Though the question is specific to Trump, it will undoubtedly have larger impact as other government officials — in Germany, the EU, the UK, and most worryingly Poland — are complaining about platforms being able to take down heads of state. I am equally — no, more — worried about governments thinking they can or should compel anyone, platforms or publishers, to carry their speech.
With this move, Facebook has certainly upped the ante with its Oversight Board. The first cases selected by the Board from users and sent to it by Facebook were, well, obscure. That’s not surprising. All sides of this polygon wanted to test this new institution and see how it would work. But this — the matter of Trump v. Facebook — is the case of cases. Before the Board was fully in operation, back in June, I urged Mark Zuckerberg to call them in on the question of Trump. I’m glad they’re doing it now.
When Facebook folk told me about this move, they said the company believed it did the right thing by taking down Trump. I agree. Then why appeal to the Board? Because, they said, they recognize this is an momentous decision being made inside a private enterprise and they understand the need for more perspective and accountability. Said Facebook’s VP for policy and communication (and former deputy prime minister of the UK) Nick Clegg:
Our decision to suspend then-President Trump’s access was taken in extraordinary circumstances: a U.S. President actively fomenting a violent insurrection designed to thwart the peaceful transition of power; five people killed; legislators fleeing the seat of democracy. This has never happened before – and we hope it will never happen again. It was an unprecedented set of events which called for unprecedented action.
In making our decision, our first priority was to assist in the peaceful transfer of power. This is why, when announcing the suspension on January 7th, we said it would be indefinite and for at least two weeks. We are referring it to the Oversight Board now that the inauguration has taken place.
The risks are many. Ubiquitous Facebook sceptics across media will likely accuse them of wimping out even though they already made the tough call. Governments will use whatever is said to fuel their fears.
Let me for a moment fuel my own fears: I do not want a society in which a government can outlaw the ability of platforms to choose what they do and do not carry (precisely what Poland is planning). Compelled speech is not free speech! I do not believe that platforms are media — an argument for another day — but if we stipulate for the moment that they are similar, then can you imagine a government in a free and enlightened nation walking into the office of an editor (of The Washington Post, The Guardian, the BBC, Die Zeit, El Pais, Le Monde, Gazeta Wyborcza) ordering that the publication must carry the words of an official (or, as in Italy, a fascist)? I pray Europeans especially would understand why this precedent in history, this idea, is dangerous.
I also worry that in seeking others — the Oversight Board, legislators, or regulators— to make its decisions, Facebook is engaging in regulatory capture. Clegg concedes: “Whether you believe the decision was justified or not, many people are understandably uncomfortable with the idea that tech companies have the power to ban elected leaders. Many argue private companies like Facebook shouldn’t be making these big decisions on their own. We agree.” Facebook can afford to deal with the legal medicine balls thrown its way by governments; new, small entrants into the net cannot. I want to see Facebook defend freedom of expression on the net for all.
In this process, I hope that Facebook decides to be as open and transparent as possible. I want to hear how they made the decision to take down Trump in the first place. I want to see data about the impact Trump’s incendiary and insurrectionist words had on users. I want to hear that they understood and debated key issues. I would like to think they listened to experts and perspectives — especially those of academics who research these matters — outside the company. I want them to be held accountable to do just that. It is not sufficient for Facebook to give the Oversight Board a binary, hot potato: Trump online? Trump offline? This is a nuanced and difficult discussion. I hope the Oversight Board sees it that way and returns a decision that looks at the many questions the case raises.
Again, Facebook is obligating itself to follow the decision of the Board only in the matter of Trump; the case is limited. Fine. What I find more valuable than the decision is the discussion. What precedents are set here for other situations in other countries? Last week, a journalist called me to discuss whether the Trump decision sets a precedent for taking down Ayatollah Khamenei based on human rights violations in Iran. Certainly this is a discussion that should be had in the Philippines — ask my friend Maria Ressa — in Myanmar, in Turkey, and elsewhere. Platforms must not become the outlets of governments, especially not autocrats and tyrants.
