The democratization of outrage via social media has overturned the historical relationship between media and audience, allowing us to indulge in our worst instincts.
Rage is an emotion buried deep within the human character; it is omnipresent, contributing to wars, murders, arguments, jealousies, and assaults since time immemorial. Anger can drive humans to incredible feats of courage, honor, and justice just as easily as it can power unparalleled atrocities and destruction – sometimes in pursuit of the very same hatred. Wrath, a feeling which is quite uncomfortable for most people, can – paradoxically – be addictive.
The confluence of interest and outrage has been exploited by powerful actors for centuries. Christians, slaves, prisoners, and other dissidents were publicly executed to the cheers of baying Roman crowds; itinerant preachers pressed Crusades on an ever-willing public with tales of woe betide Christians in the Holy Land; increasingly absurd antisemitic lies were lapped up by peasants across Europe and used to justify expulsions and pogroms; the list goes on and on. Since the advent of print media, the addictiveness of outrage has been of prime benefit to the press. Newspapers helped drive the American and French Revolutions, publishing polemics against government policy and promoting a robust disputation of ideas about politics. Radical abolitionist papers pushed Americans to deal with the reality of slavery and the moral and economic arguments against it, often through the stoking of righteous indignation.
To paraphrase the great Mark Twain, “Rumors of Twitter’s death have been greatly exaggerated.”
[Note: This post may be a bit inside-baseball if you don’t follow tech news or aren’t active on Twitter. But it’ll be fun nonetheless!]
If you have been on Twitter recently, especially Thursday night, you would be forgiven for thinking that the world was coming to a rapid and violent end. Bluecheck journalists and media figures have been gnashing their teeth and rending their garments at the purported demise of Twitter now that billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk has taken over the site. The Washington Post is on “Twitter death watch,” while the New York Times claims that the microblogging site is “teetering on the edge.” The BBC asked if this really “is the end of Twitter,” and the American equivalent (in terms of public funding, not quality) NPR stated that a Twitter meltdown could be “likely.” Other news outlets have said that the site is in “chaos,” in the process of “imploding,” and “in tatters.” Journalists, pundits, and the so-called “Resistance” accounts who made a name for themselves on the back of their opposition to President Trump treated Thursday night on Twitter like it was the sinking of the Titanic, complete with the band playing on the way down while the lifeboats floated over to Mastodon, Instagram, or Post.News (whatever that is). #RIPTwitter was trending on the site, as users saw the writing on the wall and said their goodbyes to dear friends and random acquaintances.
Of course, all of those people are still on Twitter today, tweeting their daily activities and opinions as though nothing at all had happened. But why were they so terrified and certain that Twitter would completely collapse, and why are so many still saying the same thing?
Before I get into the meat of this blog post, I have to start with a few quick thoughts/disclaimers. First, what happened at the Capitol on January 6th was one of the most unpatriotic, abhorrent, depressing domestic political events that I’ve witnessed in my 31 years on this planet. It was an absolute disgrace and all of those rioters who assaulted the seat of our federal government should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. I will be writing more in depth about this failed insurrection later this week, as I want to wait for as much information as possible before committing my (many) thoughts to paper (or whatever the Internet equivalent is).
The main purpose of this post is to discuss one of the reactions to the events of the 6th, namely the concurrent banning of President Donald Trump from all social media platforms, as well as the deplatforming of Parler, a Twitter competitor favored by some Trump supporters and right-wing activists. Many have written about this already, but here’s my two cents as someone who is genuinely struggling with how to address this in a way that is consistent with my personal political and ideological framework. I support the right of private companies like Amazon, Twitter, Google, Apple, and Facebook to freely associate with whomever they please. As a free marketeer and a laissez-faire capitalist, I do not wish to see government regulation in most aspects of private commerce; I believe that the free association rights of individuals and businesses are sacrosanct, whether it involves a small-time religious baker in Colorado or a massive Silicon Valley conglomerate. Still, that doesn’t mean that I’m not disturbed by the seemingly coordinated deplatforming based on political speech that we’re seeing now. I’m most concerned by the appearance of coordination among supposedly neutral platforms who compete with one another, whether that coordination was actual cartel-like behavior or if it reflects a high level of ideological groupthink. Both of those options are very disturbing to me when it comes to my support for an absolutist position regarding free speech. Given the dissonance between my two preferred classical liberal positions on free association and speech in this instance, I am not sure what the right approach is. All I can say for certain is that it is a nuanced issue that merits deep consideration and a society-wide debate over our cultural values. Most of these positions and issues have been raised elsewhere, so I do not intend to dive too deeply into that heavily populated pool. However, there is one specific aspect of this issue that I have not seen addressed yet, so I wanted to write a bit more about it: the unforeseen impact of these corporate actions on the soft power of the American government.