by Michael Krieger, Liberty Blitzkrieg:
We have millions of people who are warehoused in almost a larval state in their apartments, watching tv, paying for their medical plans, and glued to this mindless opera of cultural decay that’s recited day after day in front of them. I mean, it’s horrible to imagine — and this is a creation to some degree of the world corporate state, that probably has to be addressed.
– Terence McKenna, The Internet is the Cure for TV (1994)
I know the title of this post seems strange in light of several factors. First, it’s been nearly twenty years since the dot-com bubble burst and it’s estimated that 3-4 billion people globally, or roughly 50% of the world’s population, already surf the web. Second, it’s become increasingly trendy in 2017 to highlight all the bad things about the internet, with social media typically singled out for the most intense and visceral criticism. Although I acknowledge some very real downsides of social media such as unhealthy obsession and addiction, most of the outrage we’ve seen this year has been focused on “fake news” and “Russia meddling.” In other words, most of the hysteria’s been political in nature, and would barely be registering anywhere near its current decibel level had Hillary Clinton won the election.
All of a sudden, there’s this insistence that social media is especially dangerous because it fosters the creation of echo chambers rife with tribal confirmation bias. Spaces where people with the same views simply talk to one another, and whoever’s willing to be the loudest and most aggressive at signaling to their tribe becomes the most popular. I don’t deny that this phenomenon exists, but like with anything else, you have to accept the bad with the good, and in the long-run the good far outweighs the bad. The main reason so many are having a panic attack right now is because the internet and social media allowed the public to talk to one another directly without being force-fed corporate media narratives and they decided to reject the chosen one, Hillary Clinton.
As such, the “very smart people” and “experts” have concluded the problem is with the voter, as opposed to the terrible candidates on offer or the corrupt system itself. This is the real reason for the current obsession with “fake news” and dangerous social media echo chambers. The elites are simply frustrated that their methods of propaganda no longer work as more and more people talk to each other online.
In contrast, I’m in the Masha Gessen camp when it comes to what actually happened during the 2016 election. Here’s what she said in a recent interview:
I want to really think differently than the very consistent liberal-media line of, Well if they just knew better they would vote differently. They’re under-informed, they’re under-educated. I think it really misunderstands something, which is that, just because people are not acting rationally in accordance with what you think is rational, doesn’t mean that they’re not acting rationally. And I think there’s perfectly rational voter behavior in voting for Trump. For economic reasons and social reasons.
Life is getting worse. You are less comfortable in your own house, in your own town, in your own skin. Your outlook for the future is worse with every passing year. And you conscientiously voted for people through this entire time. So it is actually an established fact that the system did not work for you. This representative democracy thing. And so you go and lob a grenade at it, when the grenade becomes available. And that is rational.
As such, it appears Trump’s election was indeed a rational response by an electorate fed up with the way things were going and faced with an unacceptable alternative. If that’s the case, then this entire narrative that the internet and social media leads to irrational choices because the unwashed plebs are talking to one another is completely wrong. In contrast, Trump’s election was a cry for help and a form of protest from a public that’s been abused and lied to by its own government for decades. I know several Trump voters personally, and not a single one of them really likes Trump, they just wanted to throw that democratic grenade at the system, which is their right as citizens. These were not votes for Trump as much as they were votes against Hillary. Period, end of story.
If that’s right, then the conventional wisdom that the internet and social media is destructive because it perpetuates “fake news” and leads to irrational outcomes is wrong. This isn’t to say Trump’s a good choice for President, but that his election was more than anything else a response to a discredited and corrupt status quo which refuses to reform or offer decent choices. If it wasn’t Trump in 2016, it would be someone worse down the road, and yes, there’s worse. Tom Cotton would be one example. In the long run, it’s probably for the best that we take the medicine now.
In the early days of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook everyone was brimming with optimism, yet after Hillary lost they suddenly became the biggest threat to society. While I have plenty of concerns about these platforms when it comes to censorship and privacy/surveillance issues, I remain in awe of the implications of people across the world easily talking to one another in real time and forming global networks. We’ve become so accustomed to social media at this point many of us already take for granted how extraordinary and revolutionary it really is. Nothing like this has ever happened before in human history, and it’s hard for me not to be extremely optimistic about its impact on life here on earth over a longer time horizon.
At this point, I want to offer a couple of real world examples to demonstrate what I mean. In yesterday’s piece, I quoted from an excellent article penned by Caitlin Johnstone. She’s an Australian woman who most of us never heard of two years ago, yet she consistently puts out some of the best commentary about U.S. politics by anyone, anywhere. How’s this possible and what does it mean?
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