Twitter has been transparent with media about the process that led it to take down Trump; see stories in The Washington Post and The New York Times. I have met the company’s head of policy, Vijaya Gadde, as well as Jack Dorsey and the company’s staff working in safety, and I am impressed with their good will and judgment. I have more faith the more I hear of their decision-making. The same goes for every technology company. I have argued that Facebook, Twitter, Google — and, indeed, every journalistic enterprise — should establish covenants, North Stars, Constitutions (call them what you will) with the public and be held accountable for following them through transparency (I was part of the working group that recommended a regulatory and legal framework to do just that).
The internet is, at long last, the outlet for citizens, especially those too long not heard in mass media. This is our press. When we abuse it — whether as citizens or as heads of state — the platforms have the right and the responsibility to moderate us (this is why I am a staunch believer in Section 230) but governments should not control our speech (this is why I am a First Amendment absolutist).
These are indeed big questions as we decide together what standards the net — Facebook, Twitter, Google in the specific but the internet and society on the whole — should set in relation to speech and to power. The more discussion we have about these difficult issues, the better. For we are a society relearning how to hold a conversation with ourselves after half a millenium in Gutenberg’s thrall (that is the book I’m writing). This won’t be quick.
The Board will have 90 days to decide.
Disclosure: Facebook has funded activities at my school regarding journalism and disinformation. I receive nothing personally from any platform.
Journalists are tying themselves in knots about what words to use, what to call the actions yesterday, what to call the people who incited and engaged in them. Choosing the words is the ultimate job of the journalist.
Let me propose a historical way to view what is occurring now. I am coming to see #BlackLivesMatter as the recent culmination of the long American Racial Reformation. The Martin Luthers of our time are Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, who made #BLM a movement, and Stacey Abrams and especially the Black women who have finally brought our electoral victories, and so many more who have fought for so long. Their new tools include — just include — social media. Their cause is equity and reparation.
What we saw at the Capitol on January 6 was the Counter-Reformation, an effort by institutions — the Republican Party — and people — white men — to hold onto the power they see themselves losing at last. Their tools are Donald Trump, right-wing media (at the same time, they are the tools of Rupert Murdoch), the complacency and fear of mass media, and intimidation and violence. Their cause is white supremacy.
Journalists love to say they are writing the “first draft of history.” That is journalists saying that they ignore history, that everything they report is new, thus news. Our job must be to put current events in context. To report on Donald Trump and his incitement of violence and sedition and as anything less than a racist coup aimed at burning down the institutions of democracy and resurrecting Jim Crow is wrong and irresponsible. It is a lie of omission. It is not journalism.
Yet we see editors fretting about the fine points. See CBS:
“Overly dramatic?” How could one not express the day as dramatic? How could one see what occurred as anything other than an attempt to stop and take over government: a coup? This is paternalistic pandering by the editors at CBS. It is irresponsible.
On the other hand, Marty Baron of the Washington Post told his journalists to use “mob” not “protestor.” Good. The again, the L.A. Times allowed the insurgents to call what they engaged in “a second revolution.” Not good.
In the midst of it all, I tweeted asking journalists to select the right words. Among mine: Coup. Insurgent. Insurrection. Fascist. Terrorist. Traitor. Sedition. Racist.
Has the institution of journalism learned nothing after four years of avoiding the words “lie” and “liar”, “racist” and “white supremacy” — not to mention “narcissism” and “insanity”?
Now is the time to stand up and call a coup a coup in the hopes that it does not get worse. I pray we are not at the beginning of a Thirty Years’ War.
They had warned me about the silence of the City. Living in the woods these last few years, alone with my pod-family, my mind’s ear had grown accustomed to nature’s carols of birds, crickets, and wind. From the City, I expected the cacophonies of my memory. But now, there was not a word.
When researchers agreed that this latest virus, MO’VID-29, was spread most effectively via talking or shouting — not to mention coughing and sneezing or, God forbid, singing — it did not take long for masks and silence to become the norm and then the law. In the last pandemic, too many millions of lives and insurance dollars were lost in the insane War of the Masks and its long-haul aftermath — so many that sense and science finally had to prevail, at least in this case. This time, with no vaccine in sight, the mandate to stick a sock in it finally did pass.
