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Drowning in the Internet’s Political Sewers

Facebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing in 2018. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Donald Trump is marshaling a legion of internet trolls for his impending re-election battle. Ostensibly, this summit is being convened to discuss the censorship of right-wing voices on social media. In reality, Trump is bolstering the morale of his online militia, which could be more effective than traditional TV surrogates because it doesn’t have any official ties to the campaign. These “activists” advance Trump’s cause by (for instance) making him videos of Joe Biden molesting himself, which POTUS can then post to Twitter. And if the content ends up being too spicy, he can just delete it and accept no further blame. It’s a win/win for @realDonaldTrump.

At the same time, Senate progressives are summoning Big Tech’s Axis of Evil—Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple—to Capitol Hill. Elizabeth Warren will look Facebook executive Matt Perault square in the eye and tell him that his company’s failure to prevent “Russian interference” in the 2016 election means Facebook will be broken up under anti-monopoly laws. Twitter, of course, is exempt: it already does a pretty good job of identifying agents of the Kremlin, like Joseph Cox and James Woods.

To quote Henry Kissinger, it’s a pity both sides can’t lose.

The president is finding it increasingly difficult to justify his own re-election bid to his more discerning supporters. Take foreign policy. Trump ran in 2016 as a realist, pledging not to attempt regime change in Syria and to stand up to the Saudi government. He quickly reneged on both promises. His boosters credit him with avoiding a showdown with Kim Jong-un, but then most Americans go their entire lives without launching a nuclear strike on North Korea. Why should Mr. Trump be singled out for praise? So far, his only tangible achievement has been un-declaring war on Iran, which makes him a Jimmy Carter-tier president at best.

Once the Democrats nominate their 2020 contender, Trump’s campaign will be almost entirely negative. He’ll attack his opponent because he’ll have a hard time defending his own record. But he can’t spend the next eight or nine months twiddling his thumbs. This social media summit is his attempt to mobilize his hardcore base: the personality cultists who would, quite literally, never dissent from him in any meaningful way. Churn out the clickbait and fire up the meme machines. Pump out more videos of Charlie Kirk goysplaining the Torah to rabbis and making teenage girls cry. Get them scared, get them angry, get them laughing. Just make sure everyone stays aboard the MAGA train.

Progressives have made a valiant bid for control of the internet’s political sewers. Alas, their memes were never as funny and their fake news was never as convincing. #NotMyPresident just isn’t as viscerally satisfying as #LockHerUp. So the Left is doing what any zealot would do: if they can’t win the game, they’ll at least try to bring down the stadium. Thus did Elizabeth Warren write in a (slightly hypocritical) Facebook ad:

Facebook and Google account for 70% of all internet traffic – if we didn’t run ads on Facebook, like this one, we wouldn’t be able to get our message out around the country. But that’s not how the internet should work. We need to break up the three big tech companies that dominate the internet, stifle competition, and influence how our democracy works. But it’s going to take a grassroots movement to get it done. So if you’re with me, then join us today.

Now, I’m 100 percent behind Senator Warren’s war on Silicon Valley. But what does she expect the way of “competition”? Destroying Google would empower Bing and Yahoo, which are owned by Microsoft and Verizon, respectively. (They’re also garbage.) And what does she imagine will succeed the social media giants? A more open-concept Facebook? That’s Twitter. A less politicized Twitter? That’s Facebook. Twitter and Facebook, but with pictures instead of words? That’s Instagram.

The point of competition is to produce a better product, but it doesn’t get any better than this. In fact, it only gets worse. Because the problem with the internet isn’t the lack of competition—the internet is the problem. Don’t matter how many times you slice the pie: it’s still filled with pig anuses and battery acid.

I went into all of this in greater detail in my recent Luddite manifesto, but it bears repeating: social media acts like a poker machine. It creates what are called ludic loops: “repeated cycles of uncertainty, anticipation and feedback—and the rewards are just enough to keep you going.”

These sites change your brain chemistry to produce psychological cravings. For most, the “reward” for putting another coin in the slot (racking up likes on a selfie, for instance) produces a rush like cocaine. For politics junkies, it’s much more like road rage. We get high off the anger and hatred. We lose our capacity for empathy.

“That’s not how the internet should work either,” Senator Warren might retort. Sure. And maybe war oughtn’t to be about killing people. Maybe it ought to be about sitting under oak trees and feeding each other strawberries until we sort out our problems using words. But whatever you want to call that conflict resolution process, it isn’t war. And whatever you want to call that place—the place devoid of rageaholics getting whipped up over fake news and laughing at vulgar, nihilistic memes—it isn’t the internet.

For one, that’s how Facebook and Twitter make their money. Anyone who wants to curtail the ludic loop mechanisms on social media would also have to ban gambling. (I’m game.) More importantly, people like splashing around in the raw sewage that bubbles up on social media. If folks wanted nuanced, thoughtful content on their newsfeed, The American Conservative would have two billion subscribers. But they don’t. The people want sensationalist, hyper-partisan garbage that can be reduced to snide, 280-character tweets, including at least 16 exclamation points and/or question marks. That’s why Facebook has two billion users.

Senator Warren’s beef is really with human beings and the stupid decisions we make. So she’s doing what any socialist would do: take away our ability to make decisions. She’s going to use government regulation to overcome human frailty. She’ll utilize the coercive power of the state to create a new, better internet that’s suited exactly to her own liking.

But what Senator Warren and her comrades envision can’t be accomplished by a bureaucrat. Only an alchemist could transmute this titanic dumpster fire we call the World Wide Web into some kind of Plato’s Academy, tastefully decorated with pictures of cats and populated exclusively by plus-sized disabled LGBTQ people of color.

The internet is what it is, and it can only get worse from here. If you don’t like it, don’t use it. And you shouldn’t. So don’t.

Michael Warren Davis is associate editor of the Catholic Herald. Find him at www.michaelwarrendavis.com.

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