Social media is finally pulling the plug on the social media president.
The incitements to violence had been coming fast and thick from President Donald Trump’s accounts across platforms — some subtler than others. Yet it was only once violence was successfully incited with Wednesday’s storming of the Capitol that the sites acted decisively: a 12-hour lockout of Trump’s account on Twitter (which was made permanent late Friday) and a 24-hour freeze on Facebook that turned into a ban until at least Inauguration Day. YouTube announced that any channels posting new videos including false claims in violation of their policies would receive a strike — three of which will result in permanent channel removal.
These steps were necessary, even if they were rooted not in transparent rules but rather in panicked reaction to a crisis. The arguments against barring Trump relied on the idea that unimpeded speech from political leaders is essential to the functioning of a constitutional democracy. When a leader encourages the subversion of the Constitution, the equation changes. Researchers have discovered that repeat offenders, particularly elites, disproportionately drive the spread of dangerous disinformation. That means restricting a small group of accounts can make a big difference. Trump is repeat offender No. 1.
Yet today must be only the beginning of an attempt to restore a shared reality that has shattered over the past four years. The men and women who forcibly interrupted Wednesday’s proceedings did so because they falsely believed that voting machines were tampered with, ballots shredded and counts changed. They have been fed meal after meal of poisonous misinformation by conservative influencers online, alternative media and, of course, elected officials. Some are disciples of the QAnon conspiracy theory; by breaching the building, they thought, they would set into motion a day of reckoning against a cabal of child molesters and devil-worshippers. Instead, no such thing happened, and the resultant cognitive dissonance threatens to propel people only further down a rabbit hole.
We already know what’s coming next: The same rumormongering machine that spread the lies leading up to this week’s disaster now accuses the mob of being antifa affiliates. The evidence, of course, is all to the contrary. Yet that hasn’t stopped congressmen such as Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.; Rep. Paul A. Gosar, R-Ariz.; and Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., from using their prominent perches to propagate the delusion.
Much of the burden to fight the assault on truth rests with a Republican Party that is only now beginning to show glimmers of resistance. But much of that burden also rests with the sites that allowed bad actors to warp the worlds of so many citizens. They must stem the spread of misinformation according to clear rules that stem from clear principles, and they must promote accurate information in the manner the evidence tells us is most likely to persuade. Both of these undertakings will likely require some trial and error.
We know what’s broken: Our nation is riven into two realities, only one of which is actually real. We must now set about the excruciatingly difficult task of fixing it.