In the days after the deadly coup attempt by Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol, we began to learn how much more deadly it could have been. If Officer Eugene Goodman hadn’t led a mob away from the Senate floor minutes before it was emptied, those zip-tie handcuffs later seen in the Senate might have been used on elected representatives. That noose and scaffold weren’t just for show. Kidnapping, lynching, straight-up murder: This is what the QAnon crowd (and some local GOP accounts) wanted, and what they’re still calling for in whatever dark corner of the internet will still have them.
Also disturbing, however, is the alternate universe in which we didn’t get this four-alarm wake-up call. With a crowd outside baying for blood being merely intimidating, more Republicans would have joined the effort to overturn a free and fair election. They would not have lost their top corporate donors for doing so. Capitol officers who took selfies with the invaders and put on MAGA hats would still be on duty. The Pentagon would not now be investigating whether any troops planned to protect Biden’s inauguration have anti-democratic sympathies.
The stochastic extremist cheerleader in the White House would now be splashing the gasoline of disinformation on every social media platform, facing no more sanction than a tag that says “this claim about election fraud is disputed.” Facebook wouldn’t even be making a half-hearted attempt to shut down groups devoted to spreading Trump’s Big Lie. And some 70,000 QAnon accounts removed by Twitter would be recruiting new members to its seditious conspiracy, which would also be festering unhindered on Parler.
To be sure, there is more work to be done. We’re still deep in the woods. According to the FBI, the threat of further insurrection is as strong as it was in its ignored warning of “war” on the Capitol. Trump Republicans are doing their best to gaslight us on what happened last week — no, guys, your supporters were not suddenly body-swapped with Antifa — while pivoting to hollow calls for “unity” as an alternative to impeachment. YouTube, even as it claims to be taking down all content claiming the election was “stolen,” still hasn’t removed Trump’s rambling 46-minute speech on election fraud. Nor, at time of writing, has it touched the account of the guy who helped organize the rally that became a coup.
Other tech giants don’t deserve a medal for acting this late in the game. Future generations will still debate the complicity of Mark Zuckerberg, and wonder why the hell it took Jack Dorsey this long to ban the account of a president who openly flouted Twitter’s terms of service repeatedly for years. Such flailing rage and barely-disguised racism (for example, glorifying violence against Black Lives Matter protesters) must never again be tolerated. Just hiding the tweet, an approach not even attempted until 2020, doesn’t work. Free speech is not legally limitless; it never was, especially not on a private platform. Rules must apply to all.
But for those of us who were extremely online this weekend, the lack of Trump’s account felt like a break in the clouds. For the first time in more than five years, we weren’t waking up to tweets that emboldened racists or breached democratic norms. (Remember, Trump was on his bullshit — Mexicans are rapists, Muslims must be banned — way back in 2015.) Some GOP leaders may have screamed “1984!”, but their replies were filled with people who have actually read Orwell’s book and know it’s about gaslighting, not censorship. They also complained about drops in follower counts, revealing how many violent QAnon fantasists were among their supporters.
The days of merely laughing at QAnon…should be behind us now.
I wasn’t the only Twitter user to notice that the troll count seemed to have dropped, too, even on more inconsequential matters. As an experiment, I mentioned how much I liked The Last Jedi. In the past, such a statement would have been met with a swarm of barely comprehensible haters. In this case, not everyone in my replies agreed, but everyone’s argument was reasonable. If Dorsey’s actions against QAnon have also taken some of the bite out of Gamergate, and the sexist Star Wars troll group known as the Fandom Menace, then the future of online discourse looks a little bit brighter.
This is incremental change; much more study into how online extremism spreads and festers is urgently needed. Over the coming weeks and months, we will learn how much of the mob at the Capitol was motivated by a Trump tweet, like this guy. But at least we have the most graphic example of how dangerous these platforms can be to guide us. The days of merely laughing at QAnon — which led some sites to initially claim that Capitol insurrectionists were doing it for the ‘gram — should be behind us now.
Free speech is a cornerstone of our culture. The First Amendment, which specifically prohibits Congress from clamping down on it, must be properly understood. It does not give anyone a pass to call for violence. Deplatforming works; it’s why there are no more fawning media profiles of Nazi trolls like Milo Yiannopoulos or Richard Spencer. Steve Bannon and Alex Jones still have freedom of speech online; they just have much less of an audience for their nonsense because social media companies woke up to how dangerous it was.
No one is naive enough to believe we can simply deplatform our way out of another insurrection or domestic terror attack.
No one is naive enough to believe we can simply deplatform our way out of another insurrection or domestic terror attack. Parler will likely find another home on the internet, likely outside the U.S., just as 8Chan (now 8kun) and the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer did. But Parler denizens understand the concept of consequences now. Celebrities who used the service cannot claim ignorance any more. The more it migrates to darker and darker corners, the more craven politicians will peace out from using it — while services like ParlerTakes continue to monitor the violent few who remain.
The Capitol rioters are being fired and boycotted; increasingly, they are being arrested on federal charges. At least 25 domestic terrorism cases are under investigation. The Overton window of political debate has shifted towards impeaching or using the 25th Amendment on a lawless president. And mainstream social media companies have belatedly recognized that their great power comes with great responsibility. As much in shock as we all still are this week, our eyes are open. The signs of a better, less racist, more peaceful online future are there, so long as we never stop being complacent about our role in building it.
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