What the history of radio tells us about technology and democracy

By Heidi Tworek

Political responses to the rise of radio moved from optimism to pessimism to pragmatism. Policy responses to social media may take the same journey.

At the time of the Arab Spring in 2011, social media was celebrated as what Larry Diamond called ‘liberation technology’. New digital tools, it was believed, would empower citizens to ‘report news, expose wrongdoing, express opinions, mobilize protest, monitor elections, scrutinize government, deepen participation, and expand the horizons of freedom’.

Seven years later, social media is widely seen as a threat to democracy. As we have gone from Tahrir Square to Donald Trump, optimism about social media has given way to pessimism.

Such rapid shifts in perceptions about new communications technologies are familiar from history. In 1929, there was widespread optimism about the potential of radio.

‘If we can provide the means whereby anyone on this globe can in fact participate in events which are of world-wide importance, we shall have removed the last barrier to the perfect understanding among peoples which is so necessary for our peace and development”, declared CW Horn, an American radio engineer, after shortwave radio programmes were exchanged between Europe and the United States for the first on Christmas Day in 1929.

However, seven years later, the Nazis had built powerful radio towers to broadcast the 1936 Berlin Olympics around the world. They soon used those towers to spread propaganda in 47 languages. In 1938, David Sarnoff, head of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and founder of NBC, called one Nazi radio tower ‘the most potent agency for the dissemination of political doctrine that the world has known’.

New communications technologies often inspire utopian visions of global peace. Political setbacks flip those visions into dystopian fears about how the very same technologies will destroy democracy. These shifts in perception about communications technology have always mattered because they affect policymaking. The good news is that we generally end up with a more nuanced take on how communications affects politics. The bad news is that in the meantime, there can be serious consequences.

The development of radio from the interwar period onwards illustrates how perceptions of ‘imagined use’ of communications technologies affect policy decisions. In both Britain and Germany, there were high hopes that radio would create cohesive national communities of educated democratic listeners. By providing education and uplifting entertainment, radio seemed a way to overcome the harrowing experiences of the First World War. But the state sought to control radio differently in each country based on perceptions of its potential.

In 1927, the British government turned the BBC from a broadcasting company owned by radio manufacturers into a public-interest corporation regulated under a government license. This followed recommendations from the government-convened Sykes committee that ‘the control of such a potential power over public opinion and the life of the nation ought to remain with the State’.

But that control did not mean constant control over content. The BBC retained editorial independence, even if its charter was subject to periodic renewal. Although the British government still had influence, the BBC’s ability to create independent content became a hallmark of British democracy.

In Germany, however, greater state control over radio had devastating unintended consequences. In the febrile political context of interwar Germany, officials feared that radio could accelerate uprisings or economic panic if left in the wrong private hands. These fears led them to directly supervise programming and censor specific programmes.

As the Weimar Republic became increasingly unstable in the early 1930s, politicians sought to preserve democracy by exerting even more control over radio. A reform in 1932 centralized all programming, taking away the final remnants of autonomy from German federal states. Not only did state control of radio fail to save democracy in Germany, it also gave the Nazis a ready-made propaganda machine when they came to power in 1933.

As was the case with radio in the interwar period, the current pessimism about social media is directly connected to concerns about its weaponization in politics and has already informed significant policy changes. While social media companies remain private, there is increasing focus on regulating them – especially in Europe.

German politicians have become particularly worried about social media’s role in propagating hate speech. In 2017, Germany passed the Network Enforcement Law (NetzDG), which fines social media companies up to €50 million if they do not remove posts that contravene German hate speech law within 24 hours.

Similar concerns have inspired French plans for a new law combatting the spread of false information during election campaigns. The European Commission convened a High-Level Expert Group on disinformation and has plans to institute fines for social media companies if they do not follow new guidelines to remove terrorist content within one hour.

Radio and social media have developed very differently up to this point. But we can learn a great deal from thinking about the unintended policy consequences of perceptions. In particular, the history of radio shows that there is a thin line between helpful regulation and harmful intervention and a balance to be struck between fears about democracy and freedom of expression.

The example of the BBC shows that governments can harness the power of new communications technologies to protect democracy. But the example of Germany in the interwar period shows that, in the long run, governments can also end up undermining democracy if political realities change.

It may be better to push for greater transparency about social media algorithms that deliver targeted content than to enable government control over content. One fairly simple example is advertising during elections.

Ben Scott, who served as an adviser on policy innovation for Barack Obama, has suggested that platforms could be required to include a pop-up message for every political advertisement online. That message would disclose the funder and why a person had been targeted with that particular ad. Broader algorithmic accountability could inform everything from addressing terrorist content to antitrust cases.

Despite much criticism, the German NetzDG has produced baby steps towards this sort of accountability. It may sound banal, but one of the most important effects of NetzDG was forcing social media companies to produce regular reports on the amount of hate speech.

The first set of reports produced fascinating findings. Facebook only dealt with 1,704 complaints in the first six months of 2018; YouTube had over 200,000. Perceptions about problems with Facebook had obscured that YouTube and its algorithms might be vastly more important. Without evidence like this, it is impossible to produce evidence-based policy.

We are at a moment in which optimism has given way to pessimism about social media. It’s now time for pessimism to give way to pragmatism and a clear-eyed assessment of how to balance technology and democracy.

Heidi Tworek University of British Columbia

Assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, a non-resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and the author of News from Germany: The Competition to Control World Communications, 1900-1945 (Harvard University Press, forthcoming).

TopBack to top icon
Sign up for news from Chatham House Sign me up