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The Gatekeepers

Author: BBC Radio 4

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Jamie Bartlett traces the story of how and why social media companies have become the new information gatekeepers, and what the decisions they make mean for all of us.

It's 20 years since Facebook launched and the social media we know today - but it all started with a crazy idea to realise a hippie dream of building a "global consciousness". The plan was to build a connected world, where everyone could access everyone and everything all the time; to overthrow the old gatekeepers and set information free.

But social media didn't turn out that way. Instead of setting information free - a new digital elite conquered the world and turned themselves into the most powerful people on the planet.

Now, they get to decide what billions of us see every day. They can amplify you. They can delete you. Their platforms can be used to coordinate social movements and insurrections. A content moderator thousands of miles away can change your life. What does this mean for democracy - and our shared reality?

It starts in the summer of love, with a home-made book that taught the counter-culture how to build a new civilisation - and accidentally led to the creation of the first social media platform. But a momentous decision in the mid-2000s would turn social media into giant advertising companies - with dramatic ramifications for everyone. To understand how we arrived here, Jamie tracks down the author of a 1996 law which laid the groundwork for web 2.0; interviews the Twitter employees responsible for banning Donald Trump who explain the reality of 'content moderation'; and speaks to Facebook's most infamous whistle-blower in a dusty room in Oxford. He goes in search of people whose lives have been transformed by the decisions taken by these new gatekeepers: a father whose daughter's death was caused by social media, a Nobel prize winning journalist from the Philippines who decided to stand up to a dictator and the son of an Ethiopian professor determined to avenge his father's murder. Far from being over, Jamie discovers that the battle over who controls the world's information has only just begun.

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It all started with a crazy idea to realise a hippie dream of building a “global consciousness”. The plan was to build a connected world, where everyone could access everyone and everything all the time; to overthrow the old gatekeepers and set information free.But social media didn’t turn out that way. Instead of setting information free – a new digital elite conquered the world and turned themselves into the most powerful people on the planet.Now, they get to decide what billions of us see every day. They can amplify you. They can delete you. Their platforms can be used to coordinate social movements and insurrections. A content moderator thousands of miles away can change your life. What does this mean for democracy – and our shared reality?Jamie Bartlett traces the story of how and why social media have become the new information gatekeepers, and what the decisions they make mean for all of us.
1. We Are as Gods

1. We Are as Gods

2024-02-0529:541

For years something strange has been happening online, but most of us have no idea what’s really going on. Ethnic conflict in Myanmar. A chemistry professor is killed in Ethiopia. A teenager dies in her bedroom in London. A mob storms the Capitol in Washington DC.And that’s the moment that catches Jamie Bartlett’s eye. A few days after the riot, on January 9th 2021, the outgoing leader of the United States is suspended on social media. First Twitter, (renamed X), and then Facebook. A President silenced. It’s a glimpse behind the curtain. For the first time millions of us can see the power of technology companies. They can delete you. They can amplify you. They can change your life. Social media has conquered the world. Jamie Bartlett follows the roots of this story back to San Francisco : the home of Big Tech, where he meets one of the early pioneers of social media who tells him about a strange hand bound book, passed around hippy communes in the summer of love, and how it turned the world upside down. Archive Credits: Wolf of Wall Street, Paramount Pictures; Telecommunications Bill sign in, C-Span 1996; Bloomberg's TicTic 2019; Fox News 2020 Presenter: Jamie Bartlett Producer: Caitlin Smith Sound Design: Eloise Whitmore Music: Jeremy Warmsley Story Consultant: Kirsty Williams Researchers: Rachael Fulton, Elizabeth Ann Duffy and Juliet Conway Executive Producer: Peter McManus Commissioning editor: Dan Clarke. A BBC Scotland Production for BBC Radio 4New episodes released on Mondays. If you’re in the UK, listen to the latest episodes of The Gatekeepers, first on BBC Sounds: bbc.in/3Ui661u
2. Blitzscaling

