The slow death of liberalism. Rising demagoguery in every corner of the world. An American president to whom facts are irrelevant. Given the increasingly authoritarian trend in our politics, it might seem that George Orwell got it right 70 years ago when he wrote his novel 1984. “Freedom,” Winston Smith writes in his diary, “is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.” But for the inhabitants of 2020, alternative facts exist and nothing seems certain anymore. The second the president of the United States questions an objectively true fact, for example, it becomes a matter of argument. Facts don’t exist, only opinions do. 

This deceptive ethos is all the more significant because the leaders of Britain, Brazil, Russia, China, and India regularly practice it, to say nothing of the authoritarian nightmare emerging in central and eastern Europe. The clocks might not be striking thirteen, but fact-based, civil society is slowly creeping close. 

Last week, Twitter fact-checked the U.S. president, Donald Trump, for the first time, leaving disclaimers under two inaccurate tweets about the integrity of mail-in ballots. It is peculiar, however, that Jack Dorsey and his band of presumably intelligent clickity-clacks chose this moment to act when the purveyors of right-wing, populist snake-oil have been riding roughshod over them since the company’s founding. The multi-billion dollar company allowed the Brexit campaign to falsely claim that the U.K. sent £350 million a week to the European Union; allowed unsavory characters like Matteo Salvini, Marine LePen, and Geert Wilders to reinvigorate fascism in Europe based on lies; and allowed Donald Trump to stoke misguided fear all the way to the presidency. After so much damage has been done to democracy and discourse across the world, it seems odd that two tweets about mail-in ballots were the tiny straws that broke the camel’s back. Nevertheless, it’s about damn time.

Orwell saw the danger in lies masquerading as the truth. But the ruination of democratic normalities at the hands of social media is far more complicated. There is not, as Orwell feared, an authoritarian state that tells you what to think. But social media has dismantled the common set of facts upon which citizens base their opinions. Gone are the days when the “big three” CBS, NBC, and ABC, presented the same facts to the American people; just as the BBC did in Britain. Now, anyone can tweet anything they like, without fact-check or qualification. Any tweet, no matter how valid, can be refuted simply with another tweet. Science, facts, and data don’t carry the weight they once did, for they too are reduced to the level of opinion. In 1984, Orwell was keen to warn us of the dangers of authority. But, in an age when even basic facts struggle to carry authority, we should also fear the total loss of it. 

The Right has weaponized the blurring of fact and fiction repeatedly over the last decade. In a recent example only last week, Dominic Cummings, the chief advisor to Britain’s prime minister, was found to have broken the lockdown rules implemented in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Rules, it is worth noting, that he helped to write. To any normal observer, the 260-mile trip he took from London to his parents’ house in County Durham was a clear breach of both the letter and spirit of the law, but he nevertheless denied any wrongdoing. A five-day media frenzy ensued and culminated in 60 Tory MPs demanding his resignation and Douglas Ross, a minister in the Scotland Office, stepping down in protest. Nevertheless, several high ranking members of the cabinet took to Twitter to falsely deny that any wrongdoing had taken place. 

The very simple reality that Dominic Cummings had broken the rules was instantly saturated with doubt. Not even an apology, let alone a resignation, ever came. There were no facts; only one side of the debate claiming he did something wrong, and the other side denying it. The Scottish author John Niven humorously posted on Twitter (of all places): “Pissing myself at all these people who think Cummings will have to resign. Where you headed with them morals? 2015?” It seems society has come a long way since facts mattered and public officials were held to a common moral or factual standard. In 2020, common standards don’t exist.

The affair demonstrated the worst symptom of our social media age: that nothing matters anymore. Public officials can get away with what they like, so long as they can spin their way out of a tricky situation by reducing fact-based arguments to the level of subjective debate, and Twitter is nearly always their primary tool. 

Orwellian though this modern condition might be, Aldous Huxley predicted it more accurately. In Huxley’s Brave New World, there isn’t an obvious authoritarian figure, and it is unclear what is true and what is not. The hazy, dream-like condition of the characters is emphasized by the strangely desolate nature of the scenes where Bernard Marx and John the Savage seem to be among the only few humans left. There aren’t Orwellian diktats from officials or any signs of overwhelming authority. Rather, there is only an impersonal, barren setting verging on nothingness. Huxley’s characters’ interactions with others are even limited. The individualized experience of Brave New World leaves the reader in endless doubt about what is truly taking place in the narrative. When there are few characters in a book, there are fewer opportunities to get out of the protagonists’ heads. It is a condition not dissimilar to the lack of common experience in the Twittersphere, whose echo chambers have severely reduced common experiences in society. People do not watch the same news channels anymore, but instead, get their news from Twitter. When everyone is shouting different things, some true, some not, who is to know the difference? In some way, Twitter recreates Huxley’s lack of communal, shared settings—providing a dystopian nightmare for us all to enjoy.

Huxley’s society has even removed pain: the sedative drug soma gives instant relief from the struggle of everyday life. Pain and happiness are obscured, just as truth and lies are obscured. Society’s clear-cut distinctions cease to exist, so, as the Cummings affair showed, nothing matters. The same sentiment has been issued by Trump repeatedly, including recently, when he started taking the drug hydroxychloroquine and claimed—without evidence—that it might cure COVD-19. “Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not,” Trump declared. It is exactly this ambivalence in the face of fact that social media abets and right-wing populists like Trump and Cummings weaponize. Orwell warned us that truth and lie can be reversed; Huxley warned us that the distinction between truth and lie can even cease to exist. There is no longer fact, nor fiction, there is only endless doubt.

Two days after his mail ballot tweets were corrected by fact-checkers, Trump threatened to shut down Twitter. This authoritarian threat of censorship would have sent Orwell spinning in his grave. But the social conditions that allowed a man like Donald Trump to occupy the White House are rooted in a Brave New World-style social nightmare. The turn away from common sources of information, the blurring of divisions between right and wrong, and the lack of social cohesion are only getting worse. Huxley has been spinning for some time. 

Division breeds division. The difference in culture between the richest and the poorest, between the Huxleyesque alphas and the epsilons, has been growing over the last 50 years. Many were amazed when the epsilons of the midwest rebelled and voted for Trump, just as many were when the epsilons of England’s north broke from the Labour party at the 2019 general election—but they rebelled by their very nature. In any decent society, epsilons and deltas shouldn’t exist. Shame on the powerful that they do.

A divided society, ruled by Twitter and the absence of fact, will struggle to remain a democracy for long. The brief dopamine hit that comes with a Twitter notification (eerily similar to soma) is about the only benefit that Twitter has brought to society. Unfortunately, one can’t wind back the clock. What is here is here to stay, and the hope of a world without social media is a pipe dream. At the very least, Twitter must ensure that they do not cower to pressure, and continue fact-checking every single Tweet they can. For a company of their size and monetary power, they have no excuse. 

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