Some people in the US seem surprised that a form of cultural chaos is spreading far more rapidly than the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19. It’s the predictable consequence of three convergent phenomena: American individualism, the confrontational forms of expression it takes through social media, and the belief that the freedoms listed in the Bill of Rights are unambiguously absolute and beyond social control.
COVID-19 Is a Wake-Up Call on the Shortcomings of Globalization
In times of severe economic turmoil, the consequences are potentially explosive. Amanda Seitz, writing for AP, has sounded the alarm on the growing rebellion of socially networked Americans grouping together to make outrageously spurious claims about everything that concerns the COVID-19 pandemic and the politics related to it. They seem out to prove that free speech is all about the sacred right of Americans to exacerbate chaos.
Seitz describes the trends on social media: “Launched in recent weeks by pro-gun advocacy groups and conservative activists, the pages are repositories of Americans’ suspicion and anxiety — often fueled by notions floated by television personalities or President Donald Trump himself and amplified by social media accounts.” She singles out one platform as the prime vector, observing that “the power of suspicion is apparent in the Facebook groups.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Power of suspicion:
An insufficiently recognized political force — at work throughout human history — that, far more effectively than reasoned thought and authoritative knowledge, has the ability to shape political events and eventually policy and law as well
The power of suspicion as a dominant political force tends to emerge in democracies in times of crisis, especially during moments when traditional sources of authority — political institutions, law enforcement, academe and the media — have lost their bearings. A global pandemic provides the ideal set of circumstances. With no obvious villain to blame for a multitude of misfortunes, everyone is free to fabricate the narrative of infamy they prefer.
Seitz describes the special role of Facebook: “The loose network of Facebook groups spurring protests of stay-at-home orders across the country have fast become a hotbed of misinformation, conspiracy theories and skepticism around the coronavirus pandemic.”
Social media has the potential to act as a safety valve that allows self-isolated individuals to let off steam. It could serve to reduce the pressure on their battered psyches as they struggle with economic and social uncertainty. But it quickly becomes a breeding ground for wild theories and accusations.
In the past, Facebook has consistently played fast and loose with the ethical questions that emerge around a platform built to extract profit from the manipulation of people’s emotions. Once again, the company finds itself challenged to affirm its (otherwise absent) sense of public responsibility. “Under pressure after a spate of nationwide protests organized on its site, Facebook said [on April 20] that it would ban events that don’t follow social distancing rules,” Seitz mentions.
Seeking a note of optimism, The Verge website sees this cultural chaos as an opportunity to gather research on people’s online behavior. Adi Robertson, the author of the article, writes: “[R]esearch into what users are seeing — and what sites are removing — could provide a valuable window into how people have engaged with the pandemic. It could also help track any campaigns designed to sow confusion or panic and help platforms understand how to promote good information during a time of uncertainty.” The article fails to indicate what the criteria for identifying “good information” might be.
Columnist Thomas B. Edsall, writing in The New York Times, focuses his attention on one obvious source of consistently bad information that singularly complicates the question of separating the bad from the good: Donald Trump. “[The US president] continues on a well-trodden path as he promotes the corona-liberation movement — stigmatizing inner-city dwellers, scapegoating ‘foreigners’ and blaming the Covid-19 pandemic on China,” he says.
Edsall quotes former Republican consultant Steve Schmidt, who describes what the six months leading up to November’s presidential election will look like. He warns us to “get ready for the noxious blend of Confederate flags, semiautomatic weaponry, conspiracy theorists, political cultists, extremists and nut jobs coming to a state Capitol near you.” Free speech leads in many directions.
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.” Americans tend to cite that comment on the 1919 case US v. Schenck as a guide to interpreting the law. In a 2012 article for The Atlantic, Trevor Timm expertly deconstructed the myth. The case in question was overturned in 1969. Instead of legitimizing the exercise of what would amount to a subjective moral judgment to restrict free speech, as Holmes implied, “the Court held that inflammatory speech–and even speech advocating violence by members of the Ku Klux Klan–is protected under the First Amendment, unless the speech ‘is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.’”
Given the evolution of American society today — an accelerating descent into social disorder — the moral question of how society handles free speech may have lost its last semblance of meaning. In the example of shouting fire in a theater, there are two distinct considerations: the relationship with the truth and the impact of the speech. If there is a fire, creating a panic by shouting should be considered a bad though truthful choice. Instead of shouting, the person who notices a fire should propose an orderly evacuation.
In other words, the problem has nothing to do with the freedom of speech and everything to do with social relationships and levels of communication. Speech always contains a relationship between information and intention within a supposedly stable context of shared understanding, both of the meaning of utterances and the conventions of language use. Most societies find ways of managing those questions without appealing to the notion of an absolute constitutional right.
The problem the nation was already facing, well before the arrival of COVID-19, was precisely a breakdown in the context of understanding across the full span of US society. The trend toward extreme polarization has facilitated the justification for distorting information and ignoring the truth. President Trump does it in his inimitable manner. So does Barack Obama. In times of an invasion by a virus whose behavior the specialists claim they can’t understand, there are so many things that might be true and so many reasons for wishing they were true, that the very idea of reliable information ceases to exist.
In situations so thoroughly imbued with uncertainty, mistaken appreciations by leaders and decision-makers are inevitable. We should expect humility to guide the experts and leaders toward a quest for understanding. But that is no longer how the world works. It’s all about positioning and media market share, which means seeking someone to blame and even “finding someone to sue.”
The first suggestion that the Russians are behind it finally emerged, as expected, in a typical New York Times piece. The article nevertheless places most of the blame on Chinese “agents” of misinformation. The Times’ source, as ever, is US intelligence agencies, the same people who convinced the Gray Lady that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was an agent of al-Qaeda and that kept Russiagate alive for three years. For decades, the intelligence agencies have proved their ability to use The New York Times and other liberal media to spread whatever news they wished people to believe, sometimes information, sometimes disinformation. Considerations of national security exclude even the possibility of vetting such stories.
Why do Americans need to believe so strongly in foreign meddling as the explanation of the chaos within their own information systems? Can’t they see that the worm was already in the apple? Writing for Foreign Affairs, Laura Rosenberger describes her perception of Beijing’s meddling, which sounds like Russiagate all over again: “That strategy aims not so much to promote a particular idea as to sow doubt, dissension, and disarray—including among Americans—in order to undermine public confidence in information and prevent any common understanding of facts from taking hold.”
Even while celebrating American exceptionalism, people neglect one obvious aspect of it: the exceptional ability of Americans to sow “doubt, dissension, and disarray” among themselves, with no help from abroad.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.