It only took one decade. Ten years ago this month, democratic movements, facilitated by social media, began to surge across the Arab world. These movements challenged authoritarian rule, buoyed democratic nations, and appeared to forge a bond between democracy and cyberspace that promised to shape the world’s political fortunes for years to come. On January 6, 2021, a mob—incited by the president of the United States and addicted to lies and conspiracy theories spread through social media—attempted to prevent the peaceful transfer of power in the world’s oldest democracy from taking place.
This obscene moment in American history is forcing a reckoning in our country about many things, including how the democratic project at home and abroad copes with the antidemocratic weaponization of digital technologies. January 6th is a day that will live in cyber infamy. On this day, an American social media company, Twitter, bans the president of the United States from using its platform to continue to incite his beloved and very special red guards from further desecrating the Capitol and violently intervening against the democratic process. The nation watches this rabble pervasively use mobile devices to record and share online their insurrection. Then—even after the lawlessness, violence, and bloodshed—the world watches over 100 lawmakers oppose certification of Electoral College votes and the legitimacy of the 2020 election by repeating falsehoods about the election that the president, his apparatchiks, and his cultists have spread online. Cyberspace, it appears, is the place American exceptionalism went to die.
This American tragedy stands as the grim nadir of a decade that has seen democracy’s relationship with cyberspace disintegrate. The Arab Spring seemed to signal that cyberspace was a new, powerful engine for the spread of democracy and freedom in the world. In that moment, the political, technological, and ideological leadership of the United States promised great things as cyberspace and digital technologies bolstered efforts of other peoples to secure freedom, self-government, and justice under the rule of law. Since those heady days, the decline of internet freedom and the rise of digital authoritarianism have clouded the fortunes of democracy in relation to cyberspace. Despite these adverse trends, the belief still prevailed that, as in the past, the United States would persevere as a stalwart, if imperfect, leader of the cause of freedom and democracy.
The grotesque spectacle of January 6th has badly shaken that belief within this republic, in other democracies, and among people enduring authoritarian rule around the world for whom the United States has long been a beacon for enlightened self-government, the rule of law, and individual freedom. The cyber-fueled violence on January 6th violated the rule of law, attacked the process of self-government, and vandalized what ordered liberty means. U.S. leadership on democracy and cyberspace now lies buried under the detritus of presidentially sanctioned domestic terrorism. For the United States and other democracies, it is the darkest moment of the democratic experience with the internet and digital technologies.
The insurrection at the Capitol calls for an American restoration at a time when the nation is badly divided at home and our adversaries abroad are more determined and dangerous. The task is much larger than hoping the ignominious end of the current presidential administration extirpates our problems. This restorative project must involve more than reconstructing what internet freedom means to democracy and individual liberty, but, given how enmeshed politics has become with digital technologies, that reconstruction must be a component of the restoration.
Ideas for changing cyber policy in ways that better serve democratic interests and values are many and diverse, including transforming the responsibility of social media platforms for their activities, re-evaluating the economic and market power of technology companies, establishing formal cyber alliances among countries within the community of democracies, re-invigorating democratic cybersecurity practices, and confronting digital authoritarianism. Sorting through these and other ideas is important, but, foremost, we need to accept that the country has reached an inflection point in its history when it must pivot to build a future fit for its ideals. That pivot must start during the next presidential administration, but, as with other moments of foundational change for the republic, the challenge will be generational.
Eventually on January 6th, law enforcement personnel resecured the Capitol for lawmakers to restore commitment to the peaceful transfer of power in the United States. We will have a new president elected by the will of the people according to the Constitution and federal law. Building on these examples of dedication to, and faith in, the values and institutions of the United States is the challenge that now confronts our citizens and leaders in the realm of cyberspace. We will have to take up this challenge immediately.