The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How do liberty and human rights survive the age of the Internet?

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This column has been updated.

One of the great questions of our time — perhaps the greatest question — is whether liberty and human rights can survive the digital revolution. Big, abstract questions such as this can be difficult to pin down, but two events on Jan. 6, half a world apart, made the abstract painfully concrete.

In Washington, a collection of distortions, delusions and outright lies galvanized a mob of thousands to storm the Capitol in a brief but deadly insurrection. This unprecedented event was fomented inside a digitally networked community in which extraordinary claims are widely accepted on the basis of the wispiest nonsense. Selectively edited surveillance camera images become “proof” of massive election fraud. Hearsay testimony — so-and-so told me they heard such-and-such was true — becomes gospel.

No claim is too outlandish to be credited. The loser of an election can assert (and be believed) not just that he won, but that he won in “a massive landslide.” Hundreds, if not thousands, of the rioters were guided by their commitment to the proposition that American government is actually an Internet game in which an anonymous whistleblower is planting opaque clues as a means to unmask a huge conspiracy of child-murdering elected officials.

Anyone who has studied the workings of religious cults or mass manias understands that the human brain, far from being an engine of searing skepticism, is highly prone to dysfunction inside sealed and self-reinforcing information loops. Digital technology makes it exponentially easier to create such loops and to lose oneself inside them.

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The lords of digital communication understood exactly what they were seeing as they watched the Trump Riot unfold. If someone as ridiculous and undisciplined as President Trump could mobilize a mob — not just of thugs, but of business executives, schoolteachers and small-town mayors — to assault the U.S. government, what could someone with focus do? Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg took the extraordinary step of banning the president of the United States from the world’s largest social network. On Friday, Twitter permanently suspended the president’s account. There will be no freedom for their platforms, and therefore no profits, if those platforms are used to kill the golden goose of open society.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong on the same day, China dramatically underlined its answer to the question. More than 1,000 police officers fanned out across the formerly free city to arrest more than 50 pro-democracy activists. The Communist Party in Beijing has no intention of permitting anything like a freewheeling Internet to exist anywhere under its control. Digital technology is highly regulated in China, used to control the population rather than to liberate it.

If, in coming years, China’s approach tends to produce stability and order while, in the United States, digital freedom continues to produce the sort of chaos we saw at the Capitol, governments around the world will draw certain conclusions. The trend toward greater liberty and human rights that has enlightened the past half-century will peak and begin to recede. In fact, the tide might go out very quickly; things move fast in the digital age.

Which brings us to freshman Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), whose role in the Trump Riot has cost him a book deal, leading him to complain that his free speech rights are being infringed. He has also lost a mentor (former senator John Danforth said his endorsement of Hawley was “the worst mistake of my life”), and one of his biggest donors (Joplin, Mo., businessman David Humphreys is calling for Hawley to be censured). Both men, and his publisher, were rightly appalled that Hawley continued to lead a demagogic attack on the election results, even after the Capitol insurrection highlighted the risks in blood. “Irresponsible, inflammatory and dangerous,” Humphreys summed up.

The problem with Hawley’s free expression is his demagoguery. By feeding the anarchy at the Capitol, the senator’s free expression threatens the rights of us all, because — as history teaches — where anarchy and repression are the alternatives, repression wins.

A century ago, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. foretold our dilemma in one of his most famous opinions. Freedom of expression, he wrote, can’t coexist with reckless misuse of that freedom. “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre,” Holmes wrote. We can, and do, argue over where the freedom ends and the misuse begins, but unless a line is drawn somewhere, the freedom cannot endure.

I don’t want to live in a world where the line is drawn by a central authority, as in the new Hong Kong. Nor do I relish a world in which the line is drawn by corporate titans, as Facebook and Twitter felt forced to do with Trump. The only alternative is for members of a free society to draw a line on our own behavior, starting with our leaders; to be accountable for the content we broadcast and consume; and to prove that our liberty is compatible with our technology.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Social media is finally pulling the plug on Trump. We still must fight the lies.

The Post’s View: The U.S. and E.U. must respond forcefully to China’s destruction of liberty in Hong Kong

Jennifer Rubin: 10 rules to preserve common sense in the debate about free speech

The Post’s View: The battle over truth looks likely to play out on a new suite of social-media alternatives

Charles Lane: Keep government hands off free speech