We Weren’t Ready for a World Without Walls

The fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago was a giddy moment, but the subsequent rush to tear down walls everywhere has yielded a global system in which bad actors are no longer held accountable. 

People from East Germany greet citizens of West Germany at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on Dec. 22, 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall the month before.
People from East Germany greet citizens of West Germany at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on Dec. 22, 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall the month before. PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP via Getty Images

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At the time it seemed an unalloyed good. The fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989—30 years ago Saturday—meant more than just the end of the Cold War. It meant the vanquishing of all walls, a giddy flinging-open of all doors—to free markets, to common political values across the world, to the birth of a true international community.

Three decades on, what we’ve got is less an international community than a vast wilderness, one full of vicious creatures that prey on us and our polities anonymously from dark digital places. This is not the classic anarchy of the realist conception: The so-called international community lives on, raggedly, in the form of global institutions and a still persistent (if flagging) consensus on open trade and norms against criminality and terrorism. Few nation-states are going to war with each other. But neither are they coming together. Rather than behaving like a community—in which members are made to feel responsible for their actions and mutual respect is a necessity—our globalized world more often seems like an anti-community. It is a bottomless hiding place for bad actors—both real and algorithmic—who are no longer held accountable for their behavior, whether they are willfully disseminating lies over an internet manipulated by digital monopolies that don’t care a whit for social welfare (much less truth) or selling dodgy securitized loans around the globe to people whose reputation creditors no longer have to worry about, as banks once did in the actual communities they nurtured.

It can hardly be a surprise that, in response, we are seeing a demand for new walls—both real and metaphorical. And the most prominent booster of these proposed barriers is named Donald Trump. 

The Fall of the Wall 30 Years Ago

The U.S. president embodies the most salient dimensions of the post-Berlin Wall backlash. It’s not just in the most obvious sense—that Trump seeks the dismantling of the post-Cold War system and America’s role as global overseer of stability, that he is an unapologetic isolationist and protectionist, and that millions of Americans fervently support him on these issues. It’s that Trump, more than any other politician, has aroused the racial and ethnic fears and xenophobia of Americans who want the walls back—whether on the southern border with Mexico or in their own minds. Trump’s greatest strength among voters, the political pundit Ronald Brownstein tweeted this week, is that he “presents himself as a ‘human wall’ against the cultural and demographic changes that they find threatening.” 

But more than that, Trump is the political master of this digital wilderness. He is utterly at home in it, has become its greatest impresario, and the moment is as ripe for him in 2020 as it was in 2016. This is the grim subtext of the ongoing impeachment controversy, in which huge numbers of Trump supporters, dwelling determinedly in their separate reality, appear to buy Trump’s claim that his well-documented effort to hold U.S. foreign aid hostage to his personal political interests is just a malign fantasy concocted by his political enemies. The Washington media and the Democrats on Capitol Hill still don’t seem to grasp that their painstakingly reported accounts of Trump’s behavior, no matter how well corroborated by witnesses who include Trump’s chief of staff—and the White House’s own transcript of Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—are simply dismissed as fake news by tens of millions of angry Americans who still plan to vote for Trump. In the irremediable fracturing of community and consensus, there is no direction home to truth any longer, as evidenced by recent poll numbers. Nor will there be at any likely impeachment trial.

How did we get to this place? Begin with another recent milestone that led ultimately to the advent of Trump: the 50th anniversary of the birth of the internet. On Oct. 29, 1969, an engineer at UCLA flipped a switch, and computers began communicating with each other online. After a couple of decades, ordinary people did too, to the tune of more than 4 billion online users today. Like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of the internet at first seemed an unalloyed good, opening the door to a new kind of global community—and for a while it did. But the snowballing growth of the internet worldwide also began a long process by which we lost—gradually and then it seems suddenly—a personal sense of the people we were communicating with. And as people stopped worrying about whether they were offending or insulting someone in person—always hard to do in a real-life community, if you have any sense of decency or fear of retribution—they became freer and more reckless in their denunciations and defamation of others and more fierce in their alienation from any larger community. 

Of all the major political figures in the world, it was Trump who figured out first how to navigate and exploit this digital netherworld.

Of all the major political figures in the world, it was Trump who figured out first how to navigate and exploit this digital netherworld, how to conjure up slander and innuendo from all quarters and make it go viral without fear of effective contradiction. It was Trump who realized that truth or factuality no longer had a real home in the global anti-community, whether he was conjuring up a ludicrous conspiracy from Ukraine or another one from China, and that he had unwitting but eager allies in the social media monopolies and cable TV outlets. On some level, Trump also seemed to divine that years of algorithmic targeting by the social-media giants—of isolating individuals in their own “filter bubbles,” in Eli Pariser’s phrase—had shattered much of America’s collective sense of nationhood and any concept of a common basis of information. And so he proceeded to pick off the isolated, angry, and disaffected, one by one, playing to their prejudices by the millions. Today he feeds off this phenomenon daily, growing ever more brazen in his exploitation of it while his Democratic opponents dither over how to counter him. 