The irony of our next pandemic striking now, just as the last embers of online speech are dying out, is too obvious to be ironic. But that’s America. We never did irony well.
In this trip, on the subway, no one made eye contact — which was always true here, but all the truer now that the experts keep reminding us that a straight line is the shortest path to infection. Look down; breathe down. With our new muffling masks hiding every expression, with no glance into an eye, with no talk and no opportunity to eavesdrop, it was impossible to imagine what anyone was thinking; impossible to connect. An elevator ride had always been an antisocial experience, but in the morning as I left the hotel, I was not prepared for the sight of four people each facing a corner and an exhaust fan. On the street, people moved as if they were magnets projecting opposite poles.
The night before, when I’d arrived, I was hungry, and since I could not imagine how expensive the room service would be in my awfully expensive little hotel, I decided to try the New Automat I’d seen in constant commercials; we don’t have them out in the country yet. Back when I used to travel, I never minded eating out and alone; I loved reading books over dinner and wine. But this was too eerie: all the diners alone in their own plexiboxes, not unlike the Zoomboxes we use to enclose us so we may talk on calls. Instead of a person on the screen in front of me there was a menu and below it, a slot that would open when the conveyor delivered my meal. To complete the effect, I wondered why they didn’t add steel bars and name the chain Solitary.
I was in the City to see my editor, not that there was much point in coming in as we’d have to converse in our individual, sealed Zoomboxes anyway. But at least we could look at each other through the plexi rather than screens. I’m old enough to remember when authors and editors had lunch at tables with tablecloths and wine. I’m old enough to remember authors. Anyway, being an old fart, for auld lang syne, I decided to take the risk and come in for my final negotiations. Oh, how I wish it were like the old days, when we’d be arguing over the title of my book or my defense of the Oxford comma or my predilection — which I readily confess — for dashes. Now we had to hash out my fee: how much I would be paying to my fact-checker, to my risk actuary, for licenses of snippets of quoted and referenced material, and for my speech insurance.
Amazing how, since the death of Section 230, everything in my humble trade has been flipped on its side. That poor little law, just twenty-six words, never stood a chance, as the right and the left attacked it in an ideological pincer movement: the left demanding that too-big platforms take down hate speech and lies or lose their protections, the right protesting that the hate speech and lies the platforms took down was theirs and so they threatened to go after the companies for “canceling” them. Media poked the coals fueling moral panic, gleefully demonizing technology companies and ultimately the internet itself. They created the conflict they covered. But they never acknowledged the conflict of interest inherent in attacking companies that competed with them for users’ attention and advertisers’ dollars. They never saw that in going after this law they undermined the protection of their own free press. Never mind all that; it made a good story.
After 230’s end, any company carrying anyone else’s speech — words, sounds, pictures, video, memes, shares, links, creativity, and conversation of any sort — became liable for the content of that speech. Gawker suits sprouted like mushrooms in a dark, industrial pig barn. The by-now-broken-up platforms’ first instinct was to make everything ephemeral: all speech disappeared in the wind after twenty-four hours, then twenty-four minutes. That didn’t much matter, for entrepreneurial cryptodicks made trollish enterprises that scraped every word and thought from the baby nets as it occurred, stored it all offshore in their undersea data farms, and filed or merely threatened suits with evidence in hand. These bros became our evil librarians, for they held the only repository of our online life and culture in text and image and we who made it couldn’t get at it, but for a price.
Enter the insurance industry. Their bottom lines were slaughtered in the slaughter of citizens to the Trump virus — trillions of dollars gone in life insurance and medical payments and bankruptcies, with record losses even after government bailout upon bailout. Now the companies saw a new business opportunity in insuring speech after such a policy was pioneered by the British startup, the Stationers’ Company.
For a price, you can get your book or blog post published, but you must indemnify the platform or publisher that carries it. Contemporary nonfiction is nearly an impossibility; the risk is too high and so then is the price. Fiction retains its defense for the author and carrier of not being true, but now absence of truth must be certified. To get a policy and license to publish, you have to subject your work to the scrutiny of fact-checkers, who certify the fictional nature of the writing by finding and excising every fact and replacing it with an alternative fact. We used to call the process being Conwayed, until she sued for trademark violation.
