So much of the discussion about Donald Trump’s success in politics has focused on how he has mastered social media, particularly Twitter, with his continual tweets that dominate the national conversation while also rousing and even inciting his “alt-right” base. As he told Maria Bartiromo last weekend, “Tweeting is like a typewriter — when I put it out, you put it immediately on your show. I mean the other day, I put something out, two seconds later I am watching your show, it’s up.”
Trump is, as I have remarked previously, a maestro of social media. He knows how to take advantage of its microtargeting of constituencies as well as its megaphone effect that drowns out more sensible remarks, and he has radically transformed political messaging as a result. We have gone from the TV age of politics to the social media age of distraction politics, and just as John Kennedy was the prime exemplar of the first, Trump is the prime exemplar of the second.
But in some respects, this may be among the least of the political impacts of social media. Above and beyond Trump’s tweets and his circumvention of traditional media, there is a much more profound but much subtler effect that plays upon certain psychological and social proclivities in America today and that is changing politics generally and has already changed our political leadership. And while this is by no means Trump-specific, it has a very strong affinity for the right wing. Put more starkly, social media aid and abet the right wing and “alt-right” political figures like Trump, not because the “alt-right” and Trump are better at social media, but because social media have an intrinsic rightish tilt.
This isn’t the way most people had imagined it. Social media, devised by techie geniuses incubated at Harvard, MIT and Stanford, were supposed to have a liberal bias. Right-wing technophobes wouldn’t understand it or know how to use it. Its primary consumers would be young folks, who generally lean liberal and Democratic. Social media would provide a national web connecting the bright, the young, the technologically proficient and it would all be serving liberal interests. Like the democratization of media,it would provide the ability for all people to have a platform and freedom of information.
But that was either liberal arrogance or wrong-headed idealism. In practice, conservatives proved more adept at using social media than liberals. If you want to read one of the most terrifying but essential political stories, take a look at Alexis Madrigal’s piece in The Atlantic, “What Facebook Did to American Democracy,” which explains how the “alt-right” and its various facilitators (including the Russians and Macedonian teenagers) figured out how to direct ads to niche audiences that would support Trump and provide targeted disinformation that would aid Trump. This was an effort both so massive and so devious that it escapes any capacity to detect it or corral it — basically a separate, virtual reality that overwhelmed reality itself. As Madrigal puts it, “The very roots of the electoral system — the news people see, the events they think happened, the information they digest — had been destabilized.” It is not too much to say that Donald Trump was the result.
But as important as this is — and it is very important — it is not what I am talking about when I cite the threats of social media. This kind of manipulation Madrigal describes still operates within the bounds of political hanky panky, albeit with a new, highly sophisticated, epistemological edge. I am talking not about the ways in which social media distort the information we receive, but the ways in which social media draw upon and intensify our whole way of processing information and everything else.
It is by now a given that social media have changed and continue to change the way we interact with one another and even with our own selves, the way we use our time, the way we prioritize and value things, the way we respond emotionally, the way we assess information and a thousand other components of our lives. For the post-millennials, nearly everything is refracted through social media, but the spillover effect is huge.
There is no room here to enumerate each of these transformations. But a few are worth mentioning because whether we recognize it or not, they can, and I believe do, have vast political implications. To begin with, for all the boasts of connectivity, social media actually isolate us and drive us back into ourselves. Facebook alone may be the largest platform of self-promotion ever devised by humankind, but of course, Facebook is not alone. Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and many others are ostensibly dedicated to sharing when they are really dedicated to solipsism: You are always the star of your page, always centralizing what you are doing. Worse, social media encourages an anonymous meanness that actively splinters us. There probably always were trolls, but they had no platform for their poison. Now they do.
Social media have also shunted aside conversation in favor of texting, and in the process, shunted aside face-to-face human communication. MIT social psychologist Sherry Turkle, one of the leading experts on the effects of social media, has even written a book titled Reclaiming Conversation, in which she notes not only how the retreat to the smartphone has atomized us, but also how, through separation and self-centeredness, it has endangered empathy, which is the very core of a civic culture, perhaps even the very core of humanity.
