Online and frighteningly real: ‘A Taste of Armageddon’
In 2018, I wrote a piece for The Hill, “Have smartphones soured Americans on America?,” which quoted from an analysis of 2.7 billion tweets from 2009-2016. That analysis concluded, “We find ourselves a culture being shaped in echo chambers, stunted by closed-mindedness and unwilling to learn from each other.”
In 2020, we have moved far beyond “souring” and are approaching government-sanctioned force for the crime of holding nonconforming ideas. In short, we are in a terrible place.
The oldest major social media platforms have been around for fewer than 20 years. Facebook was launched on Feb., 4, 2004, and Twitter on July 15, 2006. Their promise was one of instant communication and the global sharing of ideas. In reality, social media platforms have helped to fracture Americans into warring tribes.
A quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt provides context: “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” One might conclude that social media serves to greatly reduce great minds sharing information. Instead, we have replaced rich discussion on complex topics with anonymously launched personal attacks, cancel culture and soundbites.
It also has made conflict virtual and antiseptic. The 23rd episode of the first season of the original “Star Trek” television series is titled, “A Taste of Armageddon.” In this episode, Captain Kirk and his crew encounter a civilization that is fighting a computer-simulated war to avoid real destruction. After each battle, casualties are calculated by computers and citizens are “humanely executed.”
On social media, people can present themselves as caricatures or avatars; people are placed into defined groups with explicit characteristics and societal worth. Every day, a virtual war is waged in which the casualties are measured in loss of reputation, social isolation, job losses, diminished brands and doxing.
Complex issues now are captured in a single word or catchphrase. Ask any “woke” social media warrior about the “Muslim Ban” and the answer is “xenophobic.” The border wall is “racist.” Capitol rioters are “insurrectionists.” Black Lives Matter leads “mostly peaceful protests.” America is a “systemic racist nation.” Cops should “be defunded.” Donald Trump “tells lies.” Contrary opinions are “dangerous.” Second and third levels of thought have been replaced by these visceral responses that, when challenged, are met with various levels of invective.
The most skilled practitioners of this modern-day “black arts” have used social media to advance politics through division. This has fortified thought bunkers and is creating a modern-day Inquisition in which freedom of speech is under assault — even by many in our government.
Victor Davis Hanson captured this in his article, “A Guide to Wokespeak,” in which he says: “Words often change their meanings as the political context demands. And what was yesterday’s orthodoxy is today’s heterodoxy and tomorrow’s heresy.”
This is playing out in a national debate about what to do with Trump supporters. Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorialist for the Washington Post, stated on national television, “There are millions of Americans, almost all white, almost all Republicans, who somehow need to be deprogrammed. … It’s as if they are members of a cult, the Trumpist cult, and have to be deprogrammed.” Katie Couric, formerly of NBC News, agreed.
Business and Politics reported on a tweet from former Obama CIA director John Brennan, writing that he “demanded that anyone who ever supported President Donald Trump seek national redemption immediately by denouncing the president and his policies so that America may eradicate the malignancy the president represents.”
Retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, as reported in the Daily Mail, has compared the Jan. 6 Capitol riot to the evolution of al Qaeda, saying that in both instances, people followed a powerful leader who justified their violence. He warned that America may be headed for a homegrown insurgency.
Loretta J. Ross, Smith College professor of gender and ethnic studies, wrote in Counterpunch, “Republicans are no longer entitled to exist as a legitimate political party, because this authoritarian backlash has been building since new Civil Rights laws were passed in 1964 and 1965. … Then-President Lyndon Johnson predicted that most white people would flee the Democratic Party to join the pro-segregationist, anti-feminist, and anti-gay revanchist political movement of George Wallace, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.”
Government appears to be considering a War on Domestic Terrorism. Reason reported on Evan Hill of the New York Times saying, “The U.S. should think about a 9/11 Commission for domestic extremism and consider applying some of the lessons from the fight against al Qaeda here at home.” Investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald put it more bluntly: “Democrats led by President Biden have launched a war on domestic terrorism to essentially criminalize any oppositional ideology to the ruling class.”
Revisiting the deleterious effects of social media on our civilization, I find a social network that is stronger, more pervasive — and anything but social. It is undermining societal cohesiveness and the durability of our society by providing platforms where the worst qualities of humankind go mostly unchecked.
How far are we from making our reality the fictional “A Taste of Armageddon,” in which we fight wars on social media to root out those who are considered to be evil and nonconforming by the mob?
Dennis M. Powell is founder and president of Massey Powell in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., which provides strategic communications services to organizations. He has been involved in more than 300 political campaigns doing strategy, messaging, polling and fundraising. Follow him on Twitter @dennismpe.