Back when the internet was starting to become popular, social media was one of the most exciting things about the technology. With a simple, user-friendly app you could keep in touch with old friends, make new ones, share your thoughts with a huge chunk of the world and do a whole lot of other things. Social media was going to make the world a happier, friendlier place.
Well, it didn’t turn out that way, did it? A quick dip in the poisonous pool that is Twitter will show you just how badly it went wrong. Social media has enabled a whole new collection of unpleasant things, and it’s made some of the existing unpleasant things a whole lot worse. Like politics.
• President Trump is the first Twitter POTUS. He’s not the first president to have used social media, but he’s made it his trademark. There are advantages in this. It’s a fast way to get his words out to a huge audience; he can talk directly to the American people instead of having his thoughts filtered by speechwriters, press officers and journalists. It should be a great thing, having a president who can tweet to us all. But instead it’s provoking constant, rabid fury.
• The scary thing is that it isn’t just Trump’s tweets that can spark this fury. Any political tweet can ignite a firestorm of rage. There’s just something about social media that brings out the worst in people. It’s easy to say “If you think it’s that bad, don’t use it,” but that doesn’t really fly. The problem is that social media is poisoning the way we all think about politics, and making political conflict a lot angrier and meaner than it has to be.
• There are two main reasons why social media is making politics uglier. One is that it’s an instant medium. If you’re writing a newspaper article or TV segment, you have time to check facts and understand the issues. Your status depends on doing a good job, and you know you have until the presses start running the next morning to do it.
• On social media, your status depends, mostly, on being first to start the story. So when President Trump sends a tweet, you don’t check to see what exactly he’s tweeting about; you definitely don’t waste time finding out if maybe he’s right. Your emotions have been provoked and it can feel like you need to get your thoughts out there right now, so you’re leading the trend instead of following it. This means fact checking on social media is terrible, and the loudest and most enthusiastic people are usually the worst fact checkers.
• But what if you’re not first? Only one person can be, after all, and there are millions of wannabe opinion formers out there. Well, if you can’t be first you better be most extreme. Competition to be noticed pushes people to make more and more extreme statements, so opinion gets clustered around polar opposites. There’s no longer a middle where the majority can have rational conversations – just two extremes screaming at each other across a void.
• What’s worrying is that these attitudes are escaping from social media and poisoning our whole society. It’s obvious, particularly on the political left, that people don’t assume good faith anymore. If someone has different ideas about economics nobody stops to think that maybe they want the same things – prosperity, a safe and free society – and just have different ideas about how to get there. No, they have to be actively evil. They want to keep minorities down, enslave women and kill the poor. Social media is turning us into comic book bad guys.
• On Thursday, President Trump tweeted his thanks to US Forces Japan for their help in locating downed US airmen. Nobody cared. President Trump had tweeted, and President Trump is EVIL, so it was okay to throw out every kind of irrelevant and offensive personal attack.
This is a free country. It’s fine to think the president is doing a bad job. But people need to be able to explain why they think that – and others need to be allowed to disagree. Because when US politics becomes two hate-filled mobs trying to shut each other down, we won’t be free anymore.