And more, Turkle describes how even face-to-face conversations that cannot be held without a smartphone on the table or in one’s hand contribute to a sense of personal devaluation: You aren’t as important as the person I am texting or from whom I am receiving a text. We talk a lot about economic devaluation in America, about how so many in the middle class feel disempowered, but this social devaluation may be no less humiliating.
Another technological savant, Eli Pariser, the founder of MoveOn.org and UpWorthy, in his prescient 2011 book, The Filter Bubble, shows how social media, with their plethora of algorithms, give us customized, curated information that never takes us outside ourselves or our own biases, but only reinforces them. In effect, social media create an informational onanism, which, again, destroys a sense of community and circumscribes national conversation every bit as much as it aborts personal conversation. And it does something more: It makes all information that doesn’t conform to one’s biases suspicious. Social media — the “social” here is practically ironic — disallows us from accepting anyone else’s arguments — that is, disallows us from being social. In fact, it delegitimizes not just arguments but all information by seeming to legitimize all information.
Perhaps, most important, social media contribute to a sense of profound unhappiness. Sociologist Jean Twenge, writing in The Atlantic, surveyed young smartphone-obsessed consumers — post-millennials whom she labeled “iGen” — and found a decline in most IRL social activities: dating, sex, hanging out with friends, driving, working, family engagement. Many of these iGeners, for all their time “socializing” on their phones, felt left out, lonely. Indeed, nearly everyone on social media is on social media because they are terrified of FOMO — Fear Of Missing Out. Twenge said this generation is on the “brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades.”
Meanwhile, another researcher, Donna Freitas, writes in her book The Happiness Effect, that young people using social media frequently talked about their fears of silence and solitude, which compelled them to ponder things they might not feel comfortable pondering, and the pressures to seem to be more than they really were — that is, to live up to the image of themselves they curate online. This, I think, is directly related to the pernicious “winner and loser” syndrome overtaking America that I discussed several weeks back. “Our devices and our compulsive posting and checking are helping us flee ourselves,” Freitas says. We feel the need to be perfect, like everyone else on social media.
None of these things is necessarily the result of social media. Rather, one might very well say that social media are a result of them. Anonymity, alienation, dislocation, devaluation, suspicion of solitude and silence, the decline of conversation, undifferentiated information — these had all been identified by Robert Putnam as modern American afflictions in his classic study, Bowling Alone, about the decline of civic engagement, long before the advent of the internet and social media. To many, social media must have seemed like a cure — a way to create community across geographic lines. Instead, it has exacerbated the problems by not only creating more of what it was intended to solve, but by giving an outlet for the anger, resentment, loneliness and unhappiness that roiled beneath the surface. Social media are a mechanism now for channeling our discontents — a kind of virtual Munich beer hall.
If you want to read a terrific piece about how Twitter morphed from a way to share to a way to promote hate, read this one.
You may begin to see a theme developing here. Self-centeredness and solipsism, division and tribalism, disinformation and misinformation tailored to one’s predispositions, the need for constant stimulation (FOMO) without reflection, bullying against those who disagree, a lack of empathy — these are all hallmarks of the “alt-right” and of the Trump presidency. Trump is not, in reality, their master, though he has learned to use the tools of social media to his benefit. He is actually their product — the product of the social and psychological dynamics that fuel social media. This is why the right was almost destined to use social media more effectively than the left. It was made for social media.
In a way, then, social media called forth a Donald Trump. And since there seems no diminution in the breadth or power of social media, nor any way to disarm them, we are stuck with some gigantic, untamable network that, for all its very real benefits, will serve the very forces that divide us and turn us against one another, that delegitimize information and degrade debate, that make us miserable, and that, frankly, make us stupid. Donald Trump may be the first social media president, which is bad enough. But he isn’t likely to be the last.
That should bother us every bit as much as the Russians or those Macedonian teenagers, but in this case the problems are inside us.