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Will liberty and human rights survive the age of the Internet?

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by David Von Drehle (W Post)

Jan. 9, 2021 at 1:14 a.m. GMT+1

One of the great questions of our time — perhaps the greatest question — is whether liberty and human rights can survive the digital revolution. Big, abstract questions such as this can be difficult to pin down, but two events on Jan. 6, half a world apart, made the abstract painfully concrete.

In Washington, a collection of distortions, delusions and outright lies galvanized a mob of thousands to storm the Capitol in a brief but deadly insurrection. This unprecedented event was fomented inside a digitally networked community in which extraordinary claims are widely accepted on the basis of the wispiest nonsense. Selectively edited surveillance camera images become “proof” of massive election fraud. Hearsay testimony — so-and-so told me they heard such-and-such was true — becomes gospel.

No claim is too outlandish to be credited. The loser of an election can assert (and be believed) not just that he won, but that he won in “a massive landslide.” Hundreds, if not thousands, of the rioters were guided by their commitment to the proposition that American government is actually an Internet game in which an anonymous whistleblower is planting opaque clues as a means to unmask a huge conspiracy of child-murdering elected officials.

Anyone who has studied the workings of religious cults or mass manias understands that the human brain, far from being an engine of searing skepticism, is highly prone to dysfunction inside sealed and self-reinforcing information loops. Digital technology makes it exponentially easier to create such loops and to lose oneself inside them.

The lords of digital communication understood exactly what they were seeing as they watched the Trump Riot unfold. If someone as ridiculous and undisciplined as President Trump could mobilize a mob — not just of thugs, but of business executives, schoolteachers and small-town mayors — to assault the U.S. government, what could someone with focus do? Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg took the extraordinary step of banning the president of the United States from the world’s largest social network. Twitter temporarily locked the president’s account. There will be no freedom for their platforms, and therefore no profits, if those platforms are used to kill the golden goose of open society.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong on the same day, China dramatically underlined its answer to the question. More than 1,000 police officers fanned out across the formerly free city to arrest more than 50 pro-democracy activists. The Communist Party in Beijing has no intention of permitting anything like a freewheeling Internet to exist anywhere under its control. Digital technology is highly regulated in China, used to control the population rather than to liberate it.


The Post’s View: Social media is finally pulling the plug on Trump. We still must fight the lies.

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