Last week, President Donald Trump retweeted three videos from a right-wing British extremist group, which purported to show Muslims engaging in senseless violence, and which were also misleading, inflammatory and deeply irresponsible. The president’s ongoing scapegoating of Muslims and his intentional exploitation of white fear and paranoia have contributed to a spike in U.S. hate crimes that happens to coincide with his entire tenure in national politics.
The effortlessness with which the president fell for yet another piece of loathsome propaganda was so total that it led to a row with America’s closest ally. Sajid Javid, a Muslim U.K cabinet minister, roundly condemned Trump on Twitter.
But the president’s retweets should lead us to ask a deeper question: whether social media, including Twitter, might be corrosive to the very fabric of democracy itself.
This wasn’t the first time Trump used his Twitter account to amplify hate speech or propagate obvious falsehoods. He has routinely tweeted absurd theories that would blow a 2.0 on any informational breathalyzer: for instance, his infamous claim that 3 million undocumented immigrants voted in the 2016 election—an idea he got online from a total crackpot, and which remains bereft of a single shred of evidence.
The president routinely grants legitimacy to dark voices—hateful misogynists masquerading as “men’s rights activists,” paranoid conspiracy theorists gripped by racist fervor, shameless fabulists who wouldn’t recognize the truth if it robbed them at gunpoint and people committed to getting famous by cynically deepening America’s polarization.
The fact that such charlatans seem normal and trustworthy to him is terrifying, and giving them the imprimatur of the presidency is one of the most dangerous and destructive things he has done.
The ability of users to spread false information online was actually one of the earliest critiques of what was once called “the blogosphere.” Without gatekeepers and fact-checkers, how can we tell fact from fiction?
Yet digital democracy enthusiasts were dismissive of criticism that the internet could be seized and manipulated by darker forces. And there is no question that social media platforms have aided righteous social forces from the Arab Spring to protests against the Muslim ban.
But it might be time to wonder whether occasional victories outweigh the indisputable evidence of what havoc these tools have wrought on other societies and now our own. In his 2011 book The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov wrote that “governments are quickly beginning to understand the immense intelligence value of information posted to social networking sites.” He criticized the belief, common in policymaking and academic circles at the time, that authoritarian regimes were “too dumb and technophobic to go on social networking sites.”
Morozov turned out to be prescient about how authoritarian elites would manipulate social media for their malevolent ends in places like Russia and China. And over the past year, political society has been rightly consumed by the realization that our most important and heavily used social media sites are unwitting vectors for all kinds of bad actors, including scam artists, foreign saboteurs and neo-Nazis. Solutions for these problems are urgently needed, and yet our tech overlords are pursuing them halfheartedly at best.
What none of us, including Morozov, could have foreseen was that the most important political office in the world’s longest-standing democracy would be captured by a man as stupid and gullible as the president of the United States, someone who would use Twitter to turn fact into “fake news,” hallucinogenic delusions into archived presidential statements, respected national institutions into the objects of his incoherent ire and the very idea of a shared reality into partisan war.
The president himself is a both a product and catalyst of these distortions. He only follows 45 (get it?) other accounts, creating an ideological cocoon in which he sees no criticism of himself, hears no one speak critically about his policies or his demeanor, understands no legitimate concerns from those who oppose him and has no access to dissenting voices who might help him recognize when he is the victim of informational warfare.
To be fair, many of us have crafted this for ourselves—on Facebook, in our communities and with our reading habits. The filter bubble effect of social media isn’t limited to one side of the aisle.
But it’s the president’s weaponization and amplification of the very worst features of social media—the treatment of total strangers with withering contempt, the erasure of any distinction between nonsense and news and the elevation of hucksters into positions of authority—that suggests social media’s sinister side could seriously endanger democracy itself.
The longer Trump stays in office, the greater the risk that America becomes Twitter, a place where all social trust has evaporated and that feels increasingly vulnerable to mayhem, decline and authoritarianism.
RT if you agree.
David Faris is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Roosevelt University in Chicago and a contributing writer at The Week. He is the author of Dissent and Revolution in a Digital Age: Social Media, Blogging and Activism in Egypt, as well as the forthcoming It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Progressives Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics.
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