The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Internet anger helped inspire Jan. 6. To memorialize it, let’s log off for a day.

Anniversary offers us a chance to step back and avoid the bait

The U.S. Capitol in Washington. (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Earlier this week, ahead of the anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, a new Washington Post-University of Maryland poll offered some of the grimmest metrics yet about the state of public trust and extremism in the United States. “The percentage of Americans who say violent action against the government is justified at times stands at 34 percent,” the poll found. It’s the highest figure on record in over two decades and a double-digit jump from 2015 when a similar study was conducted.

This finding is less surprising than it should be — especially if you spend enough time online. As a coda to a year marred by enduring rage over the 2020 presidential election, the despair and endless slog of pandemic life, vaccines, inflation and political stasis, it resonates with sentiments that many of us surely witness, and possibly feel, in the virtual spaces we inhabit. Whether you’re wishing a harmless “happy birthday” to a distant relative on Facebook or searching for a dentist on Nextdoor, it seems nearly impossible to do either without encountering the toxic fury that has been prioritized in social media feeds.

By now, we know what study after study says about how moral outrage is a key feature of social media, regardless of whether we’re exposed to content we agree with or not. We also know that platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter profit most from what polarizes best. It’s practically conventional wisdom that hashing out all our politics online and in relative anonymity, erodes discourse, weaponizes opinion, spreads lies and artificially makes enemies out of strangers.

You don’t have to be plotting an insurrection to be familiar with this dynamic: Toxicity is so essential to our modern digital lives that there is no disentangling it from the ways we use the Internet — and the ways tech companies make use of us — today. There are not enough cute Corgi videos in the world to leave us refreshed when our social feed refreshes. For most of us, logging off altogether isn’t an option — too many relationships tied up in Facebook, maybe, or too many professional responsibilities tied up with Twitter. But what we can do is take a break. And this week offers us an ideal occasion to do so.

How the Internet lost its soul

Last year’s attack on the Capitol showed just how thoroughly the Internet’s ugliness has transformed us. Though initially dismissed as fringe militia members, unwashed loners and basement dwellers, the cast of characters that tried to subvert the confirmation of President Biden’s electoral win included teachers, public officials, religious leaders, members of law enforcement and the military, CEOs, and small-business owners. Even if the scene on Jan. 6 had the visuals of a low-rent “Les Misérables,” the composition of the crowd had undeniable elements of Mayberry. And that alone speaks to the depth of the problems fueled by digital bubbles, misinformation and online anger.

A unique aspect of the Post-UMD poll highlights this tendency: Of the 1,101 interviews for the poll, the vast majority of them (999) were self-administered over the Internet, leading observers to suggest that the anti-government sentiments expressed were influenced by respondents being “more willing to voice socially undesirable opinions in self-administered surveys,” instead of when asked directly by an interviewer.

In many ways, this is a perfect capsule for what’s fueling our polarization — a deficit of real-life engagement, direct conversation and basic understanding. Think of the reality show fans who casually send death threats via Instagram to television “villains” whose only crime is being rude in selectively edited clips. Or consider the ease with which many of us rush to dunk on a bad tweet, even after hundreds or thousands of others have already pointed out what’s bad about it. Anger comes easy online, partly because self-righteousness can be so satisfying, even when a little reflection might reveal that we’re not in the right.

I study the Internet's flaws. The pandemic reminded me of its joys.

The anniversary of the Capitol attack offers us a chance to step back and avoid the bait. Though the allure of digital warfare or the fleeting, empty dopamine rush that comes from adding to a ratio has become the norm, a better way to mark Jan. 6 — this year and probably every year — is to get offline and commit our attention to the interactions that make us less like caricatures and more like people.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read the news or check email or Slack with our colleagues: Some elements of our online lives are harder to let go of than others. But we can still try to be a little less online. It will always be tempting to log on to Reddit or Twitter or Facebook, to scroll through and look for digital bruises to push. But we’re better off taking this as an opportunity to reflect on the world, stepping back, if only for a little while, from the ugly feelings that pull us apart and the companies that amplify them.

Despite what every social media platform says about “fostering community,” nuance and complexity still do best in the physical world. On this Jan. 6, and possibly every one after, we would all benefit from spending a little more time there.