Don’t Laugh at Rick Perry’s Pathetic Instagram Gaffe

The energy secretary’s ignorance points to a far more insidious problem

US Energy Secretary Rick Perry (L) and the European Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy (Unseen) talk to journalists during a joint news conference. Photo: Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

It’s bad enough when your kooky uncle shares painfully obvious conspiracy theories on social media. It’s a whole other level of exasperating when the United States energy secretary does it.

Former governor and current Secretary Rick Perry shared a widespread and unconvincing Instagram hoax on Tuesday, the usual “I don’t consent to a changing policy” text post. “Instagram DOES NOT HAVE MY PERMISSION TO SHARE PHOTOS OR MESSAGES,” the message read. He was met with online ridicule and a number of embarrassing headlines, many of which pointed out that Perry controls America’s nuclear arsenal. We can only hope the next hoax doesn’t trick Perry into pushing the big red button.

But beneath the jokes about Grandpa Rick, there’s something nefarious and frightening at play: Our most powerful leaders are displaying profound ignorance about our digital world. Their cluelessness threatens our economy, our freedom, and the sanctity of our democracy.

Perry is certainly not the first high-profile politician to embarrass himself on the internet. On the relatively harmless end of the spectrum, there is Ted Cruz’s “accidental” liking of a pornographic tweet. President Donald Trump last month tweeted a fake Ronald Reagan quote, thinking it was real. But on the bleaker end of the spectrum, we’ve also seen Trump share conspiracy theories and extremist propaganda on Twitter — a pattern that’s been linked to a rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes.

And when government institutions trip over digital hurdles, it can lead to major consequences. The much-anticipated launch of Healthcare.gov in 2013 was plagued by technical issues, affecting the ability of citizens to sign up and the reception of the site. More recently, Congress has grappled with vital questions about freedom, privacy, and democracy that require at least a basic understanding of how digital institutions work.

Hearings about net neutrality and social media disinformation have sounded a bit like trying to help your grandma change her password over the phone. When Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah asked how Facebook could provide services for free, Mark Zuckerberg’s face betrayed the amusement and shock that comes with realizing that one of the most powerful people in your country has no idea what he’s talking about. “Senator, we run ads,” Zuckerberg answered.

Gaffes like Rick Perry’s Instagram hoax are the tip of an iceberg threatening to sink us all.

Facebook is one of the most valuable companies on Earth; seven in 10 American adults use it. In 2016, it was one of several digital platforms weaponized by Russian agents to influence American voters in support of Donald Trump. Hatch’s level of ignorance is not comical, it’s terrifying. Gaffes like Rick Perry’s Instagram hoax are the tip of an iceberg threatening to sink us all.

In his recent testimony before Congress, former special counsel Robert Mueller said that Russia is targeting America’s voting infrastructure and working to impact the 2020 election. Democrats in the House of Representatives tried to patch up the holes in security by passing a bill to fund upgraded election protections, however, it was inevitably blocked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. We can only speculate as to whether Republicans simply don’t grasp the threat, or are willing to allow interference, so long as it benefits the Republican party. In either case, the lack of action is just another instance of older, out-of-touch politicians endangering our digital safety and freedom.

It’s easy to dismiss small incidents like Perry’s as a much-needed source of humor, but the time for tolerating technologically incompetent leaders is over. Americans connect, work, express themselves, and live online. If officials like Perry and Hatch don’t understand the digital platforms that are so central to our economy, society, and democracy, they may soon find themselves out of a job.

Americans shouldn’t have to entrust questions of regulation, privacy, and censorship to people who click on pop-ups promising a free iPhone. Maybe voters will realize it’s time to stop laughing at ignorant politicians and start replacing them.

Writer, musician, improvisor, recovering pessimist.

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