Restocking our own shelves

It’s been a little over a week since England entered a third national lockdown as part of the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic that we’ve all come to know so well. Too soon to tell if the measures are working, but long enough for the side effects to bite.

In some ways we appear to be more resilient and resigned to the act of locking down. No longer do we strip the shelves of toilet roll like we did the first time. In some ways we have evolved.

Yet in other parts of our existence we seem to be walking our species back to the level of primordial soup. Nowhere more present is an example of this than the United States of America where our cousins are engaged in the act of impeaching their President for the second time.

Unlike with our attitudes towards lockdowns, however, it would seem in this repeat episode we, as a society, continue to grasp at the shelves in front of us, searching for something to wipe our arses with after the mess we’ve left behind, and thankfully the word ‘impeachment’ also sounds like a luxurious way to do the job.

Whilst the riots on Capitol Hill do indeed appear to be akin to America looking around the world and excusing itself to go to the bathroom, we can at least be thankful that the political and societal stomach ache of the last few years might just be coming to an end.

The step-change came, essentially, when two men finally decided to do something. The right thing. If the moment of the riots was indeed America’s toilet break, the interventions by Facebook and Twitter into the accounts of Donald Trump and his cult-like followers were like the hosts at a party announcing the party’s over, even if as soon as those who crashed it leave the whole thing starts back up again.

Social media companies have spent years providing us with opportunities to expose the best and worst of ourselves, not unlike how we do so at a party. There is always one who turns into a superstar after a few drinks, emerging from their shell to tell jokes and reveal they’re actually a likeable kind of person. And yet we all know the horrors and tragedies that happen at parties too. That’s how parties are like social media networks – a complicated ritual that most of us experience but few of us truly understand, but something that definitely has the potential to show us at our best, or our worst.

So when the hosts stood up and announced a number of guests would be leaving we were all a bit confused. None of us were used to the sight of Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey getting tough toward people like Donald Trump. But they did it.

Some people say the social media companies shouldn’t have intervened so directly, and that it raises questions around freedom of speech. Those are the people we have to remind about the difference between that and freedom of platform. Just because you can say whatever you want, doesn’t mean you can say it wherever you want to. I’ve had a run-in with this kind of debate myself in the past when I decided to revoke an invitation to a local punk band to sing at our municipally-funded festival on the basis of publicised intentions to use the stage as a platform to impose their political views on the assembled audience of families. I made the right decision then, I believe, and Zuckerberg and Dorsey made the right decision to suspend the account of Donald Trump and those of his supporters.

They’re not heroes, however. As one police officer, Michael Fanone, described to news outlets following the riots on Capitol Hill, he was grateful for some in the mob who afforded him some protection but, to use his words, f**k you for for being there in the first place.

I feel the same about the social media leaders who are now starting to take a more active stand on what’s happening around them, recognising their ability and their moral duty to guide the path of humanity through the positions they have been afforded. However, I regret deeply the lateness of their arrival and their role in the construction of the systems and algorithms that led to the situation becoming so deadly and serious in the first place. They’ve taken our globalised society to the edge. They took a tool – a gift even – that was for everyone and they built methods that have resulted in almost everyone being abused and manipulated – sometimes simply by each other.

As we pick ourselves up from the pandemic in 2021, so too should we take this moment as a time to change how we approach our relationship with the human beings we have been unable to mingle with for nearly a year now. I opened this column by observing how we had stopped stripping our supermarkets bare of toilet roll. Perhaps now we need to apply the same resilience to how we approach social media, otherwise there will come a point when our society is no longer restocked.