But did Trump truly have a pathway to overturn his defeat, or was all the consternation over a coming coup just a massive media — and particularly, social media — overreaction?
“What was predicted: mass election violence, chaos, and the end of democracy,” observed heterodox leftist commentator Zaid Jilani. “What happened: rage tweeting, comical lawsuits, and an otherwise fairly robust voter turnout.” Or as Matt Taibbi, another like-minded contrarian, put it previously: “We are told the Most Important Thing Ever is happening for days or weeks at a time, until subjects are abruptly dropped and forgotten, but the tone of warlike emergency remains.”
It’s true that many such panics don’t pan out, and some are utterly misconceived. But it’s also too glib to simply dismiss them all as tempests in a Twitter teapot. Yes, the social media and cable news chatter about Trump’s gambits did often seem like people catastrophizing and overreacting to the latest bit of information. But some of those catastrophes might have come to pass had people not reacted so strongly — even if sometimes too strongly — to the prospect of them.
In the Hebrew Bible, this is known as the prophet’s paradox. The problem is this: If you warn people about something, and they heed your counsel and avoid it, your prophecy ends up looking false. Does the lack of catastrophe mean the warning was mistaken — or that it was accurate? After the fact, it’s impossible to really know.
In the biblical book of Jonah, the titular prophet is instructed by God to warn the city of Nineveh that it will be destroyed if it does not mend its ways. But Jonah runs away rather than deliver this prophecy. Among several rabbinical explanations for this puzzling choice is this: Jonah knew that the people of Nineveh would listen to his prophecy of doom, repent and be forgiven, and he didn’t want to end up looking like a liar who promised a calamity that never came.
Precisely because of this paradox, the preeminent 12th-century Jewish jurist Maimonides ruled that one can be deemed a false prophet only if one predicts something good will happen and it does not. A negative prophecy, by contrast, cannot be so easily falsified, Maimonides wrote, because it’s entirely possible that a prophet’s premonition will forestall the foretold disaster, and so the misfortune’s failure to materialize does not discredit the prophet.
Lord Jonathan Sacks, who served as chief rabbi for Britain and died this month, put it similarly in September: “If a prediction comes true, it’s succeeded. If a prophecy comes true, it’s failed. And basically that’s what prophets did — they warned in order to avoid. … The doom and gloom is all there in order to generate activity, which generates hope.”
What does this have to do with us? Well, it pretty aptly describes the rickety role of alarmist media — particularly social media — in our high-stakes political conversation. On the one hand, it’s true that wild-eyed fulminations about impending Trumpian totalitarianism often strayed from the rails of reality. On the other hand, it was precisely the overwhelming public pressure and scrutiny over this prospect that ultimately led key actors who initially covered for Trump’s conspiracy theories to back down. Emily W. Murphy, the General Services Administration official who resisted acknowledging Biden’s win, folded only after an immense outcry that gained momentum online. Before Nov. 9, most people didn’t know Murphy’s name. After the election, Twitter made sure many did.
The same held true for the Republican members of a key Michigan elections board, who last week refused to certify Detroit’s election results, only to reverse themselves hours later following instant Internet-led backlash. Similarly, while many on social media had overreacted earlier in the year to decontextualized videos of routine removals of mailboxes, their vigilance on the mismanagement of the U.S. Postal Service helped pressure politicians to ensure its holes were at least mostly plugged in time to pull off the greatest mail-in election in American history.
In other words, the prophets of the Internet helped avert catastrophe with their panicked pronouncements, with online agitation driving real-world remedies.
This is undoubtedly an unstable and unsatisfactory arrangement. It doesn’t give us a hard and fast rule to determine whether a given panic is sensational or significant. But it’s a more realistic assessment of the function of online outrage in our discourse than dismissing it outright. It’s not an ideal system, but it’s what we’ve got. Or, as the Talmudic rabbis once put it: “From the day that the Temple was destroyed, prophecy was taken from the prophets and given to imbeciles and children.”
It’s almost like they saw Twitter coming.