It is difficult to write coherently about politics and society in the days following the recovery of a video in which Republican candidate Donald Trump brags about sexual assault. It is difficult to write at the outset of a GOP civil war, in the midst of destabilizing conspiracy theories, and in the heat of private remarks from Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton disdaining “deplorable” Republican voters. The gravity of these moments in history and what they mean for our society and political order will be written about for months and years to come.
We will likely not comprehend the big picture until enough time has passed. But that does not mean we can’t sort out some of the smaller ones.
Among them sits one of the biggest factors of this campaign season: social media’s role in shaping political discussions.
The way our politicians talk to each other — and perhaps to us — is a direct reflection of the way we engage together.
Every politician wants to speak in a way that resonates with voters; the successful ones find success by understanding how voters interact and emulating those patterns. Like it or not, our presidential candidates were successful. They swayed a plurality of voters and won their parties’ nominations. We are right to be outraged at the tone of their campaigns, but it would be foolish to call it a coincidence. When we set the standards of political discourse, and indictment of their messages is an incrimination of ourselves.
To understand how this can be the case, take a look at the results of the feud between Trump and GOP candidate Jeb Bush.
Bush, the polished one-time front-runner, struggled to gain traction in traditional media partially due to his ineptitude on social media. It’s not that he didn’t use it. But when he did use it, he either sought to educate – a difficult task in an entertainment culture – or imitate jokes that had long-since run their course.
When he couldn’t use new media to create a personality for himself, the new media created one for him. Viral videos like “Jeb Bush’s saddest moments” cast “Poor Jeb” as the awkward teenager of politics, a made-for-memes candidate whose failure was all that could make him fun. In an ironic twist of tragedy, Bush only became relevant as a poster-child of irrelevancy.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, rode his Twitter account straight to the nominating convention in Cleveland. Uninterested in cutesy Snapchat stories and traditional tweet subjects, Trump revelled both then and now in unpredictable attacks and insults, often with just enough sarcasm to be entertaining. “I want to do negative ads on John Kasich,” Trump tweeted in 2015, “but he is so irrelevant to the race that I don’t want to waste my money.”
From “Lyin’ Ted” to “Little Marco” to “Low-energy Jeb,” Trump breathlessly excoriated his Republican opponents nearly as often as he posted about policy (which happened an extra one percent of the time).
As one writer said, “What Trump understands is that the best way to dominate the online discussion is not to inform but to provoke.”
Donald Trump did not set the rules of online dialogue any more than Jeb Bush could. As a media connoisseur, Trump learned them by watching us. He is a marketer, a reality TV star, an entertainer. The former Apprentice boss makes it his business to understand his audience.
If, like me, you have ever asked Trump supporters why they embrace him even though he is a member of the wealthy elite, you may have heard mention of his political incorrectness followed by this clincher: “He sounds just like me.”
We are the arbitrators of social media stardom, and our current standards are snark and vitriol.
Likewise, we are the only ones who can hit the reset button.
What makes social media so difficult to do well? Some might point to Twitter’s 140-character limit as the death-knell of thoughtful conversation, but “tweetstorms” have circumvented the limit and Facebook comments have never imposed restrictive limits on users.
Perhaps social media merely exacerbates the same problem that haunts our face-to-face conversations: we like to make things about ourselves. Social media is a co-conspirator with human nature, a tool for self-promotion disguised as an opportunity for communal engagement – the former by default, but the latter only by choice.
Whether re-tweeting an article or responding to a Facebook comment, social media is a stage and we are the actors. There are no private conversations, with one person talking directly to the other.
It seems safe to assume that everyone has connections who disagree with them. But, with the limited exceptions of Reddit’s downvotes and Facebook’s “angry” reaction button, no platform provides a button or other easy way to let people show disagreement. Their only options are to spell out their differences and risk starting an argument or ignore it and move on. What we actually see, as users, is approval: retweets, likes, upvotes. It is a biased sample, and it is biased toward the responses we want.
Our posts, then, are intended for an echo chamber. We want the dopamine rush that comes from seeing 50 likes on our status, so we post things that experience tells us our online fan club will like. I’m not casting judgment so much as speaking from experience.
This kind of environment naturally creates something that is quite different from nuanced and robust debate among concerned citizens. We want to be perceived as right more than we want to get it right.
When the litmus test of our online reputation becomes how forceful of a stance we take, truth and understanding get lost in the cracks. Make no mistake, this flows into our national politics. Remember how, when confronted with his own words disparaging Mexicans as rapists and snakes, Trump tried to drown them out with taco bowl social media posts and declarations that “I love Hispanics!” He bent the truth to take a hardline immigration stance, and he flatly ignored any critics and their concerns.
Our pride is not the only trigger for factually bereft antagonism. Our egos also join in. Although we may be willing to ignore an insult that no one else hears, we will not abide one that is aired out for the whole world to see.
It doesn’t even have to be an insult. I will confess: when someone comments on something I post without affirming every word, my instinct is to perceive it as an attack. Disagreement, after all, hurts the public image that all of those retweets were supposed to elevate. We log on to our accounts in a defensive posture, ready to strike if our well-manicured image feels threatened.
That is how online disagreement breeds disillusionment. Everyone eventually returns to their own corners of the internet. It is a downward spiral: Aggression. Retreat. Entrenchment. Repeat.
Even without new media’s narcissistic temptations, it is too easy to be rancorous online. You don’t have to see the person on the other end of a post. You don’t have to look them in the eye or listen to anything they say.
I don’t mean to be critical for criticism’s sake. But as the 2016 election cycle sputters to the finish line, we are left to pick up the pieces — a task that demands an understanding of how our political structures began to implode in the first place. The remnants suggest that part of our crumbling foundation stems from the way we talk to each other about politics in America.
And yet, we must not throw our hands in the air and give up on combining politics and social media. It may not be the best venue for civic discourse, but it is the most realistic. Thanks to technology, we can challenge, learn from, and communicate with people that we would otherwise never meet. And people who would otherwise not be politically engaged can gain a platform.
As our communities expand past borders and bandwidths, our greatest hope is the same as it always has been: putting others before ourselves and seeking truth together.
That was not easy before, and it is certainly getting harder now. But it is not too late to change our direction. If our words are powerful enough to contribute to so much political chaos, they are surely powerful enough to begin communal redemption.
Guest Writer: Philip Kline is co-Editor in Chief of the student newspaper The Record at Wheaton College, where he is completing a degree in political science.