Social Media and Political Discourse
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Social Media and Political Discourse

How have we come to be so divided that we can barely tolerate, let alone talk with, someone who’s views are not the same as ours?  Why, in the age of “social” media are we so terribly—terrifyingly—anti-social?  What can we do in the face of powerful, pervasive technologies that stoke fear, stir hatred, feed anger, and thrive on the chaos they create?  How can we shore up the foundations of good governance required, without which even the aspiration toward a free, fair, and just society is hollow, hypocritical, false?

As readers of this column know, I almost always start it with a series of questions.  I do that intentionally and with a very specific purpose in mind:  I want the questions to prompt thinking and reflection on the issues raised.  They are meant to introduce the focus of the column but also to provide a framework for inquiry—they are intended to initiate discussion rather than outline definitive conclusions already reached.  And they are usually questions with no simple answers, addressing issues or problems with no easy solutions—like the ones posed above.

Most of us grasp that we are riven with divisiveness.  We are well aware—and have abundant evidence to support the conclusion—that we have retreated into increasingly isolated, circumscribed, “comfort zones,” shutting out anything and anyone that doesn’t fit or that causes any kind of discomfort.   These days, it’s an understandable coping strategy, a defense mechanism we employ to maintain a semblance of control.

Yet it is a fatally flawed strategy that adds to the divisiveness and makes us more vulnerable to those bent on creating chaos in order to stoke fear, stir hatred and feed anger.  When we are only comfortable relating to others whose political views are the same as ours or who see problems through the same cultural or social lens, we limit our ability to think things through effectively—to engage in critical thinking.  Among other things, we:

  • Are less likely, and less able, to question our purpose in pursuing a particular political policy or objective.
  • Gather and rely on only the facts, observations, evidence, experience that support our perspective.
  • Are more likely to take things for granted and fail to challenge our own assumptions.
  • Reinforce our own perspective while disparaging other frames of reference.
  • Tend to ignore or dismiss any negative implications or consequences that follow logically from our judgments.

Our increasing use of, and dependence on, social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) as sources of “news” and as platforms for airing political views, magnifies these tendencies exponentially.

Let’s be crystal clear about “social” media:

  • It is not designed or structured to serve as a forum for reasoned, open, inclusive, thoughtful, respectful discussion.
  • No one today can any longer express surprise or shock that social media fosters and incentivizes everything but civil political discourse.
  • The term itself is deeply ironic and misleading because there’s nothing really “social” about it; it is profoundly anti-social.
  • It is the primary means for spreading misinformation and lies, for fearmongering, for inciting anger, divisiveness, and hatred.

Those who opened this Pandora’s box have no incentive and no ability to close it.  They have every incentive to continue exploiting it, modifying it only in ways that increase their profit, their control.  The transparently disingenuous claims they make to the contrary are so feeble they’d be laughable if they weren’t so smugly arrogant and dangerous.

We do not have to be pawns in this game, however.  We do not have to be helpless, hapless, hopeless “victims” of this technology.  We can, in fact, completely disrupt and “disenfranchise” the algorithms on which social media growth, profit, and power depends.

It will not be easy.  It will not happen overnight.  It will require the commitment to develop (or re-new) our capacity to think critically—to reason things through, to take into consideration other points of view, to carefully and honestly assess our own perspectives, judging them against standards of accuracy, depth, breadth, and fairness among others.

It starts with recognizing that most social media platforms are essentially useless for thoughtful, respectful political discourse.  Twitter, for instance, is great for sound-bite commentary and personal attacks, but a 280-character limit on a “tweet” (even when they’re strung together in a series) doesn’t allow for thinking anything through, let alone difficult, contentious issues and complex problems.  Facebook is built to narrow our perspective, to solidify and reinforce the echo-chamber of the group that Facebook assesses we belong to.  Using social media platforms for political discourse is like using a kiddie pool to train for swimming in the ocean.

Next is recognizing how we lock ourselves into the role of techno-political pawns, how we enable and empower the very technology whose control we abhor and seek to escape.  If Facebook is your primary source of information and news on substantive political issues, you have voluntarily ceded control to Facebook’s algorithms, and you’ll get what those computer models think you think you want—and only that kind of content.  If you respond angrily to some Twitter feed, whether it’s President Trump’s, a local politician’s, or your next-door neighbor’s, you have ceded control (however fleetingly) in precisely the way Twitter’s algorithms want: you’ve just confirmed the validity of that business model and added to its bottom-line.

We all know that the first step in overcoming an addiction is recognizing that one is addicted.  Regarding political discourse in our nation, we are addicted to social media, and we have rapidly descended into patterns of behavior that are ruinous to ourselves and our ability to function as citizens—to fulfill our responsibility in shoring up the foundations of good governance.

It’s time for an intervention.  And that intervention starts with each and every one of us individually.  What does that involve?  To start with:

  • Thinking; thinking for ourselves; holding ourselves accountable for how we reason things through.
  • Not using social media to engage in political discourse or as the source of information on substantive, complex issues.
  • Establishing or joining a “support group” made up of people with differing political perspectives, whose experiences and backgrounds are not the same as yours but who share one thing in common with you: they, too, are recovering social media addicts.
  • Re-establishing the capacity for being civil when engaged in political (or other) discussions.
  • Committing to the process of meaningful, productive, civil discourse and civic engagement.

As a nation, as a society, as a small town on the Olympic Peninsula, we may not yet be at “rock bottom,” but we’re pretty damned close.  Insofar as our political health is concerned, there’s precious little chance we can recover once we’ve hit this rock bottom.

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