Voltaire famously said “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” History is littered with examples of this and last week in the USA we saw the same thing played out again.
Lies and travelling trousers
In the age of the internet never was it more true that a lie can be half way around the world before the truth has got its trousers on. The more fanciful or ridiculous (absurd) the lie the faster it is likely to spread through social media platforms. Eyeballs mean money and money is the name of their game.
We need urgently to get over the initial, marvellous hippy notion that in the internet we created something that enables everyone to be a publisher, a journalist, a doughty warrior concerned only to make the world a better place. That is true, we have.
But it is now abundantly clear we have also created something which threatens that very idea. Last week was the proof, played out on TV.
How far are we willing to go to defend the world that emerged from and through the post-War settlement? The fate of Weimar should not be forgotten or what followed.
Oh the irony!
I am not the first person to note or comment on the irony. Governments have threatened to regulate social media platforms but now we see social media platforms doing something that looks very like regulating Governments.
Of course in a narrow way you could argue depriving Trump of his Twitter account or banning him from Facebook until he ceases to be President is not directly regulating a Government as such, but it is so close you would be hard-pressed to insert a Rizzla paper between the two.
Too little too late
Obviously, I approve of what Twitter and Facebook did but that isn’t the point. One might ask why they didn’t do it a lot sooner. But the larger questions are how it ever came to this in the first place and could it happen again?
Trump and his cronies incited the mob in an assault on democracy, but he and they could only get to a point where that was possible because social media platforms and elements of the mainstream media helped build him up. The USA is now on a national alert because of fears similar acts will be repeated in State Capitols on 20th January. Inauguration Day.
The intimacy, immediacy and scale of the internet made a “post-truth” society possible. We have had lying politicians and lying campaigners before, but in modern times we have never had lying politicians or campaigners who had the financial backing and tools such as the internet, with its handmaiden, profiling, to enable dangerous demagogues to reach and manipulate, the lumpen, the alienated-dispossessed, the angry and the frightened.
Preserving liberal values is about preserving decency
So, yes, of course, we should have serious discussions about what free speech means in the age of the internet but if liberal democracy and liberal values are threatened where does it say we must stand by and let them die because we are paralyzed by anxiety and by laws drawn up for entirely different times? We need a legal framework which comprehends and embraces life in the early 21st Century. And we need it sooner, not later.