“Don’t wanna be an American idiot
Don’t want a nation under the new media
And can you hear the sound of hysteria?
The subliminal mind fuck America”

It was back in September 2004 that Billie Joe Armstrong and Green Day angrily belted out these lyrics. It was the same year Facebook launched and nearly two years before Twitter. So, of course, the media referred to was the mainstream of the day but how appropriate 17 years later.

Today, with new media, we have all become broadcasters. I don’t know about you, but if I want the latest on a breaking story I don’t go to mainstream media because they’re just so behind the curve; no, like many mainstream journalists, I turn to Twitter if I want on the spot, up to the second latest news.

Much has been made this week of the 14th anniversary of the launch of the first iPhone; a seminal event which also has a very important part to play in our story. Because with it came the means by which we could really utilise our freedom of speech. Now, we were all carrying around with us a device conceptually far more powerful than any weapon of war because we were carrying with us the ability to spread whatever information, disinformation and misinformation our hearts desired. Whatever our agenda. 

We’ve seen our echo chambers grow infinitely, creating insatiable vortexes of information, interpretation and judgment. Those at the centre wield great power — and great responsibility. How would those who led millions of followers throughout history, Jesus, Genghis Khan, Gandhi, have coped with the whimsical digital entourages of today? 

A tear in the social media fabric

Last week we saw what happens when you do it wrong. Like an angry acne, it all burst out in Washington as Trump’s incited followers, spurred on not only by him in person but by years of frenzied digital baiting, stormed the US Capitol resulting in the deaths of five people. The repercussions of this will be felt across the world in the many weeks and months ahead. For the offending party, scrutiny of digital channels will be interpreted as censorship by the Big Tech giants of California, by the government, by some perennially unproven conspiracy — a violation of their basic human right to free speech. 

Except, of course, it’s not. This is Big Tech and its legislative farrier finally growing up and finding a conscience. A moral compass. Free speech yes, but that doesn’t mean that any one of us can jump up in a crowded theatre and shout, “fire!”.

Because with free speech comes a certain responsibility. A responsibility not to incite others to violence and insurrection. And those who cannot determine the distinction between the two, should forfeit their right to that same free speech.

That smartphone in your pocket, it should carry a government health warning and ownership should require a licence, it’s that powerful.

“Welcome to a new kind of tension
All across the alien nation
Where everything isn’t meant to be okay”
-Billie Joe Armstrong

The events in the US Capitol concluded relatively swiftly but we should not kid ourselves that the perpetrators, among them the clandestine and nefarious QAnon, and their abuse of our digital freedoms are going away. In the dark space inhabited by such maleficence, it seems that nothing is beyond imagination and everything is up for grabs. Even democracy itself.

Andrew Busby is a retail analyst and former Forbes columnist. He is the founder of Retail Reflections, co-founder of Safe Prem Solutions, an IBM Futurist and a Global Top 10 Retail Influencer

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