Today is the day after. It was one of those mornings where you wake up and wonder if yesterday was, in fact, real-life — or was it some movie or staged reality show that you watched? Today is the day after we realized that democracy always hangs by a thread. It is just one step away from being overrun by a demagogue and his lunatic fringe. Many of us who are not from here know this all too well. But many of my fellow Americans are just waking up to the reality that you have to work hard to keep your ideals, your freedoms, and your democracy.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about my continued optimism in America. In the context of the recent events, you might ask if I am beginning to have second thoughts.
My answer? Not really!
Despite a mob and a demagogue, the last line of our democracy — our institutions — held the line. We have a new president. We will have a new government. We are moving forward. Other places where such acts of sedition happen are not that lucky.
Let this also be a reminder that we now live in a world where social networks can turbocharge any conspiracy theory. The same networks can dispense fake news at the blink of an eye. Technology blurs the boundaries between reality and unreality. Whether here in America or elsewhere on the planet, this is the ultimate threat to any democratic way of life.
No matter our intelligence, capabilities, or willingness to be understood, we are going to be challenged by this new reality, and so we must recognize the events of the first week of 2021 for what they are: a harbinger of future struggles.
The biggest challenge for us as a society is our continued tendency to frame our reality in outdated terms. We now live in hybrid reality, and it is increasingly dominated by the networked presence. As my friend, Sean Gourley pointed out in a tweet, “What you are seeing here is the result of a carefully planned disinformation operation designed to attack democracy. This was their goal – this is what it looks like when a sustained information attack moves into the physical world.”
I have often said that words have consequences, and perhaps it is time for a little pause and reflection. Especially for those with power and reach. Today, the world’s newest richest guy turned a guy wearing a Viking hat in the U.S. House of Representatives into a meme. I don’t want to be a killjoy, but this isn’t a joking matter.
While our standards have obviously dropped recently, we do typically have expectations of our real-world leaders and their ability to serve and protect our communities. The same applies to our platforms — especially those that can instantly amplify misinformation. Facebook and other social platforms have now banned the outgoing president to prevent the spread of misinformation. Their actions are akin to bolting the door after the horse has already left the barn. The gatekeepers of the virtual world must be more mindful of their responsibilities moving forward.
“We would be better able to understand the severity of what is unfolding if we took each picture and mentally replaced every phone in the hands of the extremists with that of a gun,” Gourley observed.
He’s right. And unfortunately, he will likely have more opportunities to remind us of this in the future. For both good and bad, the Internet only exacerbates our tribalism. The question then becomes: How long can we hold the line when we can’t agree on where it is?
January 7, 2021, San Francisco.