As we find ourselves solidly in the year 2021[1], we do so with somewhat renewed hope for a new stage in our social media existence, one of, shall we say, adolescence. We can now perhaps claim to have already made most mistakes inherent to an unsupervised childhood and conceived of social media as merely a game. It took us a good while to realize that we were dealing with a dangerous, addictive game, to be sure, one that pushed us to excess and extremes and which turned into an obsession consuming uncountable hours of our lives.

Citește versiunea în limba română aici.

I have been through a similar moment—ironically, as an adolescent—when my country of birth, Romania, experienced at the beginning of the 1990s a brusque and almost aggressive return of traditional mass media, including dozens of television channels after years of only one state-sponsored channel. We had been reduced to reading only carefully curated “news” and watching two hours of television a day, all promoting the image of the dictator and singing praises to a moribund political, social and economic system that tried to convince us and itself that it offered supreme happiness to the citizens. We all learned then how to filter through the propaganda and become proficient in the tricks of reading between the lines and listening for intonations in the voices of the news announcers that would betray either their personal beliefs about what we were being served as absolute truth or any unwitting mistakes made by the censors. When our society returned to open information access, to freedom of speech and opinion and to political pluralism and democracy after four decades of communist dictatorship (coupled for a while with Soviet military occupation), we all entered into a sort of trance. There was, at first, euphoria over the unbelievable access to information. That then turned into obsession, and even a kind of zombification. I vividly remember my early 1990s compatriots, ashen-faced, dragging their feet to work early in the morning, filling buses, streetcars and subways in a semi-somnambulistic state and, once inside, falling asleep as they hung onto the handrails. They, like us, had nearly all spent the night watching TV into the early morning hours, enraptured by the political and social debates, devouring their content, unable to remove themselves from the screen, sometimes arguing alone in their rooms and waving their fists at the screens without even realizing that the images behind the glass could not see or hear them, convinced deep in their hearts that they were taking an active part in the remaking of their country, that they were necessary pieces in the machinery of our infantile democracy. And, to some extent, they were. For, wasn’t the Romanian Revolution of December 1989 the first ever to be broadcast live?

Compared to that, however, the past decade of utter dependence on social media led to unforeseeable and unpredictable results, and as we have seen on January 6 in the United States, some that turned terrible and terribly violent. Our dependency on the echo chamber created by social media environments—explored and explained by some of its very creators in the 2020 documentary “The Social Dilemma”, including Silicon Valley pioneer Jaron Lanier, the author of the 2018 Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now—ultimately transformed us at our core, even in the hardwiring and synapses of our brains, like a drug. Under that influence, we changed the world irrevocably in the past five or six years alone. For it was under the influence of social media that a new generation of demagogues led the British people to the Brexit vote while a not-so-new generation of US populists drove American conservatives and others to the election of Donald Trump, under whose renewed fervor for and endorsement of extremism an utter worldwide radicalization of Nazi, ultra-religious, extreme right and left movements took place, filling the world with hatred, fear and a will to darkness that humanity has not faced since the years preceding the horrors of World War II.

For all its initial good intentions, we can now argue that social media has pushed the world to make the first step toward a new era of obscurantism. And, to our surprise, it proved to be the very vehicle of that oft-quoted and seldom properly understood claim of French novelist André Malraux in his 1972 participation in the TV show La Légende du siècle (The Legend of the Century): “The 21st century will be spiritual or it won’t be at all.” Ultimately, it is social media itself that has become our spirituality throughout the first two decades of this century. And we converted to it and devoted ourselves to it with utter faith in its goodness.

Luckily, it seems as though we are finally beginning to see how we have been transformed. Slowly but surely, we are starting to clear our thoughts and return, some of us at least, to a more or less commonly shared and agreed-upon reality. The Brits, for instance, are finding themselves facing the reality of trade and customs restrictions imposed after their tempestuous departure from the European Union. The calls for independence and self-governance coming from the citizens of an empire that for centuries occupied more than a quarter of the globe have now been replaced by calls for help for the fish and the meat rotting away in customs in the Netherlands and France. Late, of course, many now see how they were duped by the voice of demagoguery, heavily amplified by social media.

Across the Atlantic, the supporters of yet another populist demagogue, puerile and narcissistic, could not stop to think about the implications of their actions. They allowed themselves to be carried away by the wave of hatred spewed by their idolized political leader and attempted a civilian insurrection by invading and occupying for a few hours one of the majorly symbolic seats of American democracy, the Capitol Hill. Pursued and arrested by law enforcement institutions for federal crimes, they are now shaking themselves as if brutally awakened from a nightmare. Again, however, that is only for some. Yet another group of blind followers of a social media-promoted and amplified conspiracy theory, QAnon, filled the internet with their disappointment and frustration at the end of the day on January 20, when their mysteriously anonymous jokester voice from “inside the Government” (who had long before that day safely left the stage of the deceit they had created) had prophesized that Donald Trump would yet again take over the helm of the country, arrest all his political enemies and radically revamp a system that they had been told to perceive as corrupt to the bone. Lacking the critical ability to realize that the “savior” who had received their vote four years before to “drain the swamp” had turned into one of the most corrupt and profiteering presidents in the history of the Republic, they now felt betrayed and ashamed of their readiness to believe an anonymous internet source without any grounding in reality and truth. But, again, that was only some of them. The examples of disenchantment with the twisted echo chamber reality created by social media yet continue.

