Is Facebook Making Us Worse Citizens?

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Facebook: image source

I find it genuinely scary in our age of outrage, how easy it can be to lose an afternoon of sanity by seeing just one viral example of a random person doing something ridiculous. A video of a Starbucks customer screaming at an employee who messed up their order. A clip of the worst 2 minutes of a 6-hour long campus rally. Or a celebrity scandal that “you will not believe.” These are examples, by the way, which have hand-picked by a group of professionals whose next paycheck depends on finding the nastiest, most clickable content available.

So let me say something that might sound strange at first, there isn’t enough politics on the internet. Now for sure, there is an unprecedented amount of chatter: bickering, hate-sharing, and commentary that occurs online, but when it comes to the actual political mobilization that wins or loses campaigns, there could be and maybe should be lot more happening.

For example, let’s look at the 2004 election, the presidential race right before the social media/internet boom.

In February of 2004, Facebook had a total of 650 users. By the time of that November 2004 general election, thefacebook.com had one million people as the platform had spread across college campuses around the country.

Today, over a third of American adults use Facebook and three-quarters of them visit the site everyday. America has around 125 million people on one platform which is ripe for the stuff of politics. That’s a difference of over 100 times the amount of people compared to just a handful of elections ago, without even getting into the thousands of other ways communication has become easier through email, messaging apps, Youtube, etc. And yet, elections look mostly the same, and with few exceptions, like the media-savvy campaigns of the Obama years, there hasn’t been that much of a difference in how politics operate.

Again, we are talking about an over 100x difference in the amount of people who can gather and organize in a hyper efficient way through the internet. But while 2016 was the most expensive race in history, it was not 100 times more expensive than 2004. Likewise, there were not orders of magnitudes more organizers, interest groups, or events. So what’s going on here?

It might be the case that nothing particularly new is happening. That the “town square” of public discourse has simply changed locations, but I don’t think that’s the case. There is a certain passiveness to online political engagement, one in which none of us are immune to.

“I’ll just make it easy on myself”

The technology around us can strongly influence our day to day actions by changing the ease or difficulty of certain actions. Here’s what I mean. I went to an early voting location last November. It was around noon on a Monday, which was a bad time to go, as there was a line stretching outside the building. I was in a courthouse that I’d never voted at before, and while we were waiting, an older man said out loud to a stranger next to him: “I’m just going to make it easy on myself and check the Republican box.” He was referring to the checkbox allowed in some states that lets someone vote down the party line without having to put a check next to each individual Democratic or Republican candidate.

While I think he made the wrong choice (I didn’t say as much at the time), he definitely ended up having a point about how much effort voting would be. Once I made it to the booth around ten minutes later, I remember thinking that the elderly man was right, this was a pain. The ballot was on a thick paper and they gave us dull, crummy pens, meaning that filling each candidate’s bubble involved a solid 5 to 8 seconds of hard scribbling into the sheet. You had to repeat this process what felt like a hundred times across 2 pages. I don’t have old person bones and yet I felt the strain on my fingers and wrist, which was compounded by the discomfort of the voting station, where you have to stand hunched over like a caveman.

Now in the grand scheme of things, an awkward physical task shouldn’t matter or change our decisions about who to vote for, but how we set up political spaces has real political consequences. And in this case it meant that this elderly man and the hundreds of other elderly Texan men who there that day would likely vote to give renewed power to one particular party.

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Booths like this: Image from Wikipedia Commons

“Don’t Boo, Vote”

While on the campaign trail for Hillary Clinton, Obama picked up this clever line when discussing the state of GOP affairs. Whenever he would say Trump’s name, a series of groans and boos would reach the stage podium. #44 would tut-tut and go: “Don’t boo, vote!”

The first time I heard Obama say “Don’t boo, vote!” he repeated it six or seven times, seemingly to help his SEO numbers. Of course, those who were applauding at the brevity of Obama’s line don’t have any problem with political engagement. They were there, in person, at a rally to hear someone speak who wasn’t even running for elected office. They have been self-selected to vote, which is more than can be said for most people. Elections don’t take place at rallys anymore, they mainly take place online, where it is still not possible to vote and where it is addictively easy to spend all day booing.

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Image from Wikipedia Commons

Solitude & Cable News

Elderly Folks used to be looked up to as the wisest and most experienced of us all. And while that is still the case in many households, there are now thousands of people in this country who claim to have “lost” their aging parents or grandparents to the on-all-day noise and viciousness of 24/7 cable news.

“I heard from several people that Fox News was a key factor in a divorce. One reader told me about his father, a one-time Trump skeptic turned believer. “He and my mom separated last November. There were other reasons but one of the big ones was his Fox addiction,” he wrote. “I went down to help him get set up in a new apartment. He cried a lot. We found an apartment and furniture and I got the utilities set up but I did not sign up for cable TV. He did that after I left, before he got a job.” — from a great NYMag piece

A few decades ago these same people might have spent their retirements sitting on the porch, chatting with their neighbors in the community, maybe listening to the baseball game on the radio. In 2019, they are being told a hundred times a day that they and their family are in imminent danger (in one of the safest places in the world) and that it’s all because the other party is lying and cheating their way into power. Not to mention that the North Korean nukes are coming. And there’s a fire in Paris. And a shooter by a school 150 miles away. And an e.coli strand that’s sure to reach your local grocery store.

Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a person who obviously needs to stay engaged in politics, has advised: “You’re not omnipotent. Taking in bad news you can’t do anything about doesn’t help anyone.” Not only does it not help anyone, it hurts you, too — all the while making it feel as if you’re engaging in politics by consuming the information.

So what does this all mean for our politics? One suggestion is that we are building a brand new relationship to political ease. The parts of American politics that are easy: talking, tweeting, sharing, even donating, these will be done more than ever before. But in return, the hard stuff, or atleast the stuff that must be done away from a computer screen, will become increasingly rare.

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A person sitting and thinking: source

But simply not going to rallies doesn’t get at the full scope of the problem. Like I alluded to with the cable news parents, there is a quiet, internal work that needs to happen to be an engaged citizen. These are the moments where you decide who and what to believe.

In his book Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport talks about the importance of solitude for having a thriving life, and how the constant pull from screens has kept us away from ever being truly alone as our attention is always fragmented and pointing outwards. “When you avoid solitude, you miss out on the positive things it brings you: the ability to clarify hard problems, regulate your emotions, to build moral courage, and to strengthen relationships.”

The average person almost certainly spends more time being concerned about politics than they did thirty years ago, and yet our politics seems worse than it’s been in decades. If you’re looking for an explanation, the screen you’re looking at might be pretty close to it.

Hi there. I write about public policy, politics, the presidency, and culture.

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