Is social media actually what’s incorrect with our political tradition?
As is obvious to anyone who spends time reading “political Twitter”, social media is an ugly place for partisan discourse.
That makes it an easy target for anyone looking for something to attribute our deep (and growing) political divisions to. The tendency towards radicalization on the internet has led to growing uneasiness about social media, which has led both Republicans and Democrats to push for more regulation of “big tech”. (However, both sides have distinctly different political goals.)
Politicians who are out to solve a perceived cultural problem demand “something to be done”. And as usual, “something” is synonymous with “anything,” as demonstrated by Congress hearings last month on the role of social media in the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
In truth, the political radicalization and divide allegedly fueled by big tech isn’t to blame for federal inaction, flawed algorithms, or inconsistent moderation decisions made by the platforms themselves. The depraved political climate that dominates much of social media is, at its core, far more sociological and cultural than technological.
That is not to say it is unreasonable to suggest that sites like Twitter and Facebook have not increased the political divide that divides our nation. After all, users of such websites seem to regularly become entangled in like-minded online communities while viewing ideological opposition with growing disdain.
And while algorithms likely play a role in the resulting political radicalization, it’s not as if extreme tribal tendencies weren’t always part of the human experience. Political unrest and cultural fractionism precede the technological democratization of freedom of expression by thousands of years. From the earliest days of organized religion to American colonists committing an act of civil disobedience in Boston Harbor, tribal instincts have always been a mainstay of the human constitution.
In other words, we are biologically firmly attached to tribalism. Social media – in fact the internet in general – can certainly serve as a conduit for some of the worst manifestations of this trend, but it’s not the catalyst.
The characteristics of social media that enabled protesters to storm the capital were precisely the characteristics that enabled pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong to stand up to a totalitarian communist regime in mainland China, and enabled activists to counter police brutality in America Streets to protest over the summer. While big tech empowers tribalism’s worst tendencies, its basic functionality can also empower truly positive cultural movements.
As a tool for organizing, communicating and connecting with individuals, social media has been one of the greatest democratization technologies since the printing press. As a result, it is easier than ever for ideas (both admirable and unfortunate) to find receptive audiences.
While social media has traditionally been (mostly) agnostic in this regard, politicians have long been encouraged to act as accelerators of the tribalism that radicalizes modern politics. Politicians take off the outrage caused by conflict. Fundraising emails are not written to calm the partisan rift or to highlight the similarities between political factions. They are designed to highlight the differences and capitalize on the hostility that individuals have for those who do not belong to their respective tribe.
As a result, overcoming the radicalization of modern politics requires a fundamental, bottom-up, cultural shift. As Andrew Breitbart has repeatedly pointed out, politics is downstream of culture – and the type of cultural change required to eradicate the political divide evident on social media (and elsewhere) is not offset by giving more control over the ” public space of this century “causes” To a class of politicians who treat every disagreement, every partisan struggle and every perceived political trifle as campaign feed. If change occurs at all, millions of people will act freely in their own lives to adjust their interaction with society’s deeply damaging fixation on partisan politics.
In other words, what is wrong with political discourse on social media cannot be “fixed” top-down – and it certainly won’t be fixed by giving partisan politicians the power to regulate the main instrument, democratization, of free speech.
There is a lot to hate how tech giants operate their social media platforms and how these platforms facilitate the division of civil policy discourse. However, most of the problems encountered with social media reflect the problems inherent in our broader political and popular culture.
For all its flaws, social media is not what is wrong with today’s political climate – it is just a window into what is.
Michael Schaus began his professional career in the financial sector, where he took an intense interest in economic theory and the concept of free markets. Over a decade ago, that interest led him to a career in politics and public commentary – as a columnist, political humorist, and host of a radio talk show. Michael is now the Director of Communications at the Nevada Policy Research Institute and lives in Las Vegas with his wife and daughter.