2. Blitzscaling

2024-02-1229:382

From the rubble of the dot com crash, an ambitious young Harvard student with a passion for hacking and love of Roman emperors, sets up an exciting new website. Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook is an instant hit on college campuses. Soon it attracts the attention of Silicon Valley’s most successful - but controversial - venture capitalist, Peter Thiel. The company starts to scale up. But there’s one problem - how is it going to make money? Producer: Caitlin Smith Researchers: Rachael Fulton, Elizabeth Ann Duffy and Juliet Conway Executive Producer: Peter McManus Sound Design: Eloise Whitmore Music: Jeremy Warmsley Story Consultant: Kirsty Williams Commissioning editor: Dan Clarke A BBC Scotland Production for BBC Radio 4Archive: Bloomberg Quicktake, October 2019; C-Span, Telecommunications Bill signing, Feb 1996; Hoover Institute, Decemeber 2009; Startup Academy, March 2018; Makers, December 2012; New episodes released on Mondays. If you’re in the UK, listen to the latest episodes of The Gatekeepers, first on BBC Sounds: bbc.in/3Ui661u
The tech pioneers were right: all this connectivity and sharing is creating a new age of freedom and democracy. A global consciousness. Arab Spring, Barack Obama – both fuelled by social media - make the possibilities feel limitless.But, just as the dream to connect everyone is being realised - at the height of technological optimism - everything starts to fall apart.Producer: Caitlin Smith Sound Designer: Eloise Whitmore Mix: Gav Murchie Composer: Jeremy Warmsley Story Consultant: Kirsty Williams Executive Producer: Peter McManus + Heather Kane-Darling Research: Rachael Fulton, Elizabeth Ann Duffy and Juliet Conway Commissioned by Dan ClarkeArchive: C-NET Jan 2007; The Obama White House Archive, April 2011; C-Span, December 2008; C-Span 1996.New episodes released on Mondays. If you’re in the UK, listen to the latest episodes of The Gatekeepers, first on BBC Sounds: bbc.in/3Ui661u
4. Flood the Zone

4. Flood the Zone

2024-02-2631:26

2016 is a big election year. But something is going very wrong online. Journalists in America and the Philippines start to notice something strange going on online. In Manila, Maria Ressa - the editor of online news site, Rappler - discovers a sock puppet network of social media accounts, all pushing for the election of a strong leader. Someone like Rodrigo Duterte. Maria is suspicious. She makes an urgent call to Facebook.In Veles, in Macedonia, a young man called 'Marco' starts writing fake articles and posting them online. Very soon they're being read by millions of people around the globe and he's making huge sums of money. The online ecosystem is under attack. Producer: Caitlin Smith Sound design and mix: Eloise Whitmore Composer: Jeremy Warmsley Exec: Peter McManus Researcher: Juliet Conway and Elizabeth Ann Duffy Commissioned by Dan ClarkeArchive: BBC News, AP Archive, Bloomberg Television, CNN New episodes released on Mondays. If you’re in the UK, listen to the latest episodes of The Gatekeepers, first on BBC Sounds: bbc.in/3Ui661u
5. The Vortex

5. The Vortex

2024-03-0429:48

One of the strange things about our new media universe, is how innocuous decisions taken in Silicon Valley - turning a dial, or adding a few lines of code to increase engagement - can change your life. In 2016, Instagram introduced a new way of looking at content: the non-chronological feed. Now, instead of seeing what your friends were posting in the order they were posting it, an algorithm brought you stuff based on search history, likes, and interactions. That’s how tech engineers saw things back then - not just at Instagram, but at Pinterest, and other platforms too - if you engage with something, that must mean you want more of it. Ian Russell believes that this algorithmic change may have altered the course of his 14 year old daughter Molly's life.Presenter: Jamie Bartlett Producer: Caitlin Smith Sound Design: Eloise Whitmore Composer: Jeremy Warmsley Story Consultant: Kirsty Williams Execuitve Producer: Peter McManus Commissioner: Dan Clarke A BBC Scotland Production for Radio 4.Archive: 'Instagram implements big changes to users' feed, ditches chronologixal content' DT Daily; March 16th 2016. US Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Nov 7th 2023If you are suffering distress or despair and need support, including urgent support, a list of organisations that can help is available at bbc.co.uk/actionline.New episodes released on Mondays. If you’re in the UK, listen to the latest episodes of The Gatekeepers, first on BBC Sounds: bbc.in/3Ui661u
6. Arbiters of Truth

