In the Greek epic “The Iliad,” Paris — a character described as having “neither wit nor courage” — gains a reputation for fighting with bow and arrow. Instead of capitalizing on several opportunities to end the Trojan War, Paris hid behind pillars and shot arrows from a distance.
His cowardice started the war, and his incompetence wounded Diamedes and killed Achilles. Wrote one literary critic, “His weapon offer(ed) him great power, yet (became) a fatal talisman that (led) him toward despair and feebleness.”
Our modern-day Paris, from his refuge in the Oval Office, has unloaded his quiver for four years now, leading to a battle erupted on the steps and in the halls of the Capitol. And now, after inciting the attack, Donald Trump’s bow was snatched in exchange for a badge: The Man Big Tech Couldn’t Stop.
Twitter, Facebook and Instagram — who mobilized to ban Trump from their platforms after Wednesday’s chaos — made a principled and correct move. The capital was under terrorist attack, and the president used his weapon-of-choice, his social media accounts, to offer validation to the aggressors. Keeping Trump off the two megaplatforms will not silence him (Twitter reinstated his account after 12 hours), but it may have lessened a potentially devastating eruption.
The only question remaining is why social media didn’t curb Trump’s lies sooner.
Wednesday’s insurrection, though incited by the president, was not a reaction to the election alone. Instead, Trump’s term-long volley of vitriol on social media has added kindling to a heap of combustibles. We’d seen sparks before — Charlottesville, Seattle, the photo op at St. John’s Church — but the flames had yet to char our Capitol. Now, where not strewn with Trump flags and litter, our Temple of Democracy is defiled by disgrace.
“(Wednesday) would not have happened without the president, and the president would not have been able to foment the violence that happened without social media,” filmmaker and journalist Daniel Lombroso told me Thursday morning. “Major tech companies have enabled this behavior for years.”
Lombroso knows as well as anyone. He spent four years engulfed in the alt-right movement and became a de-facto expert on the same. His recent film “White Noise,” produced by The Atlantic, takes a deep dive into the tactics of Trump’s most ardent supporters — many of whom participated in Wednesday’s revolt.
What Lombroso has revealed, and what others have decried, is that social media has become the weapon of choice for modern revolutionaries. It’s how they rise to fame and build a following. It’s how they create rapport and construct community. And, in the case of Wednesday, it’s how they mobilize and strike.
And Big Tech has met its match in trying to stop them.
Twitter, Facebook and other social media companies are not public utilities. They are private organizations with codes of conduct and rules — and have legal justifications for moderating dangerous content on their sites (and can create their own standards on how to do so). But when our nation’s most influential figure started spewing falsehood, Big Tech drug its feet. It wasn’t until last fall that Twitter and Facebook began flagging Trump’s posts as potentially misleading. In the 31⁄2 weeks following Election Day, nearly 200 Trump tweets were marked with warning labels.
While Trump’s election-centric rhetoric was dangerous, it only added to the delusion but did not create it. What was different between these and his 20,000 other misleading or false statements since taking office? Why did Twitter wait until now, when it was, perhaps, too late?
Social media companies toe a fine line between promoting constitutionally protected free speech and preventing seditious falsehood. Wednesday’s riot was a result of the latter, planned on social media, in the open, for the past several weeks. Travel routes, calls for weapons and for storming the Capitol were plastered across the alt-right web. The majority of QAnon-related Twitter accounts spoke of Jan. 6 — and the resulting chaos was simply a transformation from online threats to real-life terror, Buzzfeed News reported. Said tech expert Casey Newton, “It was a coup that was designed for, and helped made possible by, social media.”
Big Tech has been grappling over how to moderate inappropriate content — and if moderation is necessary altogether. As several Washington Post writers wrote, it’s been a “frenzied push-pull” amongst Big Tech elites for the past five years, arguing amongst themselves, “to accommodate the boundary-busting ways of Trump.” And while each site has developed policies and procedures for the alleged purpose of curbing misinformation, they were still lenient enough to allow for an attack on our Capitol to be planned, in the open, using their software.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise. Trump’s right-wing aggressors found their champion in Candidate Trump and their enabler in President Trump. They’ve marched to his steady drumbeat of tweet after tweet for four years, mimicking his every move. And in the echo chambers of social media, his flamboyance was mirrored with vitriol, then violence, then terrorism.
Just because Big Tech yanked Trump from the driver’s seat doesn’t mean the runaway vehicle will stop.
Just because Big Tech yanked Trump from the driver’s seat doesn’t mean the runaway vehicle will stop. And as the alt-right conspiracy caravan rolls along, social media companies have a dilemma in their hands: do they remain lenient, or do they take a firm stand against falsehood?
As I heard Lombroso rattle off story after story of social-media-star-turned-white-supremacist, I shuddered. The biggest threat to our country, it seems, is populating itself in invisible, online ranks. “This stuff is just going to get worse,” Lombroso said, with an aura of disbelief amidst his matter-of-fact tone. “What we need is a president who deescalates instead of escalates.”
A path toward that next president was cemented after the mobs were cleared and Congress reconvened Wednesday night. President-elect Joe Biden, for all his flaws, has shown little penchant for bows or arrows.
But his strongest asset? Boring social media pages run by professionals.