As was the case for many of you, the terrorist attack at the Capitol last Wednesday did not surprise me. Indeed for the past couple of months, I had been ambulating about the house, murmuring, “I hope they’ll be safe,”—“they” meaning Biden, Harris, the Democratic lawmakers and those running for Senate—and insisting my family toast to everyone’s health and well-being at dinner each night. With the combination of Trump’s chilling “stand back and stand by” call to arms, the anger and white supremacy so rife in our country, and the fact that half the country believes they have a fundamental right to possess assault weapons, how else could you think about the situation?
When the actual insurrection occurred, I glanced at the news and found myself feeling disgusted at the chaotic mass of dead-animal-wearing, onion-wielding Nazis, rather than shocked or shaken to my core. Then, I felt anger simmering below my composed surface—anger at how this terrorism, no doubt, could have been prevented. Surely the psychopaths along with their energized nutty following had taken to right-wing websites and social media to detail their plans even prior to Trump’s and Giuliani’s calls to action that same day?
The sadness came later, when I ventured onto Instagram Live to listen to representatives recount their stories from the day. I listened to the full hour of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s post, feeling devastated when I heard her say she experienced something (perhaps a run-in with one of the mobsters, although she did not specify) that day in which she truly believed she would be assassinated and saw moments from her life flash before her eyes. That brief statement really struck a nerve within me, and I paused for a moment, thinking of how hated AOC is by the Right, and how many of them really do want her dead. Had time and events on Wednesday not proceeded the way they did, she, along with Speaker Pelosi and many of their Democratic colleagues, really could have been murdered. And Pence too, yeah.
The sadness I felt was more than mere empathy. It was a reaction to the evilness in this mob. I hoped and still hope that all of those insurrectionists will be arrested and that Trump will suffer legal consequences for his actions.
As Trump was banned from Twitter due to “incitement of violence,” I also began thinking about the regulation of speech on social media. The banning of his account gave me no pause; I thought he deserved it and delighted in the future of not having to see his tweets—many of which were nasty and contained false information—blasted across media outlets.
Yet I noticed at the same time that not everyone was of the same mind on this one. Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, termed Twitter’s ban of Trump “problematic,” her spokesman Steffan Steibert articulating that freedom of opinion is a fundamental right. I myself used to hold this view with regard to the postings in social media, thinking that anything but unregulated speech online was the equivalent of a chapter in 1984. But I wonder now, would Merkel maintain the same position were a German Trump to emerge, challenging scientific fact and democracy and encouraging the idea of a modern civil war in the minds of his followers? Germany has a big problem with its own far-right, but they don’t have Trump, and they haven’t lived America’s last four years, watching half their country turn into a fascist cult. Experience is everything; it makes or breaks you and your opinions. It is clear that social media have a part to play in the far-right mess in this country, and it seems to me that these companies should have to accept some of the blame and regulate some of the hate out there.
In his speech to the Anti-Defamation League in 2019, the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen argues that social media such as Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter amount to “the greatest propaganda machine of all time,” due to their role in facilitating the spread of lies, as their algorithms recommended videos and posts of conspiracy theories and Islamophobia to viewers. As a response to Zuckerberg’s claims of not wanting to interfere with free expression, Baron Cohen proclaims, “This is not about limiting anyone’s free speech. This is about giving people, including some of the most reprehensible people on Earth, the biggest platform in history to reach a third of the planet. Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach.” And he’s right. Without these websites’ complicity, there would not be the same spread of lies, science denialism and hate in our country and around the world. There would not be as many people dead from the coronavirus, from white supremacists, and from extrajudicial killings all around the world, like in the Philippines, where social media has allowed a deep support of President Rodrigo Duterte to emerge.
Something has to change.