As a result, most everything is fiction, all is allegory. We learned much from our Chinese internet cousins, who for years before us had honed the skill of replacing people with animals, ideas with memes. But woe be to whoever translates the alternative to the real. Lawyers await. When I complained to my agent, she said, “If Kafka could do it…” Yes, but he had metaphor and irony. We work amid the literal-minded Puritanism of the right-wing fundamentalists, who will label that which they don’t understand dangerous, so we must make everything in their sight obvious and anodyne. The third-person effect is now the rule of the land, its enforcers arguing that they alone are not vulnerable to hate, porn, disinformation, or heresy — but everyone else is. So they protect us from us. “This,” I shouted back to my agent from the safety of our Zoomboxes, “is rule not by Big Brother but by Barney.”
The only other loophole in the law that replaced 230 is the exemption for political and government speech: anything said by a politician or government official, including local pols and police, is safe from threat of suit. Was what followed an unintended or intended consequence? Candidates for public office got nuttier and nuttier and so the only free speech — theirs — was little else than conspiracies and lies. The few newspapers left — one or two bankrolled by billionaires, the others by nutters themselves, the rest abandoned by the hedge funds that controlled them because of the high cost of speech insurance — carried official words because they were official. And so, in the self-fulfilling prophecy that has always been political news, media assured election of extremes.
This is not to say that there are not still some people who speak their minds, if they indeed had them. The same people who bring and bankroll suits against us still spout their hate, bile, and flame because they have more lawyers than you do. These are the people who cried “cancel!”, though, of course, they were not the ones being silenced. By claiming “cancel culture,” they attacked the speech of those who dared criticize them. And they won. They owned the libs after all.
While in the City, I came upon a demonstration over the police killing of a man whose spoken cry of innocence became a capital crime. With cops all around ready to arrest anyone at the first sound, there were no shouts, chants, or songs. Instead, on the left, I saw a forest of brandished middle fingers: human emoji. On the right, a herd of angry white men in their uniform “STFU” gimme hats brandished their Trump thumbs. This scene seemed to me the perfect culmination of our culture wars: all emotion, no substance.
The public conversation simply does not exist. I don’t mean to say that the end of 230 was the sole cause of that; there were other conditions leading here. In the Petri dish of the last decade, the techlash created the perfect medium for the cloning of laws and regulations from around the world. Practically every nation passed a carbon copy of Germany’s NetzDG hate-speech law, which in practicality forced the baby platforms — each smaller and less able to afford defense of itself and the internet — to take down anything that might be taken as hate by anyone. Countless nations followed little England’s lead and deputized regulatory agencies to enforce a duty of care against online harm. To this day, no legislature or court has adequately defined harm or hate, so anything that might possibly offend, though legal, is vaporized. This is what they call neutrality.
Europe’s Right to be Forgotten is de jure universal as now any nation may demand that any platform take down anything worldwide: privacy über alles, Datenschutz for all, we have reached the lowest common denominator of freedom. This has made for a fascinating legal quandary: Who is to say who owns a conversation or a transaction? If you and I correspond and I don’t want you to remember or repeat what was said, I can claim ownership of “my” data and force you to erase your memory of it. Code being law, this question has been translated into not only the ephemeral eradication of most any uninsured public content but also private conversation. That is, my Zoombox will not let me record us and my Gmail will not let me keep or print our emails unless you sign my terms and conditions, and because of our speech liability policies, we all got ’em.
Seeing its opportunity to pounce, the old content industry — Hollywood and remaining newspaper moguls — managed to exploit this highly restrictive environment by expanding the content controls they had been dreaming of. Europe’s and America’s copyright extensions spread around the globe such that it is now nigh unto impossible to quote anyone or share anything anyone else has said without getting — that is, paying for — permission. That’s another hurdle my book will have to go through: Plagiarism.AI, which will ferret out any line, character, or idea that might have been said anywhere in almost a century — that is, the time covered by copyright — which could make me, my publisher, and my insurance company liable. A hit sets red lights and red pencils into action, unless I’m willing to pay Disney for the privilege of calling all this “Mickey Mouse.”
