Monday, June 17, 2013


If you've been following the news lately, then you've likely heard about the NSA's substantial phone records collection. The leaker of this information, Edward Snowden, had been involved with government functions since 2007, and even allegedly had considered going public with the information back then.

Reading through Snowden's profile, one gets the image of a more introverted sort of person. A man in his late 20s, he's part of the generation of people who grew up around the Internet's rise to prominence. He's gone on record to say that he's spent a lot of time online during his adolescent years, being exposed to people with experiences completely foreign to his own.


One reporter wrote a piece bringing up the similarity between Snowden and Bradley Manning, the man behind the 2010 leaks of classified information to Wikileaks. Manning was also very much a part of the growing Internet, having been seen as a computer whiz and maintaining a website devoted to game and music downloads. Snowden and Manning have very different backgrounds, but they were both people with an apparent appreciation for the early frontier-like days of the online. The reporter of the article makes an interesting comment about this common link:
"Maybe the type of person recruited was more committed to a technology that has gone hand in hand with a vaguely libertarian ethos than a commitment to national security, whatever the implications for privacy and freedom." - BBC
There's an interesting notion here that is worth exploring. Does the Internet promote libertarian ideology? Has a historically minor group been able to rise in influence by finding a mouthpiece on an open platform?

The Internet, being newer than other forms of mass media, has yet to feel the weight of strict regulation. Online users have banded together in the past to preserve Net Neutrality, the clause that says that Internet service providers may not discriminate between different kinds of online content (there is no such thing as a pay-per-view website, thanks to net neutrality). In early 2012, major online hubs underwent protests against the SOPA and PIPA bills, measures that had potential to shut down entire websites over the illicit activities of minor groups. 

People who are very familiar with the Internet often enjoy the Internet enough where they are willing to organize against regulations that threaten its format. This love of the platform's openness generalizes to how even individual websites manage themselves. As we've discussed previously, websites like Reddit employ very minimal moderation from the administrators. If someone's ideas are incorrect or controversial - even dangerous - then it can be tolerated and fostered in the right place. You'll hear cries about censorship when websites undermining national security or devoted to piracy start being targeted by outside entities. Even on something as mundane as regulating the number of crappy noise posts you make, you'll get to hear people say that their right to free speech is being violated.

The general climate of online attitudes towards the Internet is that it should be as free as possible. The viewpoints range in legitimacy - some of it comes from appreciation of an open platform's offered privileges, and it's certainly true that such freedoms have led to truly wonderful things.  However, there are also a lot of viewpoints along this vein that likely come from entitlement issues. So of course, a political stance that has a similar distribution of viewpoints is probably going to catch on like wildfire on the Internet.

No really, it just coincides that well.

The Libertarian party's role in politics has never been particularly significant. The party partially stays lucrative by virtue of not being the Democratic or Republican parties. By being a popular ideology outside of the mainstream, a layperson might think themselves intelligent to go around saying that they're a libertarian. There's also an air of victimization, as we watch these poor disenfranchised free thinkers stand at the sidelines of the political machine. They can also attract positive attention online because they have enough spokesmen that are beloved by the entitled online crowd - South Park's foundersRush, and Penn Jilette, to name a few.

Plus, nobody particularly likes being told what to do (unless, like, you're into BDSM or something), so there's a certain appeal to the tiny third party that can sell themselves as supporting social liberalism and laissez-faire economics. At least, that's what they claim to support, but of course the party line gets a little more complicated when you dig deeper. Like any political ideology, you can find advocates that present interesting and thoughtful input, if you're into that sort of thing. But for a lot of libertarians you encounter, their arguments are shallow, flawed, sometimes juvenile, and, yes, entitled.

But the Internet eats it up! If Obama's online presence in 2012 impressed you, then you might want to look into Ron Paul's online presence. The Internet really likes Ron Paul. By talking about anti-war rhetoric and online freedom, Ron Paul somehow managed to mask how he's a creationist who doesn't really agree with separation of church and state, along with masking his racism. And since very few people actually understand how the economy works, it probably helps Paul's image that he keeps talking about the gold standard.

Speaking of not understanding how the economy works, it's also worth talking about the rise of bitcoin. Bitcoin is a "cryptocurrency", meaning individual units of currency are marked by unique digital codes. The big pull to bitcoin is that there is no central bank directing the value of the individual bitcoin - it is completely decentralized. So of course, the Internet libertarian crowd took a shine to it. Never mind that the currency is only really honored in illicit circles and that the currency value can fluctuate as much as 50% in less than a day. To the self-proclaimed "true believers" of the free market, bitcoin is the future.

Why does this exist?

So, okay, the Internet's fostered a certain amount of libertarian ideology among a large number its users. Why is this interesting?

Let's take a quick look back in 2012. Obama won the presidential election, Republicans were completely caught off guard by the result, and our previous speculation pointed to a lack of online awareness among conservatives as a contributing factor. Since then, Republicans have apparently tried to establish a greater online presence.

How are they trying to do this, you ask? A refining of arguments? Seeking greater awareness of the population's interests? No, no. With image macros. Call me cynical, but appealing to the Internet generation's interests through use of noise posts probably won't be a winning long-term strategy.

You know what will be a winning long-term strategy? When the Internet generation, inundated with vague libertarian rhetoric, gets old enough to run for governmental positions. We've already begun seeing it emerge with Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, and we might start seeing it a lot more.

The Republican party has been dominated by neoconservative rhetoric over the past 30 years. Such a position heavily relies on religious conviction to push its narrative. However, Americans are more secularized than ever before, and the traditional religious arguments that fuel neoconservative stances aren't resonating with people like they used to. When the current generation of religious family-values conservative dies out, who will be left? The libertarian factions of the party might be what we see come to prominence, especially if the Internet really is generating a large number of libertarians.

Hypothetically, will the Democratic party of 2020 be steeled for the libertarian rhetoric of a reborn Republican party? There's a good chance of this as well. With all of the online developments regarding social justice, it's easy to remember that progressives have a significant presence online as well. It just so happens that progressives and libertarians overlap on most social issues (including Internet freedom). The way an individual would decide on which camp they belong to would be how they'd like to work with governance to push their agenda.

The Internet has had a unique role in shifting the power balance between higher government, non-governmental organizations with capital, and the general population. Never before have individuals been so empowered against governmental and commercial shadiness. It might have gone to the heads of a few libertarians as a result - apparently Gary Johnson was surprised that his presidential run didn't get more votes. But there may be something fermenting right now that will emerge in fuller force later.

1 comment:

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