There is a clear line of connection from the attempted insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6 to the anti-vax, anti-lockdown, anti-mask, and anti-science protests and ensuing riots in Dublin on February 27. Both were conceived, planned, and organised in plain sight on social media. That same social media had incubated the baseless, reality-defying ‘alternative facts’ that provided the fuel to ignite the outrage that brought people out on the streets.

Fine Gael TD Neale Richmond put it this way:

Dangerous conspiracy theorists preyed on the genuine frustrations of many to recklessly bring hundreds of people out in protest against necessary public health measures. . . . It is clear that subversive elements used the opportunity presented by this protest to spread their far-right propaganda, dangerous anti-science rhetoric and ultimately attack our gardaí (irishexaminer.com).

A member of the Garda Representative Association (GRA), Damien McCarthy, said that there had been very little notice about the protest and no official notification, as there should have been about a public event. Planning for this protest, however, like the planning for the insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, was openly available on social media. And, like the security forces at the Capitol, where the National Guard were called up but restricted to traffic duties, the Gardaí didn’t take sufficient advantage of the information freely available to them.

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris knew the script well enough, nevertheless, to claim that ‘radical left’ activists were among the rioters. Trumpists blamed ‘antifa’ dressed up as Trump supporters for the violence at the capital, even though  FBI Director Wray testified that Antifa was not involved in the insurrection. And even though ‘antifa’ is an ideology, not a political organisation. There are a number of anti-fascist groups around the world, and there have been since the thirties when opponents of fascism fought against Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler. But there is no single, international organisation.

Harris was forced to retract that clearly unfounded claim the next day, but it leaves open to question the source of his misinformation and the direction of his policies. We’ve had earlier clues.

There was general outrage from a number of different groups following the eviction in September 2018 of peaceful protesters from 34 North Frederick Street by unidentified men wearing balaclavas supported by masked gardaí. There was no explanation for inclusion in the garda presence, according to Take Back the City, of a Riot Squad, a Public Order Unit, a Garda Transport Connect van, and a Garda jeep with dogs. There was no explanation as to why the gardaí felt they needed ‘fire retardant hoods’ to support the eviction of non-violent protesters.

Drew Harris later conceded that ‘the form of dress used at the event was not correct as it is policy that if it is deemed necessary to use the hood then it should be used in tandem with a protective helmet’.

A dress-code violation, then.

‘Truth spheres’

In retrospect, the creation of polarised, discrete, and disconnected ‘truth spheres’ was always going to be a consequence of the content manipulation on social media platforms. Algorithms created separate information tunnels leading to echo-chamber worlds fed not with information but with affirmation of what the algorithms detected the recipients had already liked, hugged, or laughed at.

Each sphere built up its own ‘truths’ that their followers believed were incontrovertible, having seen nothing to persuade them otherwise: anything that might have offered a different perspective had been sent down a different tunnel. These ‘truths’ may tell readers where to find the best sites for train spotting, or how to crochet booties for your dog, or that the US Democrats are all Satan-worshipping, child-abusing cannibals and Trump has been sent by God to rout them out of Government.

And each consumer of these curated ‘realities’ sincerely and passionately believes that everyone else is being fooled by fake news.

The events of January 6 in DC would not have been possible without social media identifying and then targeting new recruits for a scary coalition of white supremacists, neo-nazis, and other violent right-wing groups nurtured and fed by those algorithms and courted by Trump since Charlottesville at least.

QAnon followers have been groomed online for precisely this moment, when the ‘patriots’ would finally breach the citadel. This was The Storm, when Trump and his disciples (He had said, ‘we’ will walk to the Capitol; he had said, ‘I’ll be with you’.) took over the Capitol to rid it of those alleged deep-state Satanists who had allegedly rigged November’s election (except for those States where Trump won).

They had been standing back and standing by, waiting for the word. It came in the form of repeated invitations to DC on January 6. As Dan Barry and Sheera Frenkel in the New York Times put it, Trump all but circled the date: ‘Be There. Will Be Wild!’. The RSVPs flooded in.

‘If you are not prepared to use force to defend civilization, then be prepared to accept barbarism,’ a member of the Red-State Secession group on Facebook posted on Tuesday, the eve of the appointed day, Jan. 6.

Beneath it, dozens of people posted comments that included photographs of the weaponry—including assault rifles—that they said they planned to bring to the rally. There were also comments referring to ‘occupying’ the Capitol and forcing Congress to overturn the November election. 