I blame the politicians for passing their cynical laws. I blame the nutters and the uneducated, angry cultists who voted them into office. I blame media for their latter-day Luddite crusade against technology, their negligence to tell the truth about the insanity gripping Earth, and their failure of vision on the internet. I blame the technology companies for their hubris, greed, secrecy, awful decision-making, and refusal, in the end, to defend our internet because they thought it was theirs. But I also blame my fellow academics and writers. For I remember my horror when I first saw a paper that asked — just asked, mind you — whether the First Amendment was outmoded, obsolete. I remember how appalled I was when I read another professor’s blog post arguing that we have “too much speech.” I shouted into the air, when we still could: “Who is to say whose speech is too much?” It was this letting down of the guard around freedom of expression for all that led us to the uncomfortable silence we endure today.
The net that I hoped would let anyone and everyone speak freely past the gatekeepers and censors, the net that would introduce us to each other and make strangers less strange, the net that eventually would spark creativity yet unimagined (perhaps a century and a half hence, for that is how long after Gutenberg it took for new forms of media and literature to flourish) — that net is dead.
Or is it?
This is a tale of privilege and power to which the privileged and powerful are willfully blind. It is ever thus. Whenever a new means of speech is created, enabling voices previously unheard to speak, the incumbents in charge of the old mechanisms try to control it. They have since Gutenberg. Scribes objected to printing, newspapers to radio, print to television, media to the net — at each stage in cahoots with other threatened institutions of power: princes, popes, parliaments, legislators, regulators, industries, elites. They have used many tools of control: censorship, banning and burning (of books and their authors), criminalization, the granting of monopolies, licensing, copyright and the protection of exclusionary business models, moral condemnation, and critical belittling. The net finally allowed anyone connected to it to speak to anyone else, everywhere. That is what made it more threatening to the privileged and powerful than each technology before: the scale of its freedoms. That is why they so overreacted. Every time before, speech would out. I am yet optimistic that it will again — that, for example, #BlackLivesMatter’s Reformation will rise like Luther’s. But it will take too long and I am too old to wait.
You might wonder why I dare write these facts and accusations, undisguised. Well, I left my editor’s office that day with a bottom line: I would pay more in insurance and fees than the publisher would pay me for my work. We’d both lose money on it. I realized that today, we no longer pay to read; we have to pay to write. Speech is not free. I can tell you its price to the penny.
I decided to speak out nonetheless. I would like to think this was a decision on principle: to tell the truth. But the truth is, I’m cowardly. I write this not in the City or from my country pod but instead from one of the last two sane nations on Earth. I chose Iceland thanks to a very nice politician there, whose lovely old dog I used to watch on the late, lamented Twitter as they strolled the streets of their Reykjavik neighborhood. She became a friend from afar only thanks to the internet and social media back in the day, when that was still possible. She worked to grant me writer’s asylum and entry into the creators’ refuge camp on her island, which — like the other island of sanity in our world, New Zealand — has managed to stay disease-free. Here I treasure my little room, my thick sweaters, my keyboard, and my voice.
Every year at this time, I am impressed with the imagination, invention, daring, and mission of our Social Journalism graduates at the Newmark J-School as they reimagine and reinvent journalism. I am particularly impressed this year as they were hit with the pandemic, forcing them to take their work of showing up and listening indoors and online. In this, the last week in the term, we watched 2020’s graduates and next year’s students present their work with communities.
These students consistently push the old, sealed envelope of journalism. Examples: A few are experimenting with fiction as journalism. One planned a play to educate tenants about their rights in evictions. Some reached their communities with posters on phone polls. One enabled refugees to take their own pictures so they could tell their stories rather than having them told by others. One tried to get newspaper publishers to print absentee-ballot applications (the papers refused). One made a zine with political cartoons to educate journalists. One made a guide for young Latinx journalists to help them get their stories told in newsrooms. More than one realized that to gain the trust they were asking for, they needed to be open about themselves; one offered her community an opportunity to ask her anything, another tells the story of his addiction. One got dragged out of a meeting by a mayor because of her reporting; the mayor was soon defeated. One created playlists to help people with depression as her journalism.
