Features Australia

Digital revolt & anarchy in the air

Social media threatens the ruling classes

19 June 2021

9:00 AM

19 June 2021

9:00 AM

Comedian Kitty Flanagan suffered a discombobulating start to her new national tour in Noosa recently, during a riff on how sex dolls could be used to teach males about sexual consent (think weaponised orifices, if you really want to know). An older man near the front started complaining loudly that she was painting all men as abusers. (A previous chat had been about trigger warnings, and how rugby league TV broadcasts should include the chyron ‘May contain rapists’).

The audience started murmuring its disapproval and Kitty offered the man his money back. He left, and later a few more of his neighbours also drifted out. Kitty had the audience’s sympathy, but was thrown by the incident and kept returning to it, at one point chiding herself that she had retreated to the non-complaining side of the stage, and physically stepping herself back to the offending corner. She said ruefully they had decided to start the tour in Noosa, a nice middle-class crowd, what could go wrong? In the days after, local social media was alive with the incident, with sympathy running against the bloke. I can see his point, with straight white males everyone’s punching bag these days, but wouldn’t choose such a rude way to make it.

A few days later US aviation authorities reported that unruly passenger incidents were surging, many to do with mask policy, and one hostess had had two front teeth knocked out. A degree of anarchy seemed to be in the air, pun intended.

Third anecdote: a new study shows that US trust in health authorities fell substantially over the last decade, with well under 40 per cent trusting the leadership of national health bodies.

Random anecdotes such as these prove nothing, although they lure us to look for reasons and connections, humans being the pattern-seeking, problem-solving species that we are. These anecdotes are not proof of a bolshy public mood, but they do point to what’s going on in some quarters.

This matters, because social change is driven by tip-of-the-spear minorities; as activist Brigitte Gabriel so ably argued, the peaceful majority is irrelevant.

This idea of rising anarchy dovetails with the prescient thesis of a cult book, The Revolt of the Public, by former CIA media analyst Martin Gurri, which is increasingly mentioned in dispatches. Written in 2014, Revolt argues that digital technology has stripped our elites and institutions of their authority; everyday citizens can see for the first time that their emperors have no clothes, and respect is evaporating accordingly. Gurri cites such incidents as the Climategate emails, which destroyed the veneer of ‘objective scientists’, the L’Aquila earthquake, when Italian authorities downplayed ‘alarmist’ warnings only to be proven tragically wrong six days later, to argue that leaders are increasingly shown to be incompetent.

An exemplar of Gurri’s thesis has occurred in the past few weeks, when the Wuhan lab leak theory, so long ridiculed as the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic, gathered enough steam to break out of the blogosphere and into the legacy media. Democrat politicians, elite institutions and media are now advancing arguments that they pooh-poohed mere months ago. In all of these cases, an unorthodox digital army of citizens and bloggers have uncovered truths that were initially denied by the powerful. Gurri writes: ‘The failure of government isn’t a failure of democracy, but a consequence of the heroic claims of modern government, and of the constantly frustrated expectations these claims have aroused. Industrial organisation, with its cult of the expert and top-down interventionism… has proven disastrous. It has failed in its own terms and has been seen to fail, and it has infected democratic governments with a paralysing fear of the public.’

This battle, between the dissolving authority of the elites and on-the-ground realities as revealed by digital and then legacy media, has made news the frontline of this power struggle. Information is now weaponised in the war between the elites and the governed. The US mainstream media, for example, operates as a praetorian guard for the Biden regime, ignoring news stories such as Hunter Biden’s once-censored laptop, and weaponising narratives such as the 6 January ‘insurrection’ to shore up regime authority. Activism against Trump destroyed their mask of objectivity and has led them into a permanent advocacy role more akin to propaganda than journalism.

Censorship, the suppression of alternative viewpoints, social exclusion, career destruction, cancel culture and de-platforming are all part of the elites’ armoury; on the other side a digital army labours away to find the truth, to prove that Covid-19 possibly did escape from a Wuhan lab; that election fraud did change the result of the US presidential election; that Hunter Biden’s laptop does reveal corruption at the highest levels; that effective Covid treatments are being suppressed; that virus vaccines may be harmful; that Jeffrey Epstein didn’t kill himself; that the ‘settled science’ of climate change is a crock, and more.

Controlling the news narrative in this digital era has become all-important. Gurri’s framework explains, for example, the extraordinary overkill of the Belarusian government in ordering a plane to land to arrest a mere blogger. Governments have lost so much authority in the face of this digital insurrection that they are pulling up the drawbridges and reflexively turning to authoritarianism, trying to keep certain subjects out of view rather than apologise, ‘fess up and honestly explain their mistakes. Former Queensland premier Peter Beattie was a master of that game, coming clean, promising to do better, moving on. Why do so many elites find the path of honesty and humility so difficult?

In truth, governing is neither easy nor black and white. Humans are flawed and so is the information they operate on. We all want security and wise, all-knowing leaders, but life is messy and our authorities are as credible and trustworthy as the average human or group of humans – which is to say, not very.

Where life remains comfortable and news is effectively controlled, trust in authorities will remain high and rebelliousness will be meagre. The polarised and riven US is much further down this road to revolt than Australia, where many, such as the #StandwithDan Victorians, prefer to maintain a naive faith in government and institutions to do the right thing for them, and won’t dig too deep into the digital entrails to discover the really inconvenient truths.

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