Photo by fotografierende
There is a trope that social media, especially when combined with a 24-hour news cycle, makes people crazy and makes bad situations worse. Naturally, this is primarily a trope on social media itself: such is its tendency for fuse-tripping self-referentiality.
However, this is not a complete or exhaustive explanation. Social media dramatically widens the range of possible interpretations of and reactions to news, but the nature of these responses depends on the temperament of the news consumer. Unlike the legacy apparatus of centralized intermediation, which broadcasts nothing too outrageous, but nothing too accurate either, social media allows the news consumer to bypass curation and access either the most accurate content or the most outrageous, as mood and character dictate.
The extremes of this spectrum have jointly contributed to the bizarre spectacle that has been 2020 to date. I believe that most of these events—however seemingly tragic or horrifying—will be looked back upon as moments of profound clarity and impetus for change. The masks worn by those at the centre of many loci of power have slipped. They were enticed to let these masks slip by the outrageous provocations of social media, but they were also unmasked by the accuracy to be found there too.
By far the most obvious current crisis is the reaction to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The boilerplate narratives of both the right and left-wing commentariat about this have been singularly ridiculous—and have been proven so with unprecedented ease.
The protests began peacefully (this is easy to verify) and, thankfully, remained peaceful in many places most of the time. But, contrary to the standard leftist narrative, dutifully promoted by CNN and the New York Times, many descended into rioting and looting, more often than not due to infiltration by predominantly white Antifa members, and mostly to the detriment of black small business owners in the neighbourhoods destroyed.
In a perfect moment of mask slippage, David Rothschild, self-described activist and “lead singer in the pursuit of truth, transparency and equality for all human beings,” decided to hector an elderly black lady, whose business was destroyed, on the relative values of life and property.
Clearly, some heavy-handed policing was called for here and there. But, contrary to the standard right-wing narrative, dutifully promoted by Fox News and talk radio, many police beat the living shit out of peaceful protestors. Greg Doucette catalogued footage of this in a Twitter thread that, at the time of publication, is 502 tweets long. Of course, it helps that police brutality is precisely what kick started the crisis.
In another perfect moment of mask slippage, two Buffalo Police Department officers have been charged with assault for pushing an old man to the ground and fracturing his skull. The police first claimed that he tripped. This was a lie. When the officers left court after their arraignment, a band of their colleagues applauded them.
Fox News host Laura Ingraham, who once told LeBron James to “shut up and dribble,” rather than criticise Trump, decided to opine on air that Drew Brees, “is allowed to have his view about what kneeling and the flag means to him. I mean, he’s a person. He has some worth, I would imagine.” Circulation of the two clips side-by-side gained enough traction for James to issue an irate, but entirely justified, response, which, in turn, led Ingraham to issue an apology: a weak apology, but an on-air apology nonetheless. Together with protests by many other black activists, this led Roger Goodell to apologise on behalf of the NFL for its treatment of Colin Kaepernick’s extremely peaceful and respectful protest.
As we go to press, what can only be described as Antifastan has declared autonomy in downtown Seattle, much to the satisfaction of the city’s white mayor and the frustration of its black police chief. Mainstream media in the US have insisted both that the takeover is a right-wing conspiracy that isn’t even happening—and that it is happening and it’s just fantastic. Meanwhile, five minutes on Twitter will readily convince the open-minded that the Antifa leaders can’t even run a dodgeball game without provoking violent chaos.
Imagine how all these incidents would have been portrayed without social media. CNN would either have ignored the destruction of black neighbourhoods altogether, or would have claimed it was carried out by the police or by “white supremacists.” This terrifying clip of New York City descending into total anarchy would never have been aired on MSNBC. But then, the Buffalo Police Department would probably have got away with nearly killing a man on the grounds that he tripped and the Minneapolis Police Department probably would have got away with actually killing a man, because he resisted arrest—or for some other reason. Ingraham would continue to racebait—her audience none the wiser about her hypocrisy. Absolutely nothing would have changed at the NFL. And probably nobody would ever have heard of the shortlived Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, at least not prior to the FBI raid.
Of course, this phenomenon goes much further than this: such is 2020. Masks are slipping left, right and centre. There has been an ideological coup at the New York Times, soon to be replayed at every left-leaning institution of any cultural importance. As Bari Weiss chronicled—her allegations ironically proven by the fury of her younger colleagues—the real liberals at The Grey Lady are being outflanked and outnumbered by the party zeal of wokesters.
The coup came about because a sitting US Senator penned an editorial that, while extreme and provocative, reflects a view shared by perhaps 60% of the country. The woke faction described this as hate, a blasphemy against the Church of Social Justice, for which heads must roll.
And roll they did: the New York Times proceeded to publish a grovelling apology, which included excerpts from the private correspondence of some of those involved. The editor in question has now resigned. The masks have well and truly slipped.
Public health experts want in on the act, too. It turns out that the latest advances in science prove that the god of Social Justice protects will his followers from the novel coronavirus. Protests against the destruction of livelihoods during possibly the greatest mass hysteria of our times is dangerous and must be stopped using the full force of the state. But the real public health menace is racism.
The only conclusion here is that there is simply no such thing as a public health expert—at least, not today. Doctors seem to be terrified of what will become of their careers if they don’t tell brazen lies in public. The flagrant contradictions being peddled are both a test and a profession of faith. Of course, doctors do not believe these statements. But what better commitment to a higher cause than to publicly spout its irrational dogma?
During the early period of the lockdown, the political elites in the West signalled their commitment to a higher cause with an especially damaging profession of faith.
That higher cause was central banking, and the ideology of centralised control of capital and expert management of the economy. They expressed a commitment to the financial support—not of individuals, families or small businesses, many of whom have been coerced into ceasing all economic activity—but of the markets. (I have written more on this here.)
Literally trillions of dollars were invented out of thin air and handed directly to those whose incomes depend on perpetually inflating the prices of financial assets, irrespective of any relationship between these prices and economic reality. Meanwhile, blue-collar workers and many white-collar workers were furloughed and forced by the threat of police violence to sit at home and twiddle their thumbs. Imposing such de facto neofeudalism for long enough was bound to lead to social unrest.
I do not want to underestimate the damage done over these past few months or the lives lost. But a great deal of good will come from all this eventually because—for the first time in living memory—the lies of the powerful of all sides are painfully clear, in the cold light of genuine accountability that social media affords.
In Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, when Primitivo, a young and impressionable anti-fascist fighter, asks the American protagonist whether his country has many fascists, Robert replies, “there are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the time comes.”
An even more pertinent insight can be found in the poem from which Hemingway took the title of his novel. To those in power whom social media has irreversibly exposed I say:
Never send to know
For whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.