They serve a grand diversity of communities: black, transgender women; disenfranchised voters; tenants at risk of losing their homes in the pandemic; black women victimized over their natural hair; people going hungry in one American city; Kashmiris under occupation; Syrian refugees; victims of gun violence and advocates for gun safety; teachers; young journalists; people who buy weed; residents of Louisiana’s cancer alley; people with depression; recovering addicts and people who care for them; healthcare workers; caregivers; school social workers; people with intellectual developmental disabilities in group homes suffering abuse; feminists protesting the murders of women in Mexico; the incarcerated and their loved ones; trans sex workers; hair braiders; the Venezuelan diaspora; bicyclists.
What was particularly gratifying this year was that — given we were on Zoom and not in a too-small room — well more than a hundred people came to hear the graduates present their final project and among them were dozens of alumni of our still-young Social Journalism program. They came to give their support and admiration, which, thanks to Zoom, they could share as chat.
Our alumni are phenomenal. They are our Trojan horses who are changing newsrooms, where they are quickly employed, with their learned skills — social, data, reporting, investigation, product, entrepreneurship — but more than that, their worldviews, their vision for what journalism can and should be. As the director of our program, my brilliant colleague Dr. Carrie Brown, says, these alums preach the gospel of Social Journalism more eloquently and effectively than we do.
And what is that gospel? That we start not with content but with communities. That we first listen to communities so they are heard on their terms. We empathize with their needs and reflect our understanding back to assure we have listened well. Then we imagine what journalism we might bring to serve them. We believe in journalism as service, not product. As you can see above, we find and work with an incredible richness of tools to perform that service, beyond publishing stories. We try to build bridges and understanding. And we constantly question our assumptions about journalism, unafraid to challenge the shiboleth of objectivity, recognizing its roots in systemic racism and our field’s damage to communities, and questioning the high heresy of journalism as advocacy for those we serve.
This is our mission. This is our movement. This is how our students and graduates are reimagining and rebuilding journalism.
We accepted our first students in January 2015, only nine months after our dean, Sarah Bartlett, challenged me to envision a new degree based on my thinking about a relationship-based strategy for news and we were lucky enough to hire Dr. Brown to build and lead it. Here is the Social Journalism class of 2020.
I am prouder of nothing else in my career more than helping to start Social Journalism. May my tombstone carry the hashtag #SocialJ.
I do not believe most people espousing QAnon’s agitprop believe it. I believe they want us to believe they believe it. It’s performative: owning the libs, the pollsters, the media, the elites. Our old institutions fall for it and that is why the conspirators continue to play us. The primary weakness here is not in their belief system but in ours.
For us to think that journalism, fact-checking, and appeals to rationality will win this war on truth is itself irrational; we now know better. For the Trumpists to say something could be true —even blood libel—is sufficient for them, for their goal is not to express truth but instead anger, fear, frustration, hatred. They want to shock; so do media.
The other day, I wrote about this situation as the last stand of the old, angry, white man. Today, I want to begin to ask what journalism can do about it, for even if — God willing — Trump were to disappear, his people and their anger, abuse of power, and destruction of norms and institutions will not. We must reinvent journalism to address their shifting power, alienation, and unenlightened self-interest.
At this moment, it is instructive to reread Hannah Arendt. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she finds in Nazi and Soviet history “such unexpected and unpredicted phenomena as the radical loss of self-interest, the cynical or bored indifference in the face of death or other personal catastrophes, the passionate inclination toward the most abstract notions as guides for life, and the general contempt for even the most obvious rules of common sense.”
Radical loss of self-interest: Voting for a man who has not saved their jobs. Cynical or bored indifference in the face of death: Attending superspreader rallies while stubbornly burning masks. Passionate inclination toward the most abstract notions: Do abortion and the Second Amendment really matter uppermost in their daily lives, more than their health and employment? And general contempt for common sense: See COVID and QAnon.