In a stunning academic paper published this fall, “Democracy Devouring Itself: The Rise of the Incompetent Citizen and the Appeal of Right Wing Populism,” University of California political scientist Shawn Rosenberg argued that the phenomena that Trump is exploiting “are not the result of fluctuating circumstances or a momentary retreat in the progress toward ever greater Democratization.” They are permanent, made so because the elites who kept democracy alive in the past have lost control of the conversation, since anyone can post anything these days and outshout the New York Times or Washington Post. The Cambridge Analytica- and Russian troll-driven rise of Trump and the falsely sold Brexit campaign are two malign results—and so are thousands of other false memes that linger on, like the idea that 2017’s Las Vegas mass shooter was a Hillary Clinton supporter, which trended on Google News and Facebook for far too long.

Thus the sense of a common community, once the hope of democrats everywhere, is fading from our grasp. The continuing progress of democracy, freedom, and justice—the inspiring lesson we all once took from the fall of the Berlin Wall—may no longer be a realistic hope. Bit by bit, “the collective norms and underpinnings of democratic society are being wiped out,” said Ramesh Srinivasan, the author of a new takedown of Silicon Valley’s social media giants, Beyond the Valley. “We used to have some implicit understanding of what the boundaries of communities are. All of that has been dissolved, decimated, and fractured by these penetrating, ubiquitous technologies. That has displaced people from any sense of grounding.” 

Srinivasan added: “Take Facebook as an example: It claims the language of community—in fact they call themselves the social infrastructure of the global community—but what they’re actually deciding is that there are no explicit norms for community that we have any power over. They are deciding who sees what based on decisions that are made that are hidden from us. … In the process of doing so, they have figured out a way to atomize individual users by feeding them and exposing them to content to support their own interests, which is splintering up communities.” 

Even some of the scientists who made the internet happen have lamented the metastasizing growth of a dark side in which bad actors, their identities concealed, spread defamatory information at will.

No one knows quite what to do about this. Even some of the scientists who made the internet happen have lamented the metastasizing growth of a dark side in which bad actors, their identities concealed, spread defamatory information at will. Much of this is happening for an oddly—and historically silly—technical reason: The internet is brilliantly efficient at directing communication to people and not so good at establishing where those communications came from. Thus, quite accidentally, the internet’s designers gave users a way out of accountability, turned anonymity into a weapon, and created a world where trolls, hackers, and bots could thrive. In an interview with Agence France-Presse marking the internet’s 50th anniversary, one of those scientists, UCLA’s Leonard Kleinrock, said he now realizes that what he helped create “is also a perfect formula for the dark side” and that he wishes he and others had had the foresight to build identifiers for users and data files into the system. As Walter Isaacson, the biographer of Steve Jobs, put it in a 2016 article about the internet: “There is a bug in its original design that at first seemed like a feature but has gradually, and now rapidly, been exploited by hackers and trolls and malevolent actors: Its packets are encoded with the address of their destination but not of their authentic origin.”

These structural problems with the “global community” raise fundamental issues about moral behavior: If you didn’t have to take personal responsibility for your actions, would you behave badly or well? In his Republic, Plato proposed that if people could somehow be rendered invisible—and therefore not be held accountable—then many would throw morality out the window, stealing and defaming others at will. Nearly 2,500 years later, we are living through a real-world test of that proposition, and human beings are not coming off well.

The challenge of accountability in the global system lies not only in cyberspace. Something analogous happened to the global financial industry, as we saw a decade ago in the Great Recession. Commercial banking used to be intimate and personal—and conservative in its behavior—because bankers were tied to a local or regional community. They were forced to make responsible loans to customers, and those customers usually had to be someone they trusted and a good credit risk. But as securitization took off and finance was globalized, loans could be packaged in arcane ways and sold off as securities to customers across the globe. Many banks no longer cared about lending standards because they could sell off the loans in great numbers to big investment banks on Wall Street, which in turn would sell them to customers around the world. Again, with every wall lowered, any sense of personal accountability was lost.

Some financial experts say this problem never quite went away after the financial crisis, despite the best efforts of Dodd-Frank and other reforms. Indeed, a new debt crisis may be brewing, driven again by the endless passing of the buck by bankers in the global system. “This is still a big problem. Individual and corporate debt are skyrocketing. Defaults on consumer debt are also skyrocketing,” said Michael Greenberger, a former senior U.S. financial regulator and a law professor at the University of Maryland. But “worries about good credit are virtually eliminated because the debt keeps being reconstituted in dizzying untraceable financially engineered projects” that extend worldwide, he said. 

These are, of course, all human-made problems, so that means, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy’s famous words about the nuclear arms race, they can be fixed by humans, too. Kleinrock wants to use blockchain technology to gradually attach reputations to people or things online, creating a record of trustworthiness. The European Union and many in the U.S. Congress—especially Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose rise in the 2020 Democratic race could well lead to Trump’s reelection—want to curtail or break up the social media monopolies. But they all have a long way to go. Meanwhile Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and others are absolving themselves of responsibility for fact-checkingeven as they resist giving up their monopolies over the deeply flawed community they helped create. 

Does that mean we’d prefer to go back 30 years—back to the bleak days of the Berlin Wall and the Cold War, when huge portions of humankind existed behind what appeared to be insurmountable ideological walls, enjoying no freedoms at all? Of course not. But neither can we say we’ve done especially well with the alternative.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh