Nicholas Carr believes the internet is changing our political discourse—and for the worse. With news increasingly transmitted to us via social media, we’re beginning to prize the “bitty over the meaty, the cutting over the considered”:
Twice before in the last hundred years a new medium has transformed elections. In the 1920s, radio disembodied candidates, reducing them to voices. It also made national campaigns far more intimate. Politicians, used to bellowing at fairgrounds and train depots, found themselves talking to families in their homes. The blustery rhetoric that stirred big, partisan crowds came off as shrill and off-putting when piped into a living room or a kitchen. Gathered around their wireless sets, the public wanted an avuncular statesman, not a firebrand. With Franklin Roosevelt, master of the soothing fireside chat, the new medium found its ideal messenger.
In the 1960s, television gave candidates their bodies back, at least in two dimensions. With its jumpy cuts and pitiless close-ups, TV placed a stress on sound bites, good teeth and an easy manner. Image became everything, as the line between politician and celebrity blurred. John Kennedy was the first successful candidate of the TV era, but it was Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton who perfected the form. Born actors, they could project a down-home demeanor while also seeming bigger than life.
Today, with the public looking to smartphones for news and entertainment, we seem to be at the start of the third big technological makeover of modern electioneering. The presidential campaign is becoming just another social-media stream, its swift and shallow current intertwining with all the other streams that flow through people’s devices. This shift is changing the way politicians communicate with voters, altering the tone and content of political speech. But it’s doing more than that. It’s changing what the country wants and expects from its would-be leaders.
What’s important now is not so much image as personality. But, as the Trump phenomenon reveals, it’s only a particular kind of personality that works—one that’s big enough to grab the attention of the perpetually distracted but small enough to fit neatly into a thousand tiny media containers. It might best be described as a Snapchat personality. It bursts into focus at regular intervals without ever demanding steady concentration.
Noah Millman wrote along these lines yesterday for TAC, noting that his Facebook feed is often dominated by outrage porn and viral stories, rather than by serious reflection or political thought. “Outrage porn is clearly a very popular genre—and that popularity ensures that it will continue to proliferate,” he says.
Its popularity—and perhaps also its platform? Carr’s argument is very reminiscent of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, in that he clearly believes the medium is affecting the message (and the message’s recipients) to a transformational degree. It’s not just that social media users tend to share more sensational, click-baity sorts of stories—it’s that both our technology and its apps foster that sort of sharing.
Algorithms often put the sensational, short, and shareable at the forefront of our attention. Twitter and Facebook foster a desire amongst users for the collecting of shares and likes—it’s about quantity, not quality. Because posts are many, and news feed visibility is limited (especially on Twitter), users have to push the above three elements in order to get sustained attention.
Social media has also affected way in which we use language, David Auerbach argued for Slate Tuesday. He turns to philosopher Ludwig von Wittgenstein to demonstrate the crucial role context and place play in the way we speak and use language:
The shift to online communication, textual interactions separated from accompanying physical practices, has had a persistent and egregious warping effect on language, and one that most people don’t even understand. It has made linguistic practice more limited, more universal, and more ambiguous. More people interact with one another without even realizing they are following different rules for words’ usages. There is no time or space to clarify one’s self—especially on Twitter.
It is this phenomenon that has affected political and ethical discourse in particular. To take some hot-button issues, use of the words privilege and feminism and racism is so hopelessly contentious that it’s not even worth asking for a definition—even if you get one, no one else will agree with it. In situations where misuse can get you savaged on the Internet, I’ve simply stopped using a word. Let me know when everyone else has worked it out.
Auerbach’s observations fit well with Carr’s, as well as with Millman’s: all three see a modern political discourse that is broken by a lack of physicality and shared context, as well as by a focus on charisma and emotion over content. Social media encourages generalities and big-picture terms, rather than nitty-gritty considerations of data or thoughtful, prolonged discourse. The lack of shared context and clarity leads to a mess of confusion and indignation, furthering the outrage porn and rampant vitriol we find online. People want a Donald Trump vs. Megyn Kelly fight—not a sustained, complicated consideration of tax reform and immigration policy.
Is this what 2016 will look like—a mess of politicians bombarding their voters with Twitter battles, Instagram selfies, Snapchat updates, and Youtube videos? Everyone fighting to have the loudest voice and largest personality?
If Carr is right, our methods of reading and sharing news almost guarantee it. Millman, too, seems to convey a sense of inevitability: “outrage is a kind of drug,” he writes, one that fosters an addictive cycle. And during a presidential campaign, there’s usually plenty of things to get outraged about.
But it could be that a deeper understanding and wariness of the way our news works could help cut through the sensationalism and sound bites. Those who observe the way media works on their minds and emotions are better able to then cut through the nonsense, and fight for the thoughtful. Auerbach shares a pertinent Wittgenstein quote: “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”
In the age of Twitter tantrums and Facebook fear-mongering, it seems this is the very battle we will fight.