Worldwide, the Hungarians, the Poles, the Turks have fallen prey to it and endorsed authoritarian figures to lead their countries, made radical changes to their governments, even to their legislation and Constitutions. Through social media, extremist minorities, frustrated by their public silencing within a majority-led democratic system, had now found an open agora—ironically, as the internet itself was created with the aim to facilitate free and open access to information—to promote their messages of intolerance and hate.

Recently, yet another country with a troubled modern history of anti-Semitism and support of nazi ideas, my own home country of Romania found itself taken by surprise at the almost 6% of the popular vote in the December 2020 general elections that was cast for the Alliance for the Unity of Romanians. A direct descendant from the post-1989 nationalist and anti-Semitic Greater Romania Party, the AUR shows ideological connections not only with the Romanian interwar fascists of the Legion of the Archangel Michael (commonly known as the Iron Guard) and its history of hatred, but also with many of the contemporary US radical organizations, including the KKK and the Proud Boys, among others. Leading Romanian intellectuals, journalists, politicians, public opinion leaders and influencers bled rivers of ink asking themselves how this was even possible. How did it get so far? They did willfully forget, of course, that many of them publicly supported in social media and elsewhere so many of the very same political positions now openly embraced by AUR. And it was through their encouragement and endorsement that Romanians understood religious extremism, misogyny, racism (historically against the Roma minority of Romania, as well as against people of color everywhere), denial of gender diversity, and outright rejection of political correctness (narrowly conceived as “censorship”) to all be valid, correct, and moral positions to adopt.

As with their British, American, Russian, Turkish, Hungarian or Polish counterparts, the message of intolerance generated by the Romanian elites took hold of people and led to an anachronistic historical move. If until fifteen years or so ago, all these positions and opinions would have been publicized through books and cultural magazines, social media has now opened the path for the same ideas to be easily accessible—subscription-free and predigested by other users—to a mass of people insufficiently educated to critically discern the difference between a point of view and a call to arms. As such, we did learn the hard way that social media does not give idiots only the right to speak, as Italian philosopher and semiotician Umberto Eco said in 2015 at the University of Turin, but it also creates the illusion that they are invited to be equal and active participants in discourse and debate that they cannot comprehend properly. Yet again, Eco’s dictum from 2015 is hauntingly accurate and deeply alarming:

Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community. Then they were quickly silenced, but now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner. It’s the invasion of the idiots.

What a sad reality: È l’invasione degli imbecilli.

Let’s take, however, these rude awakenings from the deep “sleep of reason”—as ignorance was called by yet another astute observer of the budding modern condition, Spanish painter Francisco Goya in his 1790s Caprices—as a promising sign. The laments of those taken by surprise at how far things have gone, their public questioning, are, in my opinion, a good thing. We seem to be coming out from the influence of the stupor of social media and the veil is being lifted from our eyes. It is a slow process, and it is not yet accessible to everyone. It will take a good while before we can rid ourselves of our addiction.

The fear of the evil generated moved even the creators and owners of social media platforms into action. They finally rang the alarm and began imposing restrictions. The sheer danger of a US president who was connected 24/7 to social media, commandeering the attention of hordes of followers ready to obey his every direction, his every command, seems to have finally alerted even those who stood to profit the most from people being active on their platforms: board members and CEOs. There came a point, sometime late last year, when they asked themselves if the profit they were making from the activity of one public person galvanizing so many energies and agitations was worth the damage generated against an already weakened democratic system. And then again, in the absence of that democratic state system, they probably had to wonder what chances would capitalism itself have to thrive. So, in the choice between the specter of dictatorship, censorship and possible limits to the free market versus immediate profit, they opted to limit the demagogue’s access as well as that of his toxic enablers and followers to their platforms.

Gaudeamus igitur, let’s then rejoice, for now at least, that we seem to be entering the adolescence of our social media existence. And while the teenage years are not known to be the age of wisdom and sane judgment, at least they bring us closer to maturity, with proper guidance and discipline. Long ago, it seemed impossible to imagine that we would see warnings about the health hazards caused by smoking cigarettes printed on the very boxes that the product was packaged in. Could it be that we are now ready for similar warnings on social media platforms? So that when we open Facebook or Twitter, we must always read and acknowledge something like, “Excessive time spent on and extended exposure to this app may lead to political radicalization, extremism and violence, inflicting harm to yourself and others.” Could this be a desideratum for 2021 and beyond?

[1] This article is an extended and edited version of the article „Către maturizarea noastră digitală” (Toward Our Digital Maturity), published initially in Romanian in Revista Cariere, No. 270 (January-February 2021), pp. 70-71. (


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