Special vitriol was reserved for Republicans who had not sufficiently supported Trump in his efforts to overturn the election. This in spite of the fact that it had been declared both free and fair by Chris Krebs, a Trump-appointed senior Department of Homeland Security official and cybersecurity expert whose job it was to oversee the voting. Trump responded by firing him.

On January 6, as he pumped his troops up, Trump still claimed that Mike Pence could win the day—and the election—for them. This despite Pence having told him repeatedly as late as that morning that it wasn’t possible because his function was purely performative. Trump had a clear strategy: he waited until the rioting had started before he tweeted that Pence hadn’t had the courage to do what he had to do. The tweet was announced to the rioters by bullhorn; they responded with chants of ‘Hang Mike Pence’. Somebody even erected an apparently functioning gallows.

This hyped-up melee of violent hate groups and deluded disciples marched to where Trump had pointed them, primed and ready for ‘trial by combat’, as Rudy had instructed them, eager to start ‘kicking ass’, as Mo Brooks had said:

Our ancestors sacrificed their blood, their sweat, their tears, their fortunes, and their lives. . . . So, I have a question for you: Are you willing to do the same?

Jollied along by Trump’s words—‘you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong’—they chanted their way through their ‘hit list’, with Nancy Pelosi at the top. Mike Pence easily displaced her from pole position, however, when Trump tweeted about his ‘cowardice’.

Trump, or in this case his disciples, were going to empty the Capitol of traitors—just as Jesus had emptied the Temple of moneychangers—while chanting ‘Hang Mike Pence’.

Trudging away

Andrew McCormick, in The Nation, described what he saw as he walked from where he lived to the Capitol as Part insurrection, part happy hour. Trump supporters lost their minds’. As the day wound down and curfew approached, he watched ‘a sea of Trump supporters trudging away’, some disconsolate, some still energised enough to chant, some ready to party. He closed his article with a short, scary, overheard conversation:

‘This is not America,’ a woman said to a small group, her voice shaking. She was crying, hysterical. ‘They’re shooting at us. They’re supposed to shoot BLM, but they’re shooting the patriots.’

A man, possibly her husband, comforted her: ‘Don’t worry, honey. We showed them today. We showed them what we’re all about.’

The combined delusion and passionate emotion in those seven sentences summarise the day: a distressed woman ‘crying, hysterical’, her voice shaking—not from fear that they were being shot at (they weren’t) but from outrage that such a thing was conceivable. ‘They’re shooting at US! They’re supposed to shoot BLM, but they’re shooting the patriots.’

Those sentences, spoken in those circumstances, come from a ‘reality’ I simply don’t recognise. None of those factoids came down my social media truth tunnel. How am I to understand the conviction that the police ‘are supposed to shoot’ Black Lives Matter demonstrators but are supposed to stand back and let these rioters go home, their duty done. How can we even conceive of the notion that there should be no punishment for those ‘patriots’ who had killed one police officer while seriously injuring 140 more—including one who may lose an eye and another who lost several fingers—while attempting to overthrow democracy? Four more people among the protestors/rioters died that day and two more police officers committed suicide over the following weekend.

There’s no space for dialogue here because, as I struggle to unpack their delusions, they, in turn, believe that I am, at best, deluded in that struggle. At worst, I will be judged as being Satan’s advocate. And a huge chunk of the responsibility for that polarisation belongs with the algorithmic manipulation of information by social media.

Free speech

Of course, there are other ways of delivering ‘fake news’—that’s what advertising and propaganda are all about. Look at this picture of healthy young people taking a break from surfing to smoke and flirt on the beach. What could possibly be wrong with that message? Could it be that one in every two smokers will die due to a smoking-related disease?

And how different would the geopolitical world be if nobody had been willing to believe the lie that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction?

But nothing has ever had the reach and the lack of respect for facts that social media has attained.

The main social media platforms didn’t actively intend to guide their consumers into crazy cults that would end up trying to overturn American democracy. They didn’t intentionally radicalise those protestors who shot fireworks into the faces of Gardaí last Saturday. Nevertheless, without those algorithms, QAnon’s lunatic conspiracy theorists would never have been in a position to groom so many people unchallenged. Members of white supremacist, racist, and domestic terror groups would have had difficulty finding each other without those algorithms. They would have had no carefully curated platform from which to preach to the converted and to those in the process of conversion.

