It is challenging enough in ordinary times to try to understand other people’s circumstances and to assume the best about their motives when they say and do things that are offensive or dangerous.
These are not ordinary times. After nearly a year of pandemic lockdowns, months of civil unrest that sparked violence and looting, a tendentious post-election period, and last week’s violent events on Capitol Hill, few Americans seem receptive to calls for unity or empathy. On the contrary, there is a perceptible desire for score-settling in recent statements from the political and cultural elite; a sense, understandable after last week’s events, that a karmic moment has finally arrived for President Donald Trump and his supporters.
This week’s impeachment proceedings in the U.S. House of Representatives were a first step in dealing with Trump’s responsibility for the events of January 6, but it will do little to solve a larger challenge: persuading the tens of millions of people who continue to believe that a legitimate election was stolen from them that their belief is false.
Unfortunately, the solutions proposed by mainstream commentators are not likely to puncture the QAnon bubble: While many political leaders and commentators continue to insist that the motivating force behind the insurrectionary mob was white supremacy (and, as such, is ineradicable), others have taken to using the language of cults to describe the mob’s beliefs. Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post and Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times breezily discussed the finer points of “deprogramming” Trump supporters, and NBC’s Nicole Wallace called them “brainwashed Americans.”
Farhad Manjoo, writing in the New York Times, also invoked the language of cults when describing the Capitol mob. “Their mental model of America could not be undone even by the events playing out before their pepper-sprayed eyes,” he argued, “a depth of indoctrination that really does not bode well for our future.” This kind of rhetoric is meant to stoke fear in those who already mistrust anyone outside their political tribe. As Manjoo forebodingly noted, “Now that the conspiracy mob has effected such carnage on the real world, we’d be foolish to suppose that its appetite has been sated, rather than only whetted. Monstrous online lies are not done with us. The Capitol is just the beginning.”
Like a cult that constantly recalculates Doomsday, the implication is that such organized political violence is here to stay—unless something significant is done immediately. This was the justification made by social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook when they banned Donald Trump, and the logic of Amazon Web Services and Google when they castrated alternative platforms like Parler.
“It’s a seismic change,” Chris Nolan, CEO of Spot-On told the Wall Street Journal, “It’s a step on the part of the platforms to recognize that what happens on their platforms has consequences in real life.” This is either wildly disingenuous or naive. The engineers at Facebook and Twitter who design these platforms and the Big Tech executives that promote them have always had as their goal to make real-life more like the seamless, frictionless, virtual world. Slavering technology journalists like Manjoo spent years praising them for doing so, despite plenty of evidence that they were having a toxic effect on political life. No wonder so many Americans are skeptical of Big Tech’s sudden turnabout.
For more than a decade, skeptics’ arguments about how social media platforms posed challenges to traditional norms and institutions were drowned out by Silicon Valley boosters, many of whom were firmly entrenched in the Democratic Party and who pointed to Barack Obama’s digitally-enabled election victories as evidence that the new world they had created was an unalloyed good. Similarly, free-marketers on the right criticized any attempts to rein in Big Tech’s power as an unfair attack on innovation.
But innovation is not always positive. And as we are now realizing, these platforms haven’t only fostered new habits of mind among American voters; they’ve also rewarded a new kind of political leader, one that isn’t necessarily good for the health of democracy. Trump is the most notable example, of course, but this also includes Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Her frequent, live-streamed, emotional commentaries on social media are rewarded with outsized media attention, even though they are more like listening to someone describe their bad acid trip at Coachella than they are any insight into the workings of Congress.
Like Trump’s tweets, AOC’s Instagram insights are perfectly packaged for her most favored constituency—her social media followers—rather than the people she’s supposed to represent in Congress. Ocasio-Cortez’s efforts reward her personal brand while decaying our politics. But others on both sides of the aisle are embracing her combative online style. Among them, incoming freshmen Rep. Madison Cawthorn, who tweeted, “Cry more, lib” when he won his election, and Rep. Cori Bush, whose pinned Tweet on her Twitter account is the unifying message, “Expel the Republican members of Congress who incited the white supremacist attempted coup.”
And now those who steeped themselves in this virtual culture want you to believe they are capable of reining it in. Ocasio-Cortez recently called for a commission to combat misinformation (during a livestream on her Instagram, of course), saying, “We’re going to have to figure out how we rein in our media environment so you can’t just spew disinformation and misinformation.” She added, “It’s one thing to have differentiating [sic] opinions but it’s another thing entirely to just say things that are false.” (She paired this message with a repeat of the woke narrative that Republicans “don’t give a damn about the law … they give a damn about white supremacy; they care about preserving the social order and the mythology of whiteness.”)
AOC isn’t the only one proposing clampdowns on her political opponents under the guise of combating misinformation. Two professors at Duke University argued in The Hill that, “In his first week in office, President-elect Biden should announce a bipartisan commission to investigate the problem of misinformation and make recommendations about how to address it. The commission should take a broad approach and consider all possible solutions: incentives, voluntary industry reforms, education, regulations and new laws.”
But as our culture’s failed experiment in fact-checking has shown, even nominally objective investigations of this sort often end up offering partisan recommendations that undermine the public’s faith in the very concept of objectivity. For all of their claims of wanting bipartisanship, the Duke professors tip their hand by noting, “Journalism isn’t working, either, because many of President Trump’s supporters seek out the messages they want. They got the reality they preferred from conservative media commentators.” They make no mention of the many times liberal mainstream media outlets have done the same.
In a Washington Post story about Ashli Babbit, the woman shot and killed by police during the Capitol insurrection, the reporter notes that Babbit was an Obama supporter who had no trouble shifting her loyalties to Trump out of disillusionment with “the system.” She was looking for a purpose and a sense of belonging, and she found one among Trump supporters. Since 2016, that choice has marked her and many other Trump voters as “deplorable” in the eyes of the cultural elite in this country, sparking a vicious cycle of suspicion and anger for which the online world provided a perfect breeding ground.
It’s much easier to dismiss Babbit as a white supremacist and a Trump cultist than it is to think seriously about the decades of policy failures and social decay, the despair and paranoia and loneliness, and the lack of faith in institutions that motivated her actions. None of this is an excuse for violence, but it does explain the mindset we see on display in the terrifying number who now constitute the potentially violent. Our problem isn’t only that some Americans’ views have become distorted by being “very online.” It’s that we’ve created a political culture where too many people across the political spectrum feel so unheard that they genuinely believe violence and chaos are the only options left to them.