Years ago, when social media was still in its early stages, Kit would tell interviewers that it was creating a profound disconnect. “Everybody has a voice now,” she said. “But nobody is heard.”
That disconnect — the potential for everyday Americans to have a voice without any real ability to rise above the din — blew up in Washington this past week. Suddenly, unleashed from every guard rail — even from Trump, who basically stepped back and said, “Have at it guys!” — the social media mob became real.
Kevin Haag, a Trump supporter from North Carolina, exulted to the New York Times about how good it all felt to be on the steps of the Capitol with his people. “We are here. See us! Notice us! Pay attention!”
Good job Kevin! Mission accomplished! The whole world was watching as windows were smashed, the Rotunda was rampaged, police were pepper-sprayed and beaten with fire extinguishers, and Senate offices were looted. You can’t do that on the internet!
The language of Twitter was on full display. “Joe and His Hoe, Hell No!” read a placard at the front lines. The fashions of Instagram and TikTok came to life — buffalo heads, painted faces, eagle heads and a profusion of militia couture. And an immediate feedback loop was created. Phones were everywhere, recording the social media mob taking physical form and then feeding those images back to social media.
I have a funny feeling we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Even as a majority of Americans were reeling in horror, disgust and sadness, some of the mob were ready to double down. Couy Griffin, a county commissioner from New Mexico, released a long video on the “Cowboys For Trump” Facebook page the following day saying that the next time this happened — and that it would happen again — there will be “blood running out of that building.” Someone else posted afterward, “We took the building once, we can take it again.”
What are we to make of all this? There’s so much to unpack, but a few things are clear.
Social media was the enabler of this event. It enabled messaging and organizing. It provided a megaphone for Trump’s “stolen election” narrative. It created a self-referential, self-reinforcing mob online that then took physical form. Of course, there were deeper forces at work too, but social media was the catalyst. Twitter and Facebook took a big step by pulling the plug on Trump, but it remains to be seen what kind of effect this will have on the digital mob going forward.
In many ways, social media is making us dumber. Most of the communication on social media is based on shock value, impulse, provocation; there’s very little authentic conversation or critical thinking. Anonymity enables ad hominem attacks, not dialogue. By and large, there’s no filter or gatekeeping function on social media. When I worked in the newsroom I used to say that a good newspaper created order out of chaos; it provided an interpretive hierarchy to the random flow of events. Social media is chaotic because there’s no organizing principle behind it except the loudest, most titillating voices. It can be curated, of course. I like my Facebook newsfeed because it’s made up of friends and family that I love and trust. But free-range social media is almost pre-literate, a thousand voices talking at once. And as Marshall McLuhan pointed out almost 60 years ago, “Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time.”
We are in uncharted waters. Our ubiquitous screens and the type of communication they enable — tweets, listicles, videos, memes — are changing the way we think, or at the extreme, undermining our inclination to think at all. If you read one thing this week make it “The Erosion of Deep Literacy,” an essay by Adam Garfinkel in National Affairs. “Thoughtful Americans are realizing that the pervasive IT-revolution devices upon which we are increasingly dependent are affecting our society and culture in significant but as yet uncertain ways . . . changing what, how, and why we read, and in turn what, how, and why we write and even think.”
We’re struggling with this in so many ways. As soon as Twitter took down Trump’s account, for example, social media was ablaze with charges of censorship, providing more fuel to the fire. Is it censorship? Twitter is a private company, on one hand, but on the other, as Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan noted, “This has become a crucially important channel of communication.” There just aren’t any clear lines yet.
Justice Anthony Kennedy saw this coming before he retired. “While we now be coming to the realization that the cyberage is a revolution of historic proportions, we cannot appreciate yet its full dimensions and vast potential to alter how we think, express ourselves and define who we want to be,” he wrote. “The forces and directions of the internet are so new, so protean and so far-reaching that courts must be conscious that what they say today might be obsolete tomorrow.”
Where does all this leave you and me, average Joes and Josephines? I’m not sure. In this advanced age of digital empowerment and sophistication it may come down to something my dad (and many dads) told me when I was a kid: “Don’t believe everything you read.” In the age of Twitter, 4Chan and Parler, that sounds like pretty good advice.