The New York Times is flush with heady political advice for those in power now that its candidate is ensconced in the White House. In his Feb. 2 article, “How the Biden Administration Can Help Solve Our Reality Crisis,” Kevin Roose offers advice on dealing with conspiracy theories, fake news, and the teeming masses who believe such hoaxes, lies, and collective delusions.
Roose writes, “The muddled, chaotic information ecosystem that produces these misguided beliefs doesn’t just jeopardize some lofty ideal of national unity. It actively exacerbates our biggest national problems.” How can President Biden bring unity to our divided country if everyone has their own version of reality?
The article assumes that since the country is on the brink of right-wing, white supremacist insurrection — presaged by the deadly attack on the Capitol — radical measures must be taken. The onslaught of dangerous disinformation and misinformation must be countered from the top down. So, our intrepid writer consulted some experts about what to do. Several “recommended that the Biden administration put together a cross-agency task force to tackle disinformation and domestic extremism, which would be led by something like a ‘reality czar.’’’ Roose goes on, “It sounds a little dystopian, I’ll grant. But let’s hear them out.” Well, I did, and it does.
The reality czar would lead a task force that could “meet regularly with tech platforms, and push for structural changes that could help those companies tackle their own extremism and misinformation problems.” That would include giving tech platforms “safe harbor exemptions” giving permission to share data about “Qanon and other conspiracy theory communities with researchers and government agencies without running afoul of privacy laws.”
So, privacy laws should be cast aside because people with unpopular ideas are sharing them on social media. But it is one thing to hold unsupportable and paranoid conspiracy theories; it is quite another to plot the violent overthrow of the United States government. I wonder if the reality czar and company could discern the difference. These czarist practices “could become the tip of the spear for the federal government’s response to the reality crisis.” Read that again, slowly. The federal government, partnering with Big Tech, would respond to rectify “the reality crisis” with its spear. Big Brother would be armed by Big Tech and we would be in Big Trouble.
To justify these dystopian and draconian measures, the experts need to demonstrate that the threat level is sufficient to warrant smoking out suspects even if privacy laws and free speech must be damned. The article doesn’t explicitly make the comparison, but other media outlets are comparing the Capitol rioters to foreign terrorists. Thus, if we spied on foreign terrorists, then we should spy on domestic terrorists.
But I smell a false analogy. Doubtless, there are potentially violent extremist elements (on the right and the left) who want to fly under the radar to devise their nefarious purposes. Social media were employed to coordinate and execute the attack on the Capitol as well as to plan and coordinate the many violent and deadly riots of last summer. These dangerous people and groups should be monitored. But is the threat level high enough to justify spying on so many citizens? And would extremists of all kinds (on the right and the left) be equally monitored? Are the likes of the ragtag and ridiculous protesters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 dangerous enough to justify the surveillance of all who — to use two of Roose’s examples — question the results of presidential election or think that COVID-19 came from a Chinese lab?
The article quotes Joan Donovan, the research director of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy: “We must open the hood on social media so that civil rights lawyers and real watchdog organizations can investigate human rights abuses enabled or amplified by technology.” That means that the government gets into decrypting algorithms which were set up for privacy. How many people will be their targets?
The term reality czar for this position is eerily apt. Think: unaccountable Russian monarch. I didn’t think we had czars in America, but that those with political power were either elected or appointed through proper means.
Freedom of speech is a defining American principle, but it must be defended perpetually and vigilantly. Otherwise, authoritarians and demagogs will rob citizens of that freedom in the name of noble-sounding ideals. Having a reality czar is a dreadful idea, since the position is already occupied by God, and all God-pretenders are both fallible and dangerous.
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D., is author of “Truth Decay.”