By John Gruber
Still, taken together, Facebook’s pre-election actions underscore a damning truth: With every bit of friction Facebook introduces to its platform, our information ecosystem becomes a bit less unstable. Flip that logic around and the conclusion is unsettling. Facebook, when it’s working as designed, is a natural accelerating force in the erosion of our shared reality and, with it, our democratic norms.
A good example of this appeared on Thursday in a criminal complaint released by the F.B.I. The complaint details a federal investigation that successfully stopped a plot to kidnap the Michigan governor, Gretchen Whitmer, and put her on “trial.” The investigation is the latest example of anti-government domestic terrorism among far-right extremists. The group also discussed plans to attack the Michigan State Capitol building in what the state attorney general, Dana Nessel, called an attempt to “instigate a civil war.”
Allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment. Perhaps, as Facebook — and Twitter, which is far less a “social” network than Facebook, but more of a news distribution medium — make changes to de-escalate the use of their platforms by dangerous fringe groups unhinged from reality, we’ll look back on this past decade and see what these platforms have enabled as net goods for the world. Perhaps Facebook et al. have less exacerbated kookery — particularly but not exclusively on the right wing — than revealed what has always been there, under the surface of American culture and politics. Perhaps the undeniable increase in extreme political partisanship is not the problem, but in fact the solution — the natural result of our collective reckoning with the lid having been lifted, revealing deep and pervasive social rot that we’ve long pretended was neither deep nor pervasive. We’re re-sorting from a primarily left/right political divide to one that’s primarily sane/crazy.
Have a look at this TV news interview yesterday with the local sheriff in Michigan, who makes the case that these plotters — with whom he shared the stage a few months ago at an anti-Whitmer pro-coronavirus armed rally and doesn’t see any problem with that — might have been acting within the law, not attempting to “kidnap” Whitmer per se but rather make some sort of lawful citizen’s arrest. Really. You have to watch it to absorb the juxtaposition of the lunacy of his words with his calm-but-stern straight-out-of-Central-Casting “Michigan sheriff” demeanor.
Trust me, I think Facebook’s leadership is deeply culpable for looking the other way, ignoring the obvious consequences of building a system that fosters “engagement” by allowing like-minded extremists to find each other. But if we, collectively, act on what is now plainly before our eyes, we might see it as a net good. There’s a shoot-the-messenger aspect to saying this is all Facebook’s fault. We’ve been in denial for generations about how pervasive and dangerous this “militia” culture is.