Wed 3 March 2021

To achieve the unity he promises, the new President must take on the online platforms that are radicalising the US, argues Sam Bright

“Let’s begin to listen to one another again, hear one another, see one another. Show respect to one another. Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war and we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.”

These were the words of Joe Biden, standing on the steps of the Capitol building yesterday, moments after he was inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States.

His plea for civility – for the return of peaceful, fact-based debate to the American nation – was echoed by all those who took to the stage to eulogise with the new President.

However, like the manufacture of a car, Biden’s speech was just one component in a complex information production line that processed his words for the American nation. Biden’s 20-minute address was sliced and polished by hundreds of cable news channels, and dozens more online publications, each with their own political filter. These dressed-up interpretations of Biden’s remarks were then shoved in the social media grinder – where millions of personalised algorithms showed us the particular strain of news that most effectively tapped into our underlying hopes and prejudices.

I was delivered a blue car, by the gods of news and social media. You might have been delivered a red one.

This is the challenge faced by Biden – one that wasn’t even apparent in 2008, relatively modern history, when he entered the White House as Barack Obama’s faithful lieutenant. Indeed, Facebook was barely four years old when the pair strutted into the Oval Office, chanting “yes we can”.

For a nation so infatuated with two guiding documents – the Bible and the Constitution – there is a glaring lack of standardised information about current affairs in America. Instead, a vast, sprawling web of news exists, anchored to profit rather than facts. “If it bleeds, it leads” has been a mantra of journalism for decades – outrage is nothing new. Yet the advent of Facebook has spurred the shameless weaponisation and commercialisation of sensationalised falsehoods on a mass scale.

Therefore, it is often more constructive to refer to America as several different nations, broadly experiencing the same events and speaking overlapping languages, but watching life unfold through different, tinted lenses.

Raging civility must therefore be the approach of the new President. If Biden pulls at the divides that have tormented the nation during the Trump years – which culminated in an insurrection attempt – the splintering of America will continue. The Fox News attack dogs seek a villain – a simplistic, superhero narrative that captures audiences and keeps the dollars rolling in. Biden must not throw them fresh meat.

Warm rhetoric alone, however, is necessary but not sufficient. Biden’s unifying message – his calls for compassion and mutual understanding – will buy him time in the eyes of the nation. But the conservative media, highly skilled in emotional manipulation, always tears down the edifice.

Within two years of entering office, Obama was caricatured by Fox News as a Kenyan-born socialist who wanted to nationalise healthcare and confiscate guns. He subsequently lost control of the House of Representatives in the 2010 mid-term elections and his once-hopeful agenda was stultified for a further six years. ‘No we can’t’ became the mantra of the Obama-Biden administration.

Thus, Biden must waste no time in dismantling the infrastructure of lies that has radicalised the American nation and turned many against the very tenets of democracy. Especially since he, like Obama, starts his term with control of both the House and the Senate.

This begins with social media. It is no coincidence that Donald Trump was unplugged by almost every major platform after the storming of the US Capitol on 6 January. Viewing it cynically, this was a peace offering by the social media giants to the incoming administration – hoping to restrain any urges to reform and regulate the sector.

The President must ignore this bribe and push ahead. While the disappearance of Trump from our online lives has had a calming effect on democracy and the sanity of the planet, it is a superficial improvement.

The Facebook algorithm distorts reality. It is an information nervous system populated with all the world’s content. In this information overload, users scroll past facts, boring facts, and only react to posts that are ludicrous or emotionally-charged. Seeking to dominate our lives, the Facebook algorithm then feeds our thumbs with more of these half-baked fallacies.

Twitter, meanwhile, is still hounded by anonymous bot accounts that aggravate and radicalise every conversation they enter – while YouTube’s ‘recommended’ section has a tendency to actively advertise radical videos that can lead previously unsuspecting users into a swirling black hole of conspiracy theories.

To address the fragmentation, disunity and hostility that plagues the American nation, the new President must start here – de-radicalising the social media platforms through which we upload our lives and download our news. Biden obviously does not have the power to manually change Facebook’s algorithm, but he has the power to threaten punitive measures if social media companies do not institute meaningful changes.

Influential Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, for example, has advocated breaking up big tech companies with “too much power – too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy”. Faced with this prospect, Facebook would surely view the alternative – simply adjusting its algorithm – as the lesser evil.

Of course, this alone won’t salvage American democracy. Widespread gerrymandering – the fiddling of electoral boundaries to benefit one particular party – must be curbed, along with new Jim Crow laws that purposefully ostracise black and minority ethnic voters. But addressing the political extremism currently allowed to openly fester on social media is an essential first treatment to America’s democratic malaise.

In the Trump era, America slid precipitously towards authoritarianism. Biden is a boulder that has broken its progress, but his mere presence in the White House will not in itself reverse the trend. Only through immediate, aggressive action can his words meet their promise.

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