Echo Chambers

The objective of Wednesday’s awful events in DC was, I assume, to try to get Congress to overturn the results of the election in Trump’s favour.

I have questions.

How did breaking into the Capitol by smashing your way in through the windows advance that objective? How did walking off with the House Speaker’s podium advance that objective? How did breaking into lawmakers’ offices and vandalizing them and stealing envelopes and laptops and tablets advance it? How did shitting on the floor and tracking feces around the building advance it? How did the loss of five lives advance it?

If the point of the exercise was to make your voices heard because you lost and got a sad when you think you should have won, running rampant around the Capitol was almost certainly not the best plan.

As far as why you did what you did, I’m still at a loss to understand some of you.

One guy on TV saying that Biden will take our freedoms away. Which freedoms, exactly? Gun rights? No-one in Biden’s circle has suggested that Biden will repeal the Second Amendment. In eight years of Obama, plenty of gun nuts went on and on and on about how Obama was coming for their guns – and yet today they still have their guns. Because Obama swore an oath to defend the constitution, second amendment and all, and he did just that. Not once in those eight years did Obama or any of his people suggest repeal. But these crazies are still, even today, saying that “Libruls” are coming for their guns, with zero evidence.

If it’s not gun rights you’re on about, then which rights, exactly? There is no Law Of Conservation Of Rights. You do know that, right? There isn’t a thing that means that women having more rights, or people of colour having more rights, or anyone else having more rights, means that privileged white male assholes like you end up with fewer rights. You understand that, right?

So are you talking about the rights Trump gave you by acting them out himself? The right to be fascist, racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic bigots? Those rights? In that case, yeah, you’re gonna lose those rights. Suck it up, shit-for-brains.

One woman was going on about how Biden is going to turn the country into a Socialist Republic. She was screaming about it, almost crying about it. She was terrified by the thought. And yet she almost certainly has no clue what a socialist republic actually is.

(She’s probably worried that we might get healthcare like every other developed country in the world has, that isn’t run by insurance companies that are happy to let you die if it saves them a buck. Because Americans love to be ripped off by insurance and drug companies, it seems.)

It probably didn’t occur to her that to make any serious change to the way the country is run would mean tearing up the constitution (not that Trump wasn’t tearing up the constitution – but he was doing it incrementally, a bit at a time, maybe hoping most people wouldn’t notice). And Biden has said not one word about doing any such thing. His plans? Fix the economy Trump broke; get us through the pandemic; do something about climate change. That’s it. I don’t see “make the USA a socialist republic” on the checklist.

Some of the insurrectionists gave the impression that they thought they were doing the right thing. They were saving the country and that made them heroes and patriots and we’d thank them and they wouldn’t have to face any legal consequences. (I still don’t see how tearing up offices and smearing shit all over makes them heroic patriots; maybe I’m missing something.)

So where do these people get the crazy ideas?

Well, that’s obvious: Social Media. Some people start Facebook groups and the like, spouting the crazy. Other people, without the skills to spot silly BS, see it and begin to believe it and little by little get radicalized. Liberals are the opposition. Liberals are evil. Liberals are doing evil things. The groups talking this stuff turn into self-isolated bubbles, echo chambers, circle jerks where the crazy ideas get spun up like protons in a particle accelerator, whizzing round and round, faster and faster, and there’s no truth coming in from the outside to temper things. The music goes round and round and it comes out here: before you know it, you have people believing in insane ideas like pedophile rings being run out of pizza shop basements, and men in black coming for the guns, and someone turning the country into a socialist republic.

And this was guaranteed to happen from the day the first social media sites or even bulletin board systems were set up. The people that created those – computer nerds like me – almost certainly thought they were a cool idea. They probably assumed that users were like them; basically sensible, level-headed, ordinary.

But real people in the real world aren’t like that. If you use any kind of social media you’ve seen what real people are really like. Many of them are vile, violent, and just plain stupid. And it should be no surprise at all that we got the echo chambers, the bubbles, the circle jerks.

I don’t have a real problem with conspiracy theory nuts in general. Someone wants to believe in UFOs or The Bermuda Triangle or that Uri Geller can bend a spoon with his mind? Fine. They want to say that the government knows the truth about these things and keeps it secret? Ok, I guess. The problem comes when the nuts decide it’s time for action: break into Area 51 and find the UFO parts, storm the Pentagon and find the proof of the alien conspiracy. We need to find a way to stop things getting out of hand.

How do we fix it? I have no idea. Maybe giving people a basic education in critical thinking, at least so that they can spot obvious BS, might help. Maybe the only answer is to shut down all social media systems, write them off as a bad idea, and vow to never build another one for the sake of everyone’s health. But I’m no expert. Like I said, I’m a computer nerd, but this isn’t a computer problem and it’s not going to be fixed by computer scientists working for Facebook or Google or anyone else. This is a social psychology problem, and one to be looked at by experts who know what the hell they’re talking about.

But I think we have to do something. Because if we don’t, I think we’re headed down a road where what we saw happening at the Capitol becomes something that could happen any time some misinformed, misled group of vulnerable, undereducated people thinks they need to take action.

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