What has Social Media Done to Our Political Discourse?

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There was a meme rolling around social media before this entire COVID-19 fracas that read something like, “Remember before the internet when we thought access to information made people stupid?”

As much as I agreed with the sentiment of the meme, it got me to thinking about the nature of our social media, our access to information and the ability to share it, and what that has done to the fundamental nature of our political discourse in America.

Anyone who is blessed enough to have received a truly classical education feels compelled to a serious approach to any issue, particularly the weighty issues of the day. We should strive to learn as much as we can about any subject and then weigh all of that information in our minds and arrive at a well-reasoned, well thought out position grounded in logic. Prior to the advent of the internet, when the information was less readily available and less able to be circulated in real-time, we were almost forced by the very nature of information to do just that. While emotive and the reactionary ideas were still prevalent, to me, it seems they were more the exception than the rule.

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It seems that technology and the advent of social media have erased all that, or at least marginalized it. The ability to access what in many cases is incomplete or outright false information has given the reactionaries a platform to take their hysterics viral. Rather than a careful consideration of the issue in a larger context, any news story-from a school shooting to a pandemic-leads to a rush to stake out the political ground. To accuse the opposite side of idiocy, or complicity, to establish and codify prejudices which will prevent a reasoned discussion of opposing evidence. One only needs wade through the cesspool of Facebook or Twitter to see these battles on a daily, sometimes even hourly, basis.

In one sense, I see this as good. Those on both the Left and the Right who value a well-reasoned position will (wisely) wait and peck assiduously through this deluge of sewage passing as news and political thought and carefully assemble the kernels of information into a quilt that allows a complete picture of the issue at hand. I believe, on the one hand, both social and traditional media, in their rush to get the story out there, have made us stronger thinkers in the sense that we must laboriously assemble the picture.
I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that the traditional media in this country have basically abdicated their responsibility to be objective and truthful. 

Universities have become far less about giving a classically liberal education and far more about finding a political ax and grinding it. Thus the “journalists” of my generation (and I have a journalism degree) and the “journalists” of today are vastly different practitioners. It becomes more obvious by the day that at both the state and national levels, the media are paid shills for one or the other side of an issue, and their “news stories” are slanted accordingly. News, entertainment, and opinion have become largely interchangeable.

But in far too many senses, it feels like social media has lent itself to both the trivialization and tribalization of political thought. The bodies are not cold in a school shooting before there’s a trite meme from either the Left or the Right seeking a political stake in the event. Seeking a reasoned discussion of reopening the country post COVID-19 lends itself to the hysterical cry of, “You value Dow points over lives!” I see Twitter threads and comment threads on Facebook where legions of people talk only to those who agree with them. Our Facebook pages and Twitter feeds have become less about sharing information and more about shouting into our own echo chambers. And I believe we are poorer for that for a couple of reasons.

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First, the emotive vs. the rational has led us to polarization. Take, for instance, the “Down points over lives” discussion I mentioned earlier. That was a word for word rebuttal of a Facebook discussion with a liberal friend of mine. That sort of “all or nothing” sloppy thinking, I believe, is reinforced by the social media echo chamber. Stating our case to bobbing heads on Twitter leads us to believe that any disagreement with our position must mean the dissenter hates us, our cause, and every fiber of our being. This is, in fact, the go-to argument of the Left, mean to demonize the opponent and shut down any further discourse.

Second and far worse still is it has led us in too many cases to see our politics and our humanity as interchangeable. In its worst incarnation (again, on the Left), we see people wishing for the death of people who disagree with them. Calling for the assassination of political figures with whom they disagree. The internet and social media have given these people the ability to share this vitriol in real-time. The emotive nature of our politics leads us to agree with it with little or no rational thought viciously. When rational people (rightly) push back, the vitriol is then turned on them for daring to question the hyperbolic Group Think.

Our Republic is an experiment in the greatest traditions of Western thought. Our Founders were educated, rational men. We owe it to them and to the whole of Western civilization to continue that rational tradition. Yes, we are primates given to passionate responses. But the Creator who endowed us with our rights also endowed us with a cerebrum to consider His creation. Or as an internet meme says: If you want to thank a soldier, be an American worth fighting for. 

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