Jan. 6 was fueled by misinformation. More content moderation won't fix it.
The chaos at the Capitol showed the real-world consequences of propaganda
A year ago today, a rogue group of protestors launched a violent assault on the United States Capitol, stoked by misinformation and a lie of a stolen election from those entrusted to lead us. That underlying problem of confusion and deception was already recognized when the riot happened, as the controversial congressional Jan. 6 commission has clearly illustrated, but recognition alone didn't prevent the attack.
And in the year since, misinformation has only become more mainstream. It is an increasingly dangerous threat to our common public square. Truth is being redefined to fit partisan politics, and many struggle to know if what they read online is trustworthy. We need a solution to misinformation — but what?
Democrats argue social media companies must moderate or suppress more content online to protect people from mis/disinformation, while Republicans tend to say content moderation is ideologically fraught, an affront to free speech, and a contributor to much of the cultural polarization of the day.
Social media companies also joined in these debates, making substantial shifts since Jan. 6 in content moderation and decision processes for banning or punishing users who repeatedly spread false information, incite violence, or violate often vague hate speech policies. From larger moderation teams with more resources to increased community watch dogs, many in Big Tech seem to grasp just how formative social media has become on our national psyche, even as they continue to fuel its growth and implement inconsistent and ill-conceived moderation policies.
But are these governmental and corporate measures really the only solutions to our problem of misinformation?
Jan. 6 represents far more than what took place on that brisk afternoon in Washington, D.C., and should point us to a more holistic approach that acknowledges our own responsibility in this age of misinformation. This could be a watershed moment for our nation, one at which no one in good faith could deny the corruption of truth has real-world consequences for the common good. If our democracy has any hope of moving forward with any sort of unity, we must see last year's assault on truth isn't all that new. For nearly two decades, we've shirked personal responsibility for the increasingly toxic landscape of social media.
We do that because it's convenient, and it satisfies the human proclivity to overlook our own faults. We can blame the breakdown of truth on those people or scapegoat a particular voting bloc. And though our vocabulary here ("fake news," "misinformation," or discussion around the Capitol riot itself) is new, what used to be called "propaganda" is not.
As the late French sociologist and Protestant theologian Jacques Ellul argues in his influential work, The Technological Society, one of the great strengths of propaganda is that it can "become as natural as air or food" in society where "the individual is able to declare in all honesty that no such thing as propaganda exists." This becomes possible only when humanity has become "so absorbed by [technology] that he is literally no longer able to see the truth." Since Ellul penned those words in 1954, what has changed is that anyone with a smartphone and rhetorical savviness can create and distribute misinformation to the masses in a matter of moments. We can all be propagandists if we're not careful.
Rushing toward ill-conceived government or corporate measures or to simply blame others for the rise of misinformation and fake news in our society ignores that truth. It ignores how we each bear moral responsibility for our actions, including the things we share online and the ways that we choose to treat our neighbors. This is true even if we disagree with them on the most fundamental moral aspects of public life.
The United States is a country that has long stood for free speech, but this freedom was never intended to be untethered from its corresponding reality of being morally upright people who bear an immense responsibility to our neighbors. Upending our basic freedoms of expression, as many have proposed in the last year, would do little to address digital problems before us, as these measures tend to exacerbate the divides and polarize the public square rather than help to restore the intricate balance of freedom and moral responsibility. And maintaining that balance is especially important now, when the very nature of truth is increasingly seen as a partisan football to be altered, manipulated, or lobbed at our political opponents for personal and social gain.
Because social media makes propaganda easier than ever before, we must take a hard look in the mirror to see how each of us is routinely tempted to succumb to our worst proclivities and share information online that whets our appetites or validates lies we want to be truths.
Every one of us has an obligation to stand up for truth in all areas of life and refuse to tolerate the spreading of misinformation, lies, and the prognostications of those seeking to retain power, position, or influence. But this problem isn't just about them; this is the world that we all inhabit, whether we like it or not.
If Jan. 6 has taught us anything, it is that the things we do and say online have real-world consequences. We must all bear that responsibility in this age of misinformation.