“It’s not real life; it’s just online.”
This is something I’ve heard a lot over the last few years. People have said it derisively, claiming that online friends aren’t real friends, and online relationships aren’t real relationship; and they’ve said it soothingly, so alarmists like me would stop overreacting about the threat from silly, lame online gamers who chatted incessantly about revolution but never actually made it out of their mum’s basement.
Then came the assault on the capitol building, and I do believe that’s the last time I heard anyone say “it’s not real life; it’s just online”. Some of the people who made it into the building were truly silly, albeit also dangerous; but many had been grimly, purposefully planning an organised revolution, complete with public executions.
It was real as could be, and it could not have happened without first starting online — with far-flung people meeting each other online, normalising, amplifying, and escalating each other’s worst and craziest ideas, and then working together to put it into action in real life.
It started out virtual, but five real people are dead in real life, and dozens, maybe hundreds, are going to jail. Things that start online can become very real, and we don’t have the luxury of assuming that threats will stay in the realm of the potential.
I’d like to shift gears now and talk about another kind of threat, and another kind of potential revolution.
It would be hard to understate how much Americans cherish freedom of speech. It’s perhaps especially hard to see it right now, when there is so much disingenuousness and so much confusion about the limits of that freedom.
In the final days of the Trump presidency, Twitter and Facebook suspended the president’s accounts, because he was disseminating dangerous lies, and the courts have ruled that Apple has the legal right to refuse to host Parler, the social media platform that refused to regulate dangerous speech on its site.
As often happens in a crisis, there was lots of confusion about who actually has what rights. When platforms moved to cut off people fomenting violent dissent, a certain number of innocent people got caught up in the broad net — myself included. My best guess is that a bot misread some combination of words as incendiary. At the same time, lots more people claimed to be innocent and unjustly persecuted, when in truth they were simply facing the overdue consequences of their misuse of free speech.
It’s fair to say that there was a purge of conservative voices on social media, but this happened not because conservatism itself is suffering persecution, but because so many conservatives have become cozy with people whose words and ideas are dangerous and violent, and whose online life very demonstrably spills out into real life.
So that’s a real thing. Far right domestic terrorists are by far the most pressing violent threat to the nation, and for the last four years, our president has been their friend. Now we have a new, more liberal administration now; and while our new president is himself fairly moderate, much of his administration is more progressive, perhaps even radical.
So even though the explosive threat from the far right is far from diffused, and even though I applaud ongoing efforts to clamp down on platforms that help that threat emerge from online into real life, I am well aware that this is not the only danger we face. Sometimes, under the guise of saving the nation from exploding, we instead run the risk of imploding.
“Never let a good crisis go to waste” is a real thing, too. There have always been Americans who adore the idea of quashing free speech, and who will use the current crisis to prolong the clamp-down on speech, and make it permanent, and expand it. Do not think that Trump and Qanon are the only ones who drum up fear and paranoia to exploit the masses.