6. Arbiters of Truth

2024-03-1132:00

In 2018, the CEOs of our most popular social media companies are standing at a crossroad. After political outcry over Russian interference in the 2016 election and fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, tech leaders have a decision to make. They need to come up with ways of making their platforms safer. One route is a radical overhaul of the entire business model. The other is the biggest digital clean-up operation ever attempted, spanning hundreds of langauges and countries. Which path will they take? Producer: Caitlin Smith Sound Design: Eloise Whitmore Story Consultant: Kirsty Williams Composer: Jeremy Warmsley Executive Producer: Peter McManus Commissioned by Dan Clarke A BBC Scotland Production for BBC Radio 4.Archive: C-Net, April 2018; CBS News, 2020; Tucker Carlson on Fox News; BBC News 2021; EU Debates Tv, 2021 New episodes released on Mondays. If you’re in the UK, listen to the latest episodes of The Gatekeepers, first on BBC Sounds: bbc.in/3Ui661u
7. Rest of World

7. Rest of World

2024-03-1831:211

Jamie Bartlett travels to Minnesota to meet Abrham Meareg Amare. The young academic is seeking asylum in the States following the murder of his father in Ethiopia in 2021. In December 2022, Abrham became the lead complainant in a $2 billion lawsuit against Meta. Abrham believes that company is partly responsible for the death of his dad - a renowned chemistry professor - who was slandered and doxxed on Facebook, before being shot outside his home. Abrham says he reported the posts multiple times but they were not taken down, until eight days after the killing. Jamie meets the Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, who tells him that her decision to leak Meta's internal documents was driven by grave concerns about the way Meta operates in the Global South. Producer: Caitlin Smith Sound Design: Eloise Whitmore Story Consultant: Kirsty Williams Composer: Jeremy Warmsley Senior Producer: Peter McManus Commissioned by Dan Clarke for BBC Radio 4.Archive: C:Span, October 2021 New episodes released on Mondays. If you’re in the UK, listen to the latest episodes of The Gatekeepers, first on BBC Sounds: bbc.in/3Ui661u
8. I Sung of Chaos

8. I Sung of Chaos

2024-03-2533:03

On 30th September 2022 a coroner in London finds that Molly Russell "...died from an act of self-harm while suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content." The finding is a global first. Social media is ruled to have contributed to the death of a child. In San Francisco, around the same time, a strange story is unfolding inside Twitter HQ. Ever since Donald Trump's account was suspended on Twitter, tensions have been building around what is and isn't allowed on platforms. Elon Musk shares internal staff documents with a hand-picked group of journalists. One of those journalists suspects these documents show collusion between tech platforms and the US government. Politicians and civil groups on both the left and right from across the world, want the power and influence of these companies to be reigned in. There's even talk of repealing section 230 - the law that created modern social media. In this final episode, Jamie Bartlett asks if Silicon Valley's radical experiment is about to implode? And if the online world is chaotic now, what will advances in artificial intelligence mean for us all?Presenter: Jamie Bartlett Producer: Caitlin Smith Sound design: Eloise Whitmore Story Consultant: Kirsty Williams Senior Producer: Peter McManus Composer: Jeremy Warmsley Commissioned by Dan Clarke A BBC Scotland ProductionReading by John Lightbody Archive credits: BBC News, September 2022; CNN, 2022; C-Span, Jan 2024; BBC Archive, 1967New episodes released on Mondays. If you’re in the UK, listen to the latest episodes of The Gatekeepers, first on BBC Sounds: bbc.in/3Ui661uIf you are suffering distress or despair and need support, a list of organisations that can help is available at bbc.co.uk/actionline
Have you ever been trapped in a group chat nightmare, either grabbing the popcorn or wondering how to leave without causing a scene? Who’s the admin in your family group, and do they wield that power responsibly? Do you ever wonder if it’s appropriate to use emojis when talking to your boss? The rise of instant messaging has made our social and professional lives faster, more casual — and more chaotic. But amid all the discussion of the effects of public social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, there has been relatively little attention paid to private social networks—the direct message and the group chat — and how they are shaping our relationships and our world. In this series, Helen Lewis looks at the secret world of instant messaging, meeting a woman who married a chatbot, discovering how Russian dissidents are fighting a propaganda war, and hearing the inside story of how Britain ended up governed from a single WhatsApp group. It’s a strange new world where workplace rebellions are conducted through duelling emojis and military secrets are traded on chat forums about a video game . It’s also a world where you can never be quite sure who you’re talking to—and who’s eavesdropping on you.
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