When rants were just rants

19 September 2021

Every weekend on Princess St. between Wellington and Montreal you can find a balding, middle-aged man quoting scripture and warning anybody within earshot about his vengeful god. I only catch snippets as I walk by on my way to the coffee shop or to the pub or to the used record store.

“He will cast you out….”
“The wrath of god is revealed…”
“Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria…”
Okay, that last one is from Ghostbusters but you get the idea. This guy is a fundamentalist who apparently sees it as his mission to terrify us all into believing his version of Christianity. Or maybe he just craves attention. Whatever his goal, his reach is minimal and his effect is negligible. Most people see him as someone to be given a wide berth, a sideshow, a curiosity, but imagine if someone gave him a broadcasting system. I’m not talking about religious broadcasts like those hosted by Kenneth Copeland or Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. They’re multi-millionaires with TV studios, editing suites and productions teams. No, what I’m saying is imagine Vengeful God Guy could spew his rhetoric into every home with a computer or an iPhone and it wouldn’t cost him a cent. That’s a game-changer. That means that instead of being ignored or brushed aside as a nut, the odds are pretty good he might find a sympathetic ear…or two….or ten. Then imagine that those two or ten “converts” decided they needed to share the misguided messages of their newfound messiah with ten thousand others and it wouldn’t cost them a cent either. Vengeful God Guy’s rants would quickly become a zealot’s version of the “I-told-two-friends” Faberge shampoo commercial from the 70’s. Pretty soon you would have an army of mush-minded fanatics spewing crazy theories about God’s determination to smite the non-believers.

Welcome to Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. That’s what social media has done. It’s given a production team, an editing suite and a broadcasting platform to anybody who wants to say anything.
Unlike actual broadcasters or publishers that must adhere to journalistic principles like truth, accuracy, accountability and impartiality, social media gets a pass. I can literally say, “John Smith stole $50,000 from the Bank,” and I cannot be charged for publishing a false statement. I don’t even need to tell the world who I am when I say it. I can create a fake account with a fake name from a fake country. I can build up followers by paying for them. I can spend money to advertise my crackpot speculations to even more people and I have zero liability for the words that I broadcast.
As the election campaign winds down here in Canada, the main parties are, for the most part, operating within the accepted guidelines of expectations. They stretch the truth. They edit news clips to make themselves sound better or their opponents sound worse but they can’t spew flat out lies. However, their most ardent followers can. They can lie, libel, slander or falsely accuse anyone, without fear of reprisal, as long as they do it on a social media platform. So why aren’t Facebook, Twitter and Youtube doing anything to stop it? Money. They rake in hundreds of billions of dollars on each platform. In order to affect real, significant change, they would need to change section 230 of the American Communications Decency Act. It states that, “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another content provider.”
That’s the golden loophole, the hall pass for idiots, and more than anything else it’s tearing the world apart. Despite being an American law, it literally governs the use of social media across the entire planet. Facebook, Twitter and Youtube are American companies, born in Silicon Valley but fostered and cared for by every green-eyed capitalist with a glint in their eye and an innate desire to make money no matter how much damage they wreak upon society.
We know that giant corporations are not suddenly going to accept responsibility for theories published by the unbalanced anti-vaxxers, the hare-brained anti-maskers or the stolen election morons. That would cost millions – even billions – in legal fees. What they could do – what they should do - is change that law so that individuals have to legally stand behind anything they broadcast. You wanna say that left-leaning celebrities participated in a pedophile ring? You’d better be able to back it up or you’re gonna get sued. You wanna say the presidential medical advisor created COVID? Lay out the undisputed facts or you’ll lose your house. That would shut things down in a hurry and it would go a long way to restoring a bit of civility in discourse. Right now, the world is divided between fact-based scientific research and wildly inaccurate conspiracies. Those on the crazy side are emboldened by a law that gives them the unfettered ability to spread the internet’s version of fertilizer; it smells up the neighbourhood, it’s made from bullshit and it cultivates growth.

Now, let’s return to our main character Vengeful God Guy. Yesterday, once again, I walked by him, hearing bits and pieces of his rant as I ran a few errands.
“The destroyer is coming….”
“I will bring upon you a sword….”
“The walls in the 53rd Precinct were bleeding….”
Okay, that last one was Ghostbusters again but my point is that yesterday, I saw him in a different light.
He’s a harmless religious nut; the kind of person my mom used to describe as, “quite a character.” He’s not broadcasting his biblical prophecies. He’s standing in the street shouting words into the ether. I’ve never seen anybody gather around him. His opinions can’t be replayed or shared and he doesn’t chase people down and insert himself into their conversations. When I first saw Vengeful God Guy, a few years ago, I was angry that he was spreading vaguely threatening misinterpretations. Today I see him in the gauzy, gentle light of nostalgia often reserved for bubblegum music or bygone TV series.
“Remember Vengeful God Guy?”
“Yeah. I loved it when he’d start waving the bible like he just scored a game-winning touchdown.”
In a world where people shoot up pizzerias because a crazy woman in Belleville said she heard it was a front for child-stealing, Vengeful God Guy is a welcome distraction.
Let’s hope we soon return to his kind of rants and not the soul-destroying, society-shredding social media tripe that’s currently rending our world into splinters and factions.
Come to think of it, maybe that’s what Vengeful God Guy has been trying to warn us about all this time. I need to go back and listen more closely.