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“Facebook is not killing people,” that’s what President Joseph Biden had to say on Monday, July 19th walking back an accusation he made the previous week regarding Facebook’s role in the raging argument about COVID-19 vaccinations. Reflecting the president’s frustrations, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki went as far as to suggest in one of her press briefings that social media should identify and target for censorship persons opposed to vaccination and that social media should universally blacklist them across every platform.
My first response after hearing that, of course, was to burp up some of my beer and blurt out loud, “Looks like Tail Gunner Joe is back.” That is, of course, a reference to senator Joe McCarthy who’s reign of terror against Hollywood when hunting for communist sympathizers in America was in its heyday engaged in heavy-handed blacklisting that eventually brought him to disgrace.
Unlike his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, President Biden, and his team seem not to have mastered the intricate art form of managing opinion and emotion on the Internet as a dynamic battlespace of ideas in the same way that the previous administration was famous for manipulating it.
The key thing that Trump knew that Biden seems not to honor is that the Internet is an open market for ideas. All ideas, good and bad, compete with each other on a level playing field. This is hyper-democracy where you not only have to be aware of the message you are putting out; you also have to be keenly aware of every message opposing yours, and have a strategy for how you will prevail in the battle of rhetoric that ensues on a neutral platform environment like social media.
It is not like the highly charged messaging and influencing battleground that lies at the heart of technology that allows everyone to be equal to everyone else when they speak has changed. There are still people with fanatical beliefs and outrageous strategies filled with subterfuge to exploit traffic, trends, and metadata in the wild country of virtual space.
Indeed, due to the efforts of academics and politicians to constrain social media platforms from curating their content as publishers, social media platforms and news outlets have gone out of their way to deliberately tribalize their services so that people only see the echo chambers that make them comfortable, quieter, safer.
One of the consequences of this is that people now gather online in smaller groups that form independent opinions that are unshakable, regardless of what else is going on in the real world.
That’s what we wanted, right? Well, that’s what we’ve got.
It just turns out that some of those isolated groups are people that do not want to pay attention to either science or government. They happen to be younger. They happen not to like vaccines. They happened not to trust authority created by elders they think have blown it. And they are nearly impossible to communicate with as they circulate inside their now very closed-minded echo chambers.
The bottom line is science means little without trust.
The science that vaccines do work for the strains of COVID-19 for which they were initially designed is not intuitively understood by many Americans. It’s surrounded by myths that range from it has magical superpowers to its side effects turn you into a newt.
The rational science that the first run of vaccines was so narrowly specific that they don’t work for mutations that fall outside of the target bin of the initial round of medication isn’t that hard to understand if explained plainly. The vaccine can stop the main threat, and then we need to work on the flanks. Viruses do have as much right to survive as we do, and nature does equip them with their own tools to survive called mutations.
But we want to win. Combating a pandemic is not a one-shot stop. That only happens in movies. The real world doesn’t work like that. Fighting a pandemic is more like using a comb that needs to be stroked repetitively to eventually straighten things out.
The science that all medicines have side effects and dangers isn’t new either. Every pharmaceutical on the market comes with warnings and hundreds of search engine results about how people are both helped and hurt by them. It’s dangerous stuff, and everyone takes a calculated risk every time we swallow an aspirin or have messenger RNA injected into our bloodstream.
What public policymakers fail to appreciate is that, ultimately, the decision on how to interact with science is the right of the individual to make.
Stop Fumbling the Ball
None of the science will make any difference as long as the administration pursues a bumbling public policy that fails to gain enough trust to influence the opinion of the American people on the Internet. That can only be gained by earning people’s trust.
True that trust has worked with a good portion of the American people. But these were the trusting folk anyway. It clearly hasn’t worked universally across the entire population.
And here is the hard truth of it. The virus does not care about our political comfort zones; it just wants to survive in its host reservoir. And our hubris and distrust of each other, amplified by an inability to use the internet effectively, means that virus will have a reservoir in the US.
And no, Mr. President, 18-year old Tik Tok sensation Olivia Rodrigo won’t be enough to change things. It is a start in the right direction, though. I’d keep that up, sir. Just get beyond tokenism as quickly as you can. Time is not on our side.
Domestically, Biden’s larger problem is that instead of organizing an effective messaging campaign to inform the American people inside their echo chamber “safe spaces” in a way that helps skeptical individuals make better-informed decisions, this administration, in its frustration, tried to take the heavy-handed approach of telling detractors to shut up; and if they don’t shut up, engaging in attempts to blacklist them. So now we have a political backlash problem added on top of everything else, and I notice that the media is quick to jump on it in both accusatory and apologetic forms, depending on which cheek they are accustomed to kissing.
Honestly, that’s ridiculous. Human nature is predictable. The only thing that such heavy-handed government action ever accomplishes by attempting to silence people standing on their soapboxes is legitimizing whatever opinion they espouse, even if that opinion is idiotic. The government, in this case, is proving to the people in their echo chambers that they need to hold even harder to their beliefs.
My call? Sloppy workmanship. That won’t do. This country can do better. Here is my constructive criticism.
What president Biden really needs to do is call his staff into the White House and very sternly tell them, “You people have done a lousy job of finding ways to communicate to people who are sheltering in place. Yes, sheltering within their own minds. You are not talking to them. You are taking around them. They have no reason to believe us, and that is our fault. We don’t know how to use this technology properly. That deficiency is not these companies’ fault; it’s yours. You need to stop being elites talking down to people from afar and learn how to communicate with ordinary people so that they trust you. Reach across the aisle if you have to achieve that trust, but solve the problem already. If you cannot do that, you are not serving this country properly. Now get to work.”
Will he do that? I dunno. We seem to be muddling through a lot of things right now. At least I have my echo chamber and my woobie. Don’t get me wrong; I’m still an American. I will help in any way I can. It’s my civic duty. Yours too.
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