Okay, my friends, I’m doing something unusual. Ordinarily, I wander off to gentle and personal places to write to you. But this week I’m offering you a ‘rant’ – which I promise I won’t often do. So if that’s off-putting for you – just skip me this week and return the next. I simply can’t leave last week behind without commenting and setting these thoughts free:
I won't offer you a list of news that's been flooding the media – I'm pretty sure you're aware of massacres that grab our attention almost daily. But I do want to ask you to consider a theory I have about the freedoms available to the online world. Here's what I'm thinking the 'morning after' a weekend of human-caused horrors.
I am currently communicating with you on a tool I believe is largely responsible for so much empowerment of evil – social media. Put aside the convenience, efficiency, and potential of social media platforms to be engines of positive change and opportunity. For me, its dark side is front and center. So many of the atrocities we experience have their roots in the reach and impact of social media platforms that have few boundaries and are far too massive to manage. The damage they do as outlets for lies and misinformation, as motivators for people to act out unthinkable acts, is concerning.
Let me give you an example that once would have seemed almost laughable. As the pandemic spread, a woman in Canada took to Telegram and built a following by posting anti-vaccine messages. In 2021 she was arrested after urging her followers to "shoot to kill" health care workers. More recently, Romana Didulo urged her followers in British Columbia to stop paying their utility bills – gas, water, power, property taxes, and credit card payments. She declared them "Free." Countless of her followers are complying with her directive because she is the "Queen"of Canada. How did this happen? Didulo (a native of the Philippines) is aligned with QAnon and, as her following on Telegram grew to 75,000, declared herself Queen and is duly issuing royal orders. Of course, many of her 'subjects' are suffering without resources to sustain daily life. Still, they believe, and recently launched a crowd-funding effort to send her touring Canada in a rented RV along with some of her 'subjects.' The Queen's Canadian gambit says a great deal about two things – the gullibility of so many people and the untamed power of social media.
The recent and tragic killing of 10 people (eight of whom were black) in a Buffalo, NY, supermarket highlights the influence social media offers and delivers. That 18-year-old Payton Gendron's, hate-filled, racist message was live on Twitch before it was removed (and well after it was circulated on secondary media) is bloody testimony to a no-holds-barred approach to free speech.
Every day and night, there are thousands of examples of Americans exercising their First Amendment rights on social media – no matter the consequences. And increasingly, their posts rest heavily on an old racist theory that has new life on social media. It is, in fact, central to Gendron's motivation to massacre. It's a paranoid ideology with roots in the Civil War. Adherents proclaimed that awarding freedom to formerly enslaved black people threatened to "Replace" the dominance of the white race. That old Replacement Theory is currently alive and spreading - thanks to the reach of social media. What's new is how this theory – once targeting black populations now includes anyone who is not white. True believers have easy access to recruit, brainwash, and activate others through widely available online platforms where anything goes. They can (and do) carry out action plans that make them 'heroes' and connect them to a remote, vast audience of like-minded friends.
Attempts to rein in the emergent threats of social media have largely failed. In America, we grapple with a concept of free speech that wasn't even imagined when the First Amendment was thoughtfully written. Concepts of rights and freedoms are chiseled into the psyche of this country's history and philosophy. But still, with recognition that times and conditions change, we've made some concessions. After passionate debate about personal freedoms, we've accepted and learned to live with the requirement to wear seatbelts in cars. We can't shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater that's not on fire. Slavery is illegal. Women have voting rights. Speed limits are enforced. Many limitations on individual rights such as these are based on protecting the greater good – and reflect the environment of changing times.
In this context, social media is fully embedded in America and worldwide. Controls have been developed "on the fly," and because online communication platforms cross borders, rules are challenging to apply. Still, evidence of its power to transform life in beneficial and devastating ways is evident. Unfortunately, we're making very little progress toward creating an environment that offers both freedom and responsibility.
Evidence of this conflict was recently expressed when Elon Musk announced his intentions to buy Twitter. Among his first declarations about the platform was declaring himself a "Free speech absolutist." His remarks indicated there would be no monitoring of content on Twitter – whether that was to incite a government insurrection, threaten, or slander. Would his open model live-stream users such as Gendron in Buffalo, or the gunman who murdered 51 people at a mosque in Australia, or the killer at the Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, the house party in Pennsylvania, the North Carolina Shopping mall, the New York subway, or outside the Sacramento nightclub? All these massacres happened (so far) this year.
Most of these unthinkable incidents have an online connection – perhaps it was to seek compatriots and sympathizers, gain a tainted mention in history books, express hate or fear, or to be 'somebody' in the online eyes of the world. I only fear that access to a global audience will magnify even more events as loners and losers and haters flock to social media that lacks a social conscience.
Thanks for traveling with me through the good, the bad, and downright ugly! On a brighter side, I hope that spring has enveloped your home with warmth and promise. I know that my day is always better when I hear from you - please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts.
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