Without the algorithmic parcelling out of what Facebook et al decided people wanted to hear, those separate truth spheres could not have grown and developed as they did. Lack of regulation by the big tech multi-billionaires made it possible for bad actors to manipulate the algorithms in order to spread insane conspiracy theories and dangerous propaganda. It made it possible for those bad actors to prey on ‘the genuine frustrations of many to . . . spread their far-right propaganda, dangerous anti-science rhetoric and ultimately attack our gardaí’ last Saturday in Dublin.

Free speech is the foundation of all civil rights and it is absolute—you can’t be a little bit free. But this isn’t ‘free’ speech.

And Mark Zuckerberg justifies it all as free speech. Lies, hate speech, and grooming by bad actors are all allowed because free speech is a fundamental prerequisite of democracy. I agree; free speech is the foundation of all civil rights and it is absolute—you can’t be a little bit free. Censorship simply replaces the perspective of the original writer with the censor’s perspective.

But this isn’t ‘free’ speech. This is manipulated speech—manipulated specifically, even if inadvertently, to prevent the intrusion of any alternative perspective that would dilute the Kool-Aid being prepared for us by the crazies.

That is censorship and it’s time for social media platforms to accept that, and to accept their responsibility for the consequences of their policies and practices, even the unintended ones.

We may have reason to hope. Zuckerberg and the other tech giants have had their cough softened by their clear part in enabling the failed coup. It remains to be seen whether their present withdrawal in horror will result in a permanent and meaningful change in their practices or, alternatively, is just a PR reflex. I’m not really expecting them to drop the algorithms any time soon—or at all—without legislation that would be unpopular, extraordinarily difficult to write, and fought all the way to Supreme Courts on both sides of the Atlantic and all across the Pacific. And supported by the very people who have been most injured by its lack.

So, at least for now, we’re all going to have to be our own fact-checkers and question everything, especially what ‘everybody knows’. And we all need to start with questioning our own comfortable assumptions.

But how do we get the social-media-driven, post-truth, free-for-all toothpaste back into the tube and without that, how can we ever get back to a world where real, uncurated communication is possible?

On the bright(ish) side

But perhaps that pessimism comes from the dark place where I too am trapped by my grooming in the social media wars. Joe Biden’s first approval rating is 62 percent—higher than any other president since Clinton, higher than Trump’s at any time during his four years in office, and higher than the percentage of the population who voted for Biden. These early numbers suggest that, although Americans are polarised when it comes to culture wars—the Libtards vs the Retrumplicans—there is shared ground when it comes to policy.

The same message showed up in the down-ballot voting, where Republicans fared better than Trump did. Enough of those who voted for Biden voted Republican further down the ticket to nix the Democrats’ expectation of increasing their majority in the House. That is, part of the vote that won Biden the election was anti-Trump, but not anti-Republican.

Biden in the White House is emphasising his policies and steering well clear of Trump’s second impeachment, the threatened court cases both civil and criminal, the decision by the Supreme Court giving prosecuting attorneys access to Trump’s tax returns, and all related matters. No doubt he will do the same if the Department of Justice takes up the legal slack—as Mitch McConnell suggested in his last, gleeful, stab in Trump’s back.

Republicans in Congress may not want to anger their base by voting openly to disqualify Trump from office. But they very obviously wish for Trump to be disqualified by somebody else. The pointed gestures toward the courts by McConnell and his allies are a clear signal that those judges shouldn’t extend to Trump any special protection.

Biden has concentrated instead on getting his extremely popular Covid-19 relief package through Congress. According to a new poll from Monmouth University, more than two-thirds of Americans (68 percent) overall, including 53 percent of Republicans, 65 percent of independents, and 85 percent of Democrats, agreed that $1,400 direct payments should be left untouched in the bill while Republicans in Congress did all they could to see that they were cut. It was finally passed by the Senate, 50 to 49, with the $1,400 direct payments intact.

No doubt Biden will continue ignoring the former guy’s legal problems while he moves on to other priorities, including voting rights reform and an ambitious infrastructure package.

At the same time, he is inflicting the worst possible wound on the fragile ego-driven sense of self with which the former guy is cursed: he’s side-lining him. If there’s a way around the malignity of the Trump era it is to relegate him to the former-guy status. To back away from the culture wars he pushed and to concentrate on policy, where Biden is strongest. And the majority of Americans—62 percent—agree.  

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