The Gatekeepers

BBC Radio 4

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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1. We Are as Gods
1. We Are as Gods
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:
8. I Sung of Chaos
8. I Sung of Chaos
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: you are suffering distress or despair and need support, a list of organisations that can help is available at