There are few more important issues confronting the West today than what to do about social media companies, which thanks to their ubiquity possess vast riches and daunting influence over our democracies. Indeed, their opinion-shaping power is so great that even the powerful are reluctant to state plainly that this issue requires frank public discussion.
It was therefore a welcome breath of fresh air recently when Robert Hannigan, a former British spy boss, sat down for an interview with the BBC and spoke his mind. Hannigan, who headed GCHQ (Britain’s NSA) from late 2014 to early 2017, had a top-secret front-row seat to recent events, and his comments were rendered more scathing by their measured delivery.
Social media companies are “massively rich” and “have huge power,” Hannigan observed, adding that they possess “global reach and global power, not just of money but of data that individual governments don’t have.” Hannigan knows all too well that, contrary to much mythology, unless you’re a spy or terrorist, Facebook knows vastly more about you than GCHQ or NSA do.
Moreover, social media companies, which are infected with a toxic admixture of trendy-left politics and rapacious capitalism, display an “arrogance that they somehow sit above democracy,” according to Hannigan, who tied this to a resurgent and dangerous Russia. Hannigan explained that Russia loomed as the single biggest security threat during his tenure as GCHQ director. Over the last few years, as Vladimir Putin has invaded Ukraine and seized Crimea, Russia “has become more aggressive, and they’re doing in cyberspace what they do in the real world.”
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