Amendment. But journalism is more than speech, too. This is why the First Amendment is careful to protect “the press” in addition to “speech.” What distinguishes journalism is its use of myriad conduits specific to itself to inform and persuade, such as printed newspapers or television programs, and even segments that can appear on computers and “smart” devices. Traditional media move opinion and policy as a force in themselves, and journalists, who do exercise a form of speech, nevertheless occupy a place accurately credited by Burke, Hazlitt and others as one of the four forces that define and move nations.

Do social media companies likewise possess the impact to earn the term “Estate?” I would argue they have achieved this and more. They constitute a force only beginning to realize its power at all levels of our lives, not just in politics and world affairs. Like the press, they aggregate, with sui generis methods, a type of non-journalistic speech that similarly separates itself from speech. They do so in a manner beyond any specific entity’s or single person’s control. They are a “pouvoir” or “Estate” in every sense because they now operate undeniably alongside the other four Estates to impact, in real time, who and what we are.

Recognizing them for the immense and perhaps unsurpassed power they wield can be an essential step toward managing them as a permanent and dominating force in our lives. Social media are, indeed, the Fifth Estate. The question is: What are we to do now that we’ve named them for what they are?

Tim Blake Nelson is an award-winning actor, writer and director whose film, TV and stage credits include “O Brother Where Art Thou?” (2000), “Lincoln” (2012), “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” (2018), and “Socrates” and “Watchmen” (2019).