Arendt argues that loneliness is the root of totalitarianism, of the mob, of the mass (though I disagree with the use of that term as it should represent the group, not the whole). Today we call them the “base.” “The chief characteristic of mass man is not brutality and backwardness,” she writes, “but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships.” There is the essence of the problem to address.
Totalitarian and fascist movements are made up of “atomized, isolated individuals.” How many of us know friends and family members who would sooner give up those ties than their allegiance to Trump? “Such loyalty,” says Arendt, “can be expected only from the completely isolated human being who, without any other social ties to family, friends, comrades, or even mere acquaintances, derives his sense of having a place in the world only from his belonging to a movement.”
But a movement to what end? Hitler took over the NSDAP and “unburdened the movement of its party’s earlier platform, not only by changing or officially abolishing it but simply by refusing to talk about it or discuss its points.” Trump took over the Republican Party and could not be bothered to articulate a cause or a platform. In the void, he forced the GOP to abandon every idea it once stood for — free trade, small government, less debt, more freedom. Thus when we believe this is a fight over beliefs, we are chasing ghosts. Beliefs matter even less than facts.
The only ideology at work seems to be one of destruction qua destruction, which I also wrote about: burning the fields so as not to share the crops with those who follow; destroying institutions before losing control of them. In Germany, says Arendt, not only the mob but also the elites “went to war with an exultant hope that everything they knew, the whole culture and texture of life, might go down in its ‘storms of steel.’” The same can be said of the GOP’s elites: senators, justices, and titans of various industries.
It is said by many sociologists, mass theorists, and mass psychiatrists — some insisting on a Freudian analysis — that members of these movements want to follow a father- or führer-figure. Hitler said to his SA: “All that you are, you are through me; all that I am, I am through you alone.” Remember, too: “I alone can fix it.” But Arendt cautions that leaders are easily replaced, even forgotten. Yet the roots that breed them do not disappear.
That root is rootlessness: atomization, alienation, a lack of identity and thus of individualism. I can begin to understand a lack of identity, for the paradox of growing up a white man in a white-dominated, male culture is that I came to think I had no cultural identity because mine was melted into and synonymous with the whole. I had to learn that to understand my cultural identity was to see it as white, cis, and male and built on privilege and racism.
Many don’t want to venture there. Instead, they fight: against criticism, against sharing society’s bounty and power, against losing in an economy that will be built on new skills, against phantom enemies: immigrants, the deep state, George Soros, rioters, Antifa, Others. So their identity becomes enmeshed with their fear and anger and the unspoken knowledge that they have squandered the privilege of whiteness. Outrage becomes their movement. Joining it, says Arendt, “seemed to provide new answers to the old and troublesome question, ‘Who am I?’ which always appears with redoubled persistence in times of crisis…. The point was to do something, heroic or criminal, which was unpredictable and undetermined by anybody else.” Or as sociologist William Kornhauser puts it: “The mass man substitutes an undifferentiated image of himself for an individualized one; he answers the perennial question of ‘Who am I?’ with the formula ‘I am like everyone else.’” That is, one loses one’s identity in the mob; one becomes lonely in the crowd.
Arendt scholar Samantha Rose Hill writes in Aeon that for Arendt, loneliness and isolation are distinct: creativity, even reading, requires isolation. “All thinking, strictly speaking, is done in solitude,” says Arendt. Hill says the word for loneliness in Arendt’s mother tongue — Verlassenheit — implies abandonment, thus being cut off from not only human connection but also from reality. She quotes Arendt: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (ie, the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (ie, the standards of thought) no longer exist.” There could be no more accurate statement of where many stand today than that.
Arendt, who writes brilliantly about the importance of publicness and the deprivation that privacy and alienation can bring, adds this in The Human Condition: “To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.”
And so we arrive at the challenge for journalism: to build a table. Given the lessons we should have learned from history and Arendt, I am building my own growing list of needs and opportunities, which begins here:
First, we need to pay less attention to the angry, white, male Trump base who have monopolized and manipulated the news. Then we may pay more attention to the the true majority of the nation, not as a mass but as a constellation of communities that for too long have been ignored, under-represented, and ill-served in mass media. By portraying the circumstances, interests, needs, and humanity of these communities as America’s normal — not as minorities or Others — we make it harder for the old power structure in media and politics to ignore and treat them as the aberrant.
