At stake, the future of democracy
The first chapter in the plot that culminated with the siege of the United States (US) Capitol by Donald Trump‘s supporters on January 6, 2021 was written over four years ago when, on December 4, 2016, a young man armed with an assault rifle walked into a pizza joint in Washington DC. He was led to believe that the basement was home to a paedophilia ring, run by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief.
This was the first time the US had come face to face in real life with a virtual cult of conspiracy theorists who believed that Trump was secretly waging a war against elite Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and the media. This would later evolve into what is known as QAnon. The followers of QAnon now believe that the 2020 election was rigged to stop Trump. In almost every media and social media video from the Capitol building, it is clear that the mob was made up of people who shared this conviction, and that they, ultimately, thought they were being patriotic.
What unfolded then was the manifestation of an epistemic crisis. In a November 2017 piece in the Vox, journalist David Roberts described this problem as “a split not just in what we value or want, but in who we trust, how we come to know things, and what we believe we know — what we believe exists, is true, has happened and is happening”.
This dangerous split in the perception of facts has continued to spread and grow through the digital veins and nodes of not just the underground internet but mainstream social media. None of the networks are untouched, whether it is Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, and their interventions have — as evidenced by the scenes that played out during the congressional confirmation of the election result — achieved nothing.
Many studies have shown that Trump’s rise to popularity has in part fuelled, as well as having been fuelled by, a rise in white nationalism. Racial fault lines have historically run deep within the US. But they appear to have widened during the closing years of the country’s first black President’s term. It was during this time — roughly 2008 to 2014 — when most of the social media platforms crossed the inflexion point in user base to be able to influence physical world conversation. Facebook crossed 200 million users in 2009 and the same year, YouTube reported the billionth time a video was watched on its website. This was not just an American phenomenon — the world went through a digital revolution, with computers being collapsed into smartphones and internet becoming cheaper and faster.
On the face of it, this digital revolution has been free of cost for the individual, while becoming one of the most profitable businesses in the history of mankind. Behind this success is the wonder of the algorithm — computer code that is designed to make sure you spend more time on a service, helping maximise advertising revenue. Algorithms do this by exposing users to people and content that they are most likely to engage with, invariably creating echo chambers of thought. A notable example of this is YouTube’s now-abandoned recommendations feature that, the company admitted, could have directed people to “videos promoting a phony miracle cure for a serious illness, claiming the earth is flat or making blatantly false claims about historic events like 9/11”.
These echo chambers have grown, trapping more and more people in a perpetual state of misinformation that often instead makes them feel empowered by reinforcing their biases. Once again, this is not new. The 2016 US election and the Brexit referendum revealed how ideological and political divisions were becoming harder to bridge. But what is now coming into view is the threat that selective perception of knowledge and belief may pose for the world.
Today, Holocaust deniers defy a past that unarguably took place, anti-vaxxers threaten a present consumed by a pandemic, and groups such as QAnon jeopardise the future of democracy. Common among the them is the diminishing of knowledge, institutional disciplines and experience — of history, which has chronicled the Holocaust in painful detail; of science, which has stopped diseases with vaccines that today require painstaking safeguards; and of democratic theory, that has evolved over centuries to find a delicate balance between the State and the people. The erosion of epistemic authority extends also to the press, the law and the legal profession and academia.
Conspiracy theories are, to be sure, a part of what motivated the mob at the US Capitol. But it was a large part and, while belief in conspiracy theories is not new and has existed for centuries, technology has helped bridge the distance between the fringe and the centre-stage. This has now triggered previously unseen interventions by tech companies. Trump has now been banned from Twitter and Facebook services. Amazon Web Services has kicked off conspiracy theory hotbed and QAnon den Parler from its cloud servers.
These steps are likely to have a noticeable impact in the immediate. But whether they will help stem the larger spread of alternate facts as reality is uncertain. At stake is the nature of modern democracy, which, at the very least, requires a shared perception of facts.
The views expressed are personal