The problems with our politics predate social media

Sam Groves

“MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL” — that’s how President Trump defended his use of social media in a tweet on Saturday. Others have been less flattering: after the president tweeted an extremely personal and sexist insult directed at MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski last week, she responded by calling his Twitter rants “fascinating and frightening and really sad for our country.” The president also faced backlash from within his own party. GOP senators Ben Sasse and Lindsey Graham both said his tweets were beneath the dignity of his office, and House Speaker Paul Ryan offered this scathing critique: “I don’t see that as an appropriate comment.”

Trump provoked further outrage when he tweeted a video in which he tackled professional wrestling promoter Vince McMahon to the ground — only McMahon’s head had been digitally replaced with the CNN logo. The video originated as a gif posted by user “HanAssholeSolo” on the pro-Trump Reddit community /r/TheDonald.

So it’s been a strange week for social media in American politics.

Many commentators have blamed a supposed decline in the quality of public discourse in the United States on the rise of social media, particularly sites such as Twitter and Facebook. In the aftermath of the November election, many people blamed Trump’s upset victory on Facebook’s failure to crack down on the spread of fake news — a narrative Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg rejected at the time. The president himself has speculated that he might not have won the White House if it hadn’t been for his Twitter use. Moreover, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens recently wrote that he was quitting Twitter because he believes the site has “pornified politics.” He warned that it was “time for people who care about politics and souls to get off Twitter.”

If Stephens personally dislikes Twitter as a medium, that’s fine. But it’s one thing to have personal tastes and another to mistake those tastes for meaningful analysis. It seems like he and the president are both overestimating Twitter’s impact: just 21 percent of American adults use the site. A fraction of those are active users, and a further fraction actively use the site as a means of political engagement.

Moreover, the problems with American politics significantly predate social media. The recent trend of partisan polarization — the increasing ideological distance between the two major parties — dates back to the 1990s, according to a 2014 Pew study.

There’s somewhat more evidence against Facebook: for one thing, it’s vastly more popular: 68 percent of U.S. adults, and 79 percent of U.S. adults who are online, use the site. For another, a damning analysis published by BuzzFeed in the wake of the 2016 presidential election showed that between August and Election Day, the most popular fake news stories received more engagement from Facebook users than the most popular mainstream news stories did.

But ultimately, the problems with our politics are human in origin, not technological. In his column, Stephens criticizes the spontaneous nature of social media: “it’s whatever pops out. And what pops out is altogether too revealing.”

Perhaps “revealing” is what we need to fix our politics. Bigotry, rancor and prejudice didn’t originate online, but they’re certainly more visible there. If social media sites force us to be more honest about the toxins plaguing our political ecosystem, then renouncing those sites amounts to little more than a facile cop-out: a short-sighted act of socio-political grandstanding.

Groves is a philosophy junior from Dallas. He is a senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @samgroves.