Second, we need to remind the Trumpists of their own more enlightened self-interest: that they surely do care about the health and safety of their families — not against immigrants but against viruses and guns — and about their employment and the economic futures of their children. We should not be empathetic to their racism. But we should understand and reflect their true circumstances. We should show them how they share these concerns with the people they had considered Others, not in competition but in collaboration: These are the concerns of the nation. This is the table we must set.
Third, we need to tell the stories of lives ruined in loneliness and in allegiance to false messiahs. Tell the stories of Trump’s lies and exploitation not from his perspective or from the journalist’s — “we fact-checked ’im!”— but from that of his victims, not to shame them but to understand them, even when they share in blame.
Fourth, we need to build the next generation of the internet that does more than enable talking (though hurrah for that) but enables listening — and then finding that which is worth hearing. Then we can begin to hold a respectful, informed, and productive public conversation. Facebook and Twitter do not yet do that, for they are the first generation of a very young net; there are many more generations to come. Rather than complaining about the Facebook we have, build the next one.
Fifth, we need to create the means for people to hold informed, productive debate over the issues of their everyday lives. See, for example, Spaceship Media and its new book on the conversation about guns, and also The New York Times’ story about an experiment in deliberative democracy. We need spaces to collaborate on solutions to our problems, sharing lessons, holding our leaders to the standards we set, demonstrating that we can make progress together.
Sixth, we need to foster connections among people, in communities. Sociologist Emil Lederer — who called fascism “an effort to melt society down into a crowd” — emphasizes the value of community: “Freedom resides in the structure of society as long as society is composed of groups. In groups man pursues his interests, and in groups he shapes his life. Since society is composed of many groups it is pluralistic in nature and necessarily involves a division of social power.” Kornhauser argues that one regains one’s identity as and “autonomous man” through participation in communities in a pluralistic (not mass) society. Facebook is a first-generation tool for sharing things with people we know. We need means to connect with and appreciate strangers and to build meaningful and productive collaboration in our communities; that is a next generation of the social net.
Seventh, we must change the measurements we use to run media, away from attention and its cynical exploitation, and toward metrics of value in people’s lives and communities, expectations set by the public, not by media.
Eighth, we must rely on science and do a better job of reporting on it, understanding and explaining it as a process of learning through experimentation, not a room filled with (white) men shouting “Eureka!” Thus we set a different expectation for what science can and cannot answer in a crisis such as a novel pandemic.
Ninth, we need to call upon history. How good it would be for journalism students and technology students — for editors in newspapers and executives in Silicon Valley — to reread Arendt and understand the dangers she warned against. How necessary it is for them to study the humanities.
Tenth — and you will hear this from me often — we need to call on other disciplines to identify society’s problems and then reimagine a journalism that can address them. What do cognitive scientists and psychologists have to tell us about how people who reject masks cognize facts so we can create new ways to transmit and explain information? What do anthropologists and sociologists have to tell us about how communities interact so we can help them build both communities and bridges among them? What do ethicists and philosophers have to teach us in journalism, media, and technology about our missions, how we should create and be held accountable for them? What can researchers in African-American and Latino-American and Women’s and Queer studies tell us about the damage journalism has done to communities? This — the tenth — is where I hope to concentrate my work from now on.
If, God help us, Trump wins, we in journalism must urgently reexamine our role and responsibility and study Arendt et al to avoid the next, short step into the abyss. We need to stop our precious reluctance to call a liar a liar, a racist a racist, a fascist a fascist and learn from the history Arendt teaches and from what we so hubristically call the first draft of history that we wrote in the last four years.
If Trump loses, we must grab this opportunity to rebuild journalism and, we hope, contribute to rebuilding a better society, knowing what we now know. We should celebrate democracy and support it.
Journalism failed us. It is the institution built to prevent the rise of authoritarians, totalitarians, and Trumps. It did not. It is the institution built to expose inequity and to defend justice. It has not, not well. It is the institution built to hold power to account and prevent its abuses. It did not, not enough. We must do better, else we know what comes next.