Prince Harry: An unhealthy digital world led to ‘a literal attack on democracy’

Prince Harry gave a new interview to Fast Company about one of the larger issues he and his wife will be working on for years: healthier social media and a fairer internet. It’s a big issue and it’s not something that someone can just dip in and out of, honestly. Terrorists are radicalized on the internet, and coups are planned on social media. Kids and adults are bullied, harassed, threatened and doxxed on the internet. There are so many places on the internet which operate as the Wild West, with little to no governance or ethical standards. Just a few weeks ago, with the Capitol siege, we saw an event which was the culmination of years of digital fascist propaganda, racist hate speech on the internet, and online radicalization. You can read Harry’s full interview here. Some highlights:

His Fast Company essay six months ago warned of what happened at the Capitol: “When I wrote that piece, I was sharing my view that dominant online platforms have contributed to and stoked the conditions for a crisis of hate, a crisis of health, and a crisis of truth. And I stand by that, along with millions of others who see and feel what this era has done at every level—we are losing loved ones to conspiracy theories, losing a sense of self because of the barrage of mistruths, and at the largest scale, losing our democracies. The magnitude of this cannot be overstated, as noted even by the defectors who helped build these platforms. It takes courage to stand up, cite where things have gone wrong, and offer proposals and solutions.

It’s personal to him: “I was really surprised to witness how my story had been told one way, my wife’s story had been told one way, and then our union sparked something that made the telling of that story very different. That false narrative became the mothership for all of the harassment you’re referring to. It wouldn’t have even begun had our story just been told truthfully. But the important thing about what we experienced is that it led to us hearing from so many others around the world. We’ve thought a lot about those in much more vulnerable positions than us, and how much of a need there is for real empathy and support. To their own degree, everyone has been deeply affected by the current consequences of the digital space. It could be as individual as seeing a loved one go down the path of radicalisation or as collective as seeing the science behind the climate crisis denied. We are all vulnerable to it, which is why I don’t see it as a tech issue, or a political issue—it’s a humanitarian issue.

Creating a better digital world: “The avalanche of misinformation we are all inundated with is bending reality and has created this distorted filter that affects our ability to think clearly or even understand the world around us. What happens online does not stay online—it spreads everywhere, like wildfire: into our homes and workplaces, into the streets, into our minds. The question really becomes about what to do when news and information sharing is no longer a decent, truthful exchange, but rather an exchange of weaponry. The answer I’ve heard from experts in this space is that the common denominator starts with accountability. There has to be accountability to collective wellbeing, not just financial incentive. It’s hard for me to understand how the platforms themselves can eagerly take profit but shun responsibility.

A shared accountability too: “There also has to be common, shared accountability. We can call for digital reform and debate how that happens and what it looks like, but it’s also on each of us to take a more critical eye to our own relationship with technology and media. To start, it doesn’t have to be that complicated. Consider setting limits on the time you spend on social media, stop yourself from endlessly scrolling, fact-check the source and research the information you see, and commit to taking a more compassionate approach and tone when you post or comment. These might seem like little things, but they add up.

On the Capitol siege: “We have seen time and again what happens when the real-world cost of misinformation is disregarded. There is no way to downplay this. There was a literal attack on democracy in the United States, organised on social media, which is an issue of violent extremism. It is widely acknowledged that social media played a role in the genocide in Myanmar and was used as a vehicle to incite violence against the Rohingya people, which is a human rights issue. And in Brazil, social media provided a conduit for misinformation which ultimately brought destruction to the Amazon, which is an environmental and global health issue. In a way, taking a predominately hands-off approach to problems for so long is itself an exercise in power.

[From Fast Company]

What surprises me is that so much of what has happened in the past month has been something of a grand experiment in both directions. The terrorists who committed insurrection on the Capitol were conducting a violent experiment on the state of American democracy, and the resilience of the republic. On the other side, the social media companies that decided to deplatform Donald Trump and his Nazi minions en masse were also conducting an experiment: to see if they could effectively deplatform those people and what would happen next. The results of both experiments have been grotesque and fascinating. For one, I think social media companies *did* learn that they had more power than they initially believed, and they had more liability too. As for the Capitol terrorists who were largely radicalized by Trump and the internet… we still don’t know the half of it.

Anyway, I like that Harry is trying and that he and Meghan are using their platforms to draw attention to work being done by other groups too.

Photos courtesy of Backgrid, Avalon Red.

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