For years, warnings and evidence that words uttered either online or offline have consequences fell almost exclusively on deaf ears. Yes, some cosmetic changes were implemented, various hearings were held and promises made. The digital arena, however – particularly the virtual spaces that were created, organized and governed by digital platforms – still operate as the fastest and most efficient propaganda machines for anyone who is willing to pay or gather substantial followership, same as it was years ago.

Manifestations of digital radicalization ranging from events such as the Myanmar genocide to deliberate damage of Covid-19 vaccinations for more than 500 people hardly elicit more than a raised eyebrow and a complacent sigh that this is just the price worth paying for the advantages of living in the digital age. Similarly, the low proportion of people willing to get vaccinated against Covid-19 (only 37% on average in Central Europe and Western Balkans according to GLOBSEC Trends 2020) linked to belief in different conspiracy theories does not seem to raise the alarm.

How did it get to this point?

We know from historical examples that efficient propaganda which polarizes society through tapping into the powerful symbolism of hidden arch enemy that needs to be destroyed is capable of undermining essential pillars of democracy – namely the much needed public trust.

Despite this fact, democratic societies have so far been unable to truly answer essential questions concerning digital platforms’ role in facilitating disinformation campaigns orchestrated by both domestic and foreign actors, dissemination of life-threatening conspiracy theories and hate speech to millions of users online for years.

For a long time, thanks to intense financial lobbying of tech giants, the unregulated digital market was expected to simply take care of itself. States’ intervention would simply ‘hinder progress and innovation’ the argument went. The glaring discrepancy between commercial interests of private companies on one hand and national security interests on the other has been completely ignored, while the unregulated evolution of the internet was presented as inevitable.

What could possibly go wrong?

In the meantime, toxic disinformation outlets, actors and narratives formed into a multi-million-dollar ecosystem generating vast revenues for digital platforms, advertising agencies as well as disinformation actors themselves. With this income and online influence came also political leverage, while many opportunists discovered that running campaigns on popular polarizing conspiracy theories and declaring war on facts earned easy votes of those who already receive a steady daily portion of customized and tailored nonsense, delivered to their devices by state-of-the-art technology which knows their trigger points better than anybody else including themselves. Such political entrepreneurs then help spread hateful propaganda through mainstream media channels.

With this recipe for disaster, it was only a question of time until online radicalization starts manifesting offline. The unrest on Capitol Hill, something never seen in its history, is only the latest manifestation from a long list of similarly tragic examples. Given Trump’s incendiary rhetoric and deliberate lies about alleged election fraud since he lost the election in November, violence was expected.

Still, the captions of fur and bull-horns sporting QAnon supporters parading in the Capitol building shocked the world through the sheer power of symbolism, while authoritarians cannot hide their joy. For them, it is a great example of how dysfunctional American democracy has become. And they are not wrong. There is something rotten in a democratic state if part of the population cannot accept the result of a free and fair election to the point where they storm the institutions upon which the said state is funded. In this context, the fact that 45% of Republicans agree with the actions of the rioters is an ominous sign for future troubles.

Everybody’s problem

It would be silly to think that this is simply an internal issue of the United States and their current crisis of leadership. Trumpism is a product of a system, and while this system certainly has peculiarities applicable only to the US, it also has a common denominator found across almost all democracies where unregulated digital space is flooded by malign actors who exercise their freedom of reach. They use this non-existent freedom because we have failed to negotiate the boundaries of what is acceptable in digital space. No cosmetic account blocking of a few of the most obvious repeated offenders by digital platforms, including the current American President, will fix this issue.

It has become popular to proclaim that a moment of crisis can initiate a period of introspection and search for answers to complex issues. In this case, these questions are: should all speech be acceptable? Should followership online be a given without any responsibility? Who makes the decisions – anonymous moderators of digital platforms? What are the implications for democracy? Should algorithms decide what is fed to us on social media? And perhaps the most important one: who is accountable when things go wrong?

Without an urgent commitment to tackling this cliché, we may need to prepare ourselves for more scenes similar to the one on Capitol Hill. However, the Biden administration will be in a unique position to implement reforms now that the Democrats have narrow control of both chambers of Congress, while the EU is already putting together an effort that will take it into a new digital sphere of regulation.

As the pandemic continues to put enormous pressure on state resources and general populations, a great deal of effort, expertise and deliberation will be needed.


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