During Mark Zuckerberg’s speech at Georgetown University on October 17—which Facebook modestly titled “Standing for Voice and Free Expression”—the 35-year-old tech tycoon dropped an interesting phrase: “the Fifth Estate.” It’s defined as public opinion via social media, unfiltered by the “old” media.
As Zuckerberg put it, “People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world—a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society. People no longer have to rely on traditional gatekeepers in politics or media to make their voices heard, and that has important consequences.”
The Fifth Estate is a play on the idea of the media as the Fourth Estate, which goes back to Thomas Carlyle in the early 19th century. The Fourth Estate was the press, Carlyle declared, and it was a new force in society, joining, sometimes even dominating, the earlier three estates—the nobility, the clergy, and everyone else.
In our time, Zuckerberg’s phrase caught many ears. For instance, Bali S. Srinivasan, a tech investor, was moved to tweet, “The concept of social media as the Fifth Estate may be the most enduring part of Zuck’s speech yesterday. As the Fourth Estate, the press self-conceptualizes its role as holding society accountable. As the Fifth Estate, social media is how society holds the press accountable.”
Now, as it happens, the phrase “Fifth Estate” has been around since at least 1965, when an alternative publication (in the those days, “alt” meant “left”) was launched in Detroit.
Yet the idea that digital technology would empower the Fifth Estate to keep track of the Fourth Estate is a newer concept. Of course, many will say that in hyping his version of a Fifth Estate, Zuckerberg is just tooting his own horn, since his product is social media. So of course he’s defining the Fifth Estate as something important and profound, even as more and more people have come to regard social media as a free-fire zone—or even as an open sewer.
In fact, the history of the Internet has been the story of high hopes dashed. That is, building on the meme-y phrase “information wants to be free,” various theorists had imagined that the Net would create a libertarian utopia, or a virtual community, or an army of Davids, or a free-agent nation.
Yet as we all know, the Internet didn’t work out that way. Its most profitable parts—the legal parts—were quickly enclosed by corporate giants. At first it was eBay, AOL, and Yahoo, and then more recently Amazon, Google, and, of course, Facebook.
In the meantime, the Net spawned a dark underworld, too, trafficking in drugs, terrorism, and who-knows-what-else. The big companies all say they shun such stuff, yet the web is so complicated—and often encrypted—that it’s hard to find the dividing line between legitimate e-commerce and illegitimate dealing. Last month, The New York Times informed us that two thirds of reported child porn went through Facebook’s encrypted Messenger app.
Yet in between the legal and illegal businesses is a whole ‘nother zone of spontaneous public opinion. This is the Fifth Estate, in which ordinary people, as Zuckerberg says, have “the power to express themselves,” and that is, indeed, “a new kind of force in the world.” And, oh yes, more than a few bots are also making their forceful voices heard.
To illustrate the power of the Fifth Estate, we might consider the fate of Shane Gillis, the comedian recently canceled by the “cancel culture” of online political correctness as amplified by the Fifth Estate. On September 12, NBC’s Saturday Night Live announced it was hiring Gillis. But then old inflammatory recordings surfaced, and so just four days later, Gillis was out of a job he’d never even started.
The Washington Post described the workings of the Fifth Estate last month (emphasis added):
In live comedy, the power dynamics tend to favor the comedian who has the stage, spotlight and microphone. If a couple of people in the audience are deeply offended, the comic may never know about it. But the Internet changed this relationship. The audience can do more than heckle a live performance; they can talk back, at length, and get a lot of people to listen.
Is this a happy story of a nasty comic being punished? Or a sad story of free speech being kiboshed? The Fifth Estate, in all its plenitude, has plenty of answers, although this much is for sure: Gillis is no longer working at SNL.
Some will say, of course, that the Fifth Estate, for all its ferocity, is more bark than bite. That is, if you just ignore it, nothing bad will happen to you. A case in point is Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. Earlier this year, when it was revealed that he had worn blackface in school, Northam was under enormous pressure to resign—which came from the Fifth Estate as well as the Fourth Estate. Yet Northam mostly ignored the criticism, and the estates storm blew itself out. Today, Northam, still in office, enjoys a perfectly respectable approval rating.
Yet at the same time, we can observe that the Fifth Estate introduces a new layer of complexity into society as a whole. And as such, observers will be puzzling over its relationship to the Fourth Estate, as well as to the other American estates—which, of course, are defined and enumerated in innumerable ways.
If this all sound rather baroque, or even byzantine, there’s a good reason—because it is.
And a conservative, of course, would say, ‘twas ever thus.
After all, the idea of estates is ancient, reaching back to the times when tribe and status ordained one’s place in the world. In the Middle Ages, the political idea of estates reached a zenith, and so it’s no accident that such modern conservative figures as Hillaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Richard Weaver, and Robert Nisbet have all embraced, one way or another, the idea of estates, as part of their general celebration of all things organic. Indeed, many on the right seem instinctively to savor the lumpy nuance of textured organizations, guided by hallowed traditions and venerated markers.
In the midst of such misty subtlety, conservatives urge caution about radical change. In the words of English statesman Edmund Burke, a proper understanding of societal complexity brings with it an opting for political humility: “The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity; and therefore no simple disposition of direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature or to the quality of his affairs.”
And so, Burke continued, “When I hear the simplicity of contrivance aimed at and boasted of in any new political constitutions, I am at no loss to decide that the artificers are grossly ignorant of their trade, or totally negligent of their duty. The simple governments are fundamentally defective, to say no worse of them.”
Thus the idea of estates in society stands in opposition to both the class-based leftism of the Marxists and also to the contract-based liberalism of, say, Sir Henry Maine and the Anglo-American worldview.
Indeed, both leftists and liberals might insist that the idea of estates is obsolete in the modern era. We have written constitutions now, as well as transparent international treaties and the high-speed Internet—why do we need privileges, hierarchies, and timeworn obscurantism?
To which the conservative could respond: hey, it was your guy, Mark Zuckerberg, who brought up the idea of estates. This Fifth Estate thing came out of Silicon Valley, not Hogwarts.
Indeed, as we think about the new semi-government that Zuckerberg is putting together for his digital estate—a planned new Oversight Board is intended to function as something like a supreme court in the Facebook realm, weighing and judging content—we can fairly conclude that Zuckerberg is the one who is making things complicated. That is, while the Oversight Board might aspire to synoptic simplicity, it will inevitably spend its time jousting with national governments, international governments, and local governments—and also with every conceivable business organization and interest group. Why, Facebook will even have to contend with the Fifth Estate!
So we can see: Facebook’s plans for the world, ambitious as they might be, will be countered by myriad other groups, and the result will be an electronic welter, one part pluralism and one part medievalism. Indeed, we are reminded of the old practice of conciliarism, when many different estates, from all over Europe, met to hash out the issues of the day.
Some might say it’s ironic that Zuckerberg is ushering in such an era, when old is new again. After all, Facebook, founded in 2003, has sliced through much of the Fourth Estate like a hot knife through avocado toast, and Zuckerberg himself is thought to harbor Caesar-like ambitions. Yet now, both the company and the man, mindful that they have many powerful enemies, are mostly working within the old power structure, hiring lobbyists and spinning new webs of layered complexity.
Zuckerberg must be thinking to himself, come what may, the many estates, including the Fifth Estate, are manageable. And of course, nobody ever said that medievalism then—or electro-medievalism now—was either democratic or egalitarian.
For a great lord of a new realm, that’s surely a comfort.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.