Well it’s been one hell of a ride! I remember talking to a good friend and colleague almost exactly four years ago. He lives in the greater DC area and does a lot of government business, so I listened hard. He said, “Don’t worry, our institutions are strong. There are many, many checks and balances that stop rogue actors.” And in the last few days I have been mulling over those words. In the end he was right, but you have to conclude that if a rogue president appoints rogue actors at all levels of government, as officials and judges the system only works if those actors have greater integrity than the president. And thankfully in key situations they did.
In the end the judiciary came through. The Supreme and other courts, notwithstanding having been stuffed with Trump appointees, held the line of truth vs wild conspiracy. Like many, I listened to the phone call between Trump and his mad cronies and Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state with amazement. Astonishment that Trump was so ignorant, unprepared, unable to talk detail. Awe that Raffensperger simply held the line of truth and integrity calmly and quietly without bending one inch.
In the end the real problem was the widespread compromise of social media that persuaded a very significant proportion of the electorate that the election had been won fraudulently. As we know it doesn’t take many bad actors to spread lies, and social media inherently reinforces confirmation bias. Conspiracy theories are widespread and if individuals get most of their information via ungoverned tv and social media, plus the president of the USA also provides powerful confirmation, then wild ideas will become de facto truth. Doesn’t matter what the officials, courts or the real subject matter experts say, if all your contacts believe the world is flat, well that’s it. And of course, it’s not just the USA that has been infected with this disease, it’s also in many other countries also.
So, while we can breathe a sigh of relief that the USA is returning to some basic level of sanity, we know the country is still completely divided and holds fundamentally different belief systems. That’s what happens if you put a rogue actor in a position of power.
I have written about the question of social media governance on numerous occasions over the years. While we have seen “self-governance” from Twitter and Facebook based on breach of corporate Terms and Conditions such as incitement to violence or worse, this is clearly not a good or long-term solution. I reiterate the need for a governance and standards body that guides and adjudicates on all aspects of social media services. I recommend we go back to basics; we don’t unleash drugs or automobiles, financial services or other consumer products and services onto the public without trials and regulatory controls in place. Yet over the past couple of decades we have all participated in an enormous social experiment which has had huge impact on many aspects of society, not least the integrity of our democracies. It’s time to ask legislators, social scientists, and technology experts to advise on how we govern both existing and new products and services.
Coda: I stopped using Twitter in 2016. Apart from its most infamous user I couldn’t stand the inherently rude, bullying and trivializing nature of the platform. I don’t intend to return, I can live without it. I believe the world will be a better place if the most powerful person on the planet is not capturing the attention of the world on a minute by minute basis.