“Too many Facebook conversations are similar in style to the tweets of our President-elect. Perhaps he has succeeded with his tweets for this very reason.”
It seems a long time since the Pizzagate blog. Some of the questions raised in that blog–(Were there State actors encouraging and amplifying the Clinton pedophile conspiracy theory? Was it linked to the presidential campaign?)–were at least partially answered and discussed after the CIA/NSA/FBI released their joint report stating that Russia worked to influence the election in the president-elect’s favor.
In the transition to the January 2017 presidential inauguration, questions linger about the relationship between President-elect Trump, his close associates in the campaign and transition, and President Putin. Intelligence investigation into these relationships is ongoing. Anonymous is also investigating. A number of other issues are attached to this transition–attempts by Congressional Republicans to weaken ethics investigations and oversight; insulting and demeaning tweets from the president-elect against television shows, entertainers, a senator who risked his life for civil rights, the media, pollsters, etc. In this tumult, what is a social scientist to focus upon that anyone would care to read?
I am concerned about the loud, shrill divisions among some citizens–behaviors that seem more at home in an Eagles/Ravens football game. Fans are rowdy, rude, and sometimes violent in this rivalry. They hate the other team and its fans. A democracy can’t function like this. What is going on? Again, the question is too big for a blog. So, this is a reflection, based on observations, that raises questions that may be central to the dynamic.
A recent Frontline (1) article recapped the Obama presidency. In doing so, the article traced the rise of populism and incivility that have marked the last nine years of American political life. The report noted that Republican voters did not admire the traditional respect Senator John McCain showed Candidate Obama in the 2008 presidential campaign. Frontline showed a clip of a woman expressing concern to McCain that Obama was “an Arab.” McCain responded that Senator Obama was a good man—to boos and jeers. Republican voters turned away from this tradition of civility to the populist, insulting style of his vice-presidential running mate, Sarah Palin. Then, in an unprecedented break from Congressional civility, South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson, Sr. interrupted President Obama’s first State of the Union address, shouting, “You lie.” According to Frontline, Wilson received an outpouring of positive attention as a result. This was one factor in setting the stage for the tenor of the Republican leadership ever since.
I wonder which Americans approved of this aggressive, hostile treatment that violated the comity of the legislative body–and why. Was it racial/ethnic fear and loathing of “the other” that the woman in the earlier clip evidenced? Perhaps this is only one explanation.
According to Frontline, at the same time that we began to see an extreme erosion of civility in the body politic, populism started bubbling up. In the wake of the financial crash of 2007-2008, the Occupy movement protested America’s increasing wealth inequality and the hollowing out of the middle class. By the presidential election of 2016, it became obvious that there was enormous economic suffering not healed by the growing health of the economy in general. Senator Sanders’s unexpectedly strong candidacy was a manifestation of that suffering and fear.
So, what’s going on? There are possible psychological and sociological explanations for the nature and tenor of the recent election and its subsequently polarized environment. In this, it’s important to lay aside the Russian backed online “witch hunt” against Secretary Clinton. What did that effort take advantage of in order to work? Some scholars might explore a variety of biases. Voters may have had an implicit desire to “hire” someone like oneself (an affirmational bias); relative status, in which one resents others who are from groups one deems as inferior; gender bias; and racial bias. Other scholars might pursue the tensions that arise with the rapid increase in diversity due to the size and nature of the post 1965 immigration. Still other scholars might pursue an underlying economic causality: the existence of a changing economy that leaves people unable to find work or who cannot find the sort of work that provides a reasonable standard of living. These scholars might also assert that economic factors drive increasing xenophobia, racial animosity, religious scapegoating, etc.
All of these are interesting directions for research and publishing. My goal here is more modest: to explore the destruction of civility and its relationship to the media, social media, and what that means for our society.
In teaching conflict avoidance and resolution in introductory anthropology classes, I always start the discussion with “good manners.” Students are usually aghast: “Manners? What do manners have to do with conflict avoidance and resolution?” When people are polite, fights and arguments are avoided, for the most part. Society can function relatively efficiently and effectively. Norms are maintained; work gets done. When one shakes hands as a peacemaking gesture, one can repair broken relationships. Again, norms are maintained; work gets done. In that sense, manners are powerful despite their ordinary, usually habituated, nature. In fact, the more habituated the behavior, the easier life is and the more powerful the manners. A good deal of initial culture shock is related to habituated expectations for a well-mannered body–respectful distance between people, touch, eye contact or not, etc.
