Talking Points

Standing 'sentinel' on social media won't fix Ukraine

"There was an early day where [immersion on Twitter] was very, very pleasurable," author Patricia Lockwood mused in a New Yorker interview last month. Particularly when political engagement spiked during the Trump administration, she continued, "you felt that you had to be on there every day — like, 8 a.m., at your post — otherwise, you couldn't control what was going to happen that day. If you didn't know about it, then it would go on without you, beyond your control." The feeling you had, Lockwood suggested, was that of "standing sentinel," keeping an eye on the world, keeping it safe somehow, from your little digital watchtower. 

In his newsletter, tech ethicist L.M. Sacasas explores that final phrase further:

'Standing sentinel.' I can't recall a more incisive formulation for the way many of us may experience being online at certain times. I especially appreciate the way Lockwood links this to some underlying, possibly inarticulate longing for control in what are, in fact, moments of extreme flux and disorder. This impulse may spring from the misguided belief that more information will automatically lead to greater clarity about what needs to be done, almost as if the accumulation of sufficient information will perforce reveal a plan of action eliminating the need for judgment. Judgment, after all, entails a measure of risk and responsibility, neither of which are especially welcome in our time. [Convivial Society]

Sacasas wrote just as Russia's invasion of Ukraine began, but his warning against grasping for control via information accumulation seems all the more important several weeks hence. Self-appointed sentinels are standing up all over, wanting very sincerely to help Ukraine, to do their bit. But the rightness of that sympathy doesn't make it any less powerless in the average social media user — and, meanwhile, another hazard is at hand: This is an information war.

So is every modern war, in some sense, but a confluence of factors here — the scale of the Russian propaganda machine, the war's European theater and the attention that draws, the sheer prevalence of smartphones and social media access among the people involved — makes for an unprecedented situation. The Ukrainian government, too, is not above mythmaking, nor is Western social media a neutral power. This feels like a new level of informational chaos.

Standing sentinel is never safe, and, when your watchtower is Twitter (or Instagram, Facebook, Telegraph, whatever), it is rarely worthwhile. But whatever benefits your post may have in more ordinary times — if indeed there is such a thing anymore — they are less obtainable right now, and whatever the costs, they are greater. Control isn't coming. Even clarity is probably too much to expect.