The Internet Can Protest and Overthrow, But It Can Never Govern
A striking quote from a powerful article
Earlier this spring, Jonathan Haidt wrote one of the most insightful pieces I’ve ever read on social media in The Atlantic. The piece, entitled, “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid,”explores the Babylonian proclivities of social media and the effects of social media on American life. We’ll get to that piece below.
Just a couple of weeks before Haidt’s piece was published, Brad Edwards and I wrote a very similar piece from a Christian perspective at The Gospel Coalition in which we wrote:
Social media dramatically flattens and expands social connection on a global scale. Combined with an algorithmically curated newsfeed, this “network effect” can be unquestionably redemptive for those who, for example, feel alone and isolated after suffering institutional abuse. Yet it can also give the subtle impression that experiencing institutional abuse is just a matter of time. Reality is somewhere in between, but even knowing that cognitively doesn’t prevent our perception from being shaped accordingly.
Institutional abuse (both real and perceived) has been a significant catalyst sparking the current “deconstruction” conversation. And with the pandemic often limiting embodied gatherings, that conversation has been largely outsourced to disembodied communities on social media. This is both a challenge and opportunity forcing the church (and pastors, especially) to demonstrate our trustworthiness. But if the gospel truly is the hope of the world, and if the church really is the place where Christ’s presence is experienced and displayed, then our task, while daunting, is both feasible and worthwhile.
One of the most striking quotes from the Haidt article, for me anyway, wasn’t even from Haidt himself. Here’s a selection from the article, with the sticky quote in bold:
When people lose trust in institutions, they lose trust in the stories told by those institutions. That’s particularly true of the institutions entrusted with the education of children. History curricula have often caused political controversy, but Facebook and Twitter make it possible for parents to become outraged every day over a new snippet from their children’s history lessons––and math lessons and literature selections, and any new pedagogical shifts anywhere in the country. The motives of teachers and administrators come into question, and overreaching laws or curricular reforms sometimes follow, dumbing down education and reducing trust in it further. One result is that young people educated in the post-Babel era are less likely to arrive at a coherent story of who we are as a people, and less likely to share any such story with those who attended different schools or who were educated in a different decade.
The former CIA analyst Martin Gurri predicted these fracturing effects in his 2014 book, The Revolt of the Public. Gurri’s analysis focused on the authority-subverting effects of information’s exponential growth, beginning with the internet in the 1990s. Writing nearly a decade ago, Gurri could already see the power of social media as a universal solvent, breaking down bonds and weakening institutions everywhere it reached. He noted that distributed networks “can protest and overthrow, but never govern.” He described the nihilism of the many protest movements of 2011 that organized mostly online and that, like Occupy Wall Street, demanded the destruction of existing institutions without offering an alternative vision of the future or an organization that could bring it about.
Former CIA analyst Martin Gurri is exactly right: distributed networks (like the internet) are effective for protesting and overthrowing institutions, but they are totally ineffective at governing.
I think this is most apparent in the phenomenon of cancel culture or “canceling” a morally problematic individual. The internet makes it very easy to protest and overthrow, but not govern. Looking at cancel culture with this perspective, canceling someone is super easy. Just get a mob of angry people who are bent on exposing the moral deprivation of an individual and rally them to get that person fired, socially ostracized, and the like. But then what? As I wrote in 2020, the four primary reasons cancel culture fails at what it attempts to do are: 1) subjective morality, 2) no incentive for reconciliation, 3) unclear objectives/demands, and 4) no realistic means of follow-up.
It is easy for an internet mob to run someone out of town or socially assault them, but it is difficult for an internet mob to “govern” that person’s life and hold them accountable to any sort of change or means of repentance. Such accountability requires a legitimate institution, not a poor imitation of one in the mode of the social internet.
It is easy to see the power of the social internet in its protestation and overthrowing abilities and overestimate the actual extent of change that can be affected through those same means. We shouldn’t expect a network like the social internet to affect lasting social change and uphold that change in a meaningful way. When people use social media to protest and overthrow institutions, we have to use healthy institutions to reconstruct something worthwhile. We can’t expect the social internet to do that.
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