So, what happens when social inequality comes into contact with respectful behavior?
The highly regarded African American scholar, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., once explained (2) how whites in his community called his father”George” (not his name) despite his father’s status as a respected member of the community. If you were black, whites didn’t have to know your name and did not have to use it if they did. Manners here was a form of social violence: robbing African Americans of individual social identity in the public sphere. And of course, African Americans were held to a rigid set of manners to indicate that they complied with their social inferiority. When one struggles for equality, one must also struggle against the “manners” that reinforce that inequality. And those who don’t wish to grant it may resort to more than manners to retain the status quo: threats, intimidation, and violence. Manners are powerful. The way they are used embody power.
The underlying assumption of our democratic process has been and continues to be that Americans are reasonable citizens, equal before the law. As such we are able to govern ourselves through substantial debate, discussion, and finding common ground. The rude, aggressive, and demonizing form of populism that began to emerge on the national stage with the 2008 presidential campaign is therefore troubling. Why so coarse? Why so polarized? Why so pervasive? What’s changed about our expectations in the social space we share? What’s going on with power?
Since the election, I have dived into Facebook to understand this social media space firsthand. I was first warned by young adults that they spend as little time as they can there because as one said, “It’s not a happy space.” They cocoon themselves in Snapchat, Instagram, and their own blogs, I was told. They are correct: it’s not a “happy space.”
What I learned about my own behavior on the site after several weeks is that Facebook is constructed to make real conversation difficult– if not impossible. The most effective way to garner attention to a newsfeed item is to present a dramatic picture accompanied by a brief, shocking or pithy one-liner, and then perhaps a link. Facing a long news feed, I was tempted to the most dramatic items that offend or delight without reading the links.
I noticed that, in scanning replies to a news item, I had to resist the urge to not to read the longer, sometimes more thoughtful replies because they took too much visual attention. There too I felt the need to scan and go. Brief one-liners were of several types, a “yay” cheer for the content of the post, a sharp rebuke, a personal fact.
Then there are the ever-present trolls.
There are a variety of types here too: flamboyantly aggressive, false, or hateful. Many state bizarre allegations. It’s very hard to separate what is a heartfelt position from an expression intended to incite anger or confusion because the posts are so short and the attention to any one post is also very short. It’s more like sparring than conversing. It’s “fact light”- if facts are there at all. Negative labels such as “crybaby liberal,” “Hillary lover,” etc. dot the landscape of liberal blog conversations—with such insults as “sore loser,” when a post brings up an ongoing issue such as access to medical care.
In other words, to me, Facebook posts and commentary appear to work against meaningful conversation, seeming to habituate individuals to use negative labels against those whose ideas are different. Facts get in the way in such environments. Too many Facebook conversations are similar in style to the tweets of our President-elect. Perhaps he has succeeded with his tweets for this very reason.
Problems of tone and reliability with news articles also persist. These too may polarize. The need for a pithy “gotcha” in the post means that the headline for the link may stretch the truth about a controversial position. Some blogs use inflammatory language or distort news articles from which they draw. Therefore, the articles upon which people comment and their headlines also create the conditions for polarization. I had to force myself to take the time to try to find facts on a variety of mainstream sources as I read my news feed. This takes discipline and time.
In addition, the silo or cocoon effect of Facebook’s algorithm meant that I was increasingly reading the same sort of news with the same sort of postures toward issues. One day, I h “liked” several political cartoons. The next day my news feed was so inundated with cartoons that I could barely see anything else. I was suffocating in cartoons.
My experience with Facebook is not entirely negative, however. I linked to associations, web pages of elected officials, trusted news outlets, and friends. All were valuable for me. Sadly, but fortunately, I learned of a friend’s stroke through Facebook. I was able to contact an elected official through his page when I couldn’t connect by phone or his web page. Friends sent me links to articles that were helpful to me.
In the end, I think it is very likely that social media can desensitize us to not just different positions, but to each other. It reinforces vapid “post-truth” conversations rather than the substantive discussions a democracy needs. It’s not just the algorithms that suggest news. It’s the very structure of Facebook. Thoughts?
(1) “Divided States of America.” Frontline.
(2) Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “What’s in a Name”(full attribution missing.)