Why did American political discourse on social media become more agitated and less substantive?

Juliette Pope/The Miscellany News.

Politics take up more of our collective conscience now than during pre-Trump presidential administrations. The country just underwent an election cycle and presidential term so divisive and consequential that voting turnout ballooned and curiosity in political processes has enveloped much of the country’s population, even affecting those who would otherwise consider themselves apolitical. There is no sign that the division is waning. Amid these developments, social media, a realm that is a large part of people’s daily lives and oftentimes even serves as people’s main source of information on political issues, depicts a troubling picture of how people approach political discourse on virtual platforms. 

Unfortunately, social media agitation that often features ad hominems and heated language has become so prevalent that politicians now weaponize this rhetoric to delegitimize those on the other side of the political aisle. Democrats, for example, are now seen by many conservatives as the party of “cancel culture” in cahoots with “Big Tech” to push their agenda forward; therefore, Republican politicians have portrayed their own side of America’s political system as that which champions free speech. As a result, the propagation of issues bearing miniscule importance may have a role in actually switching people’s votes, given that a whole plurality of those polled in a POLITICO survey believe that “cancel culture” threatens civil liberties. Present-day perturbation in today’s agitated online world and how that atmosphere is exploited play a role in diminishing healthy discourse. Why is this happening?

America’s white supremacist history is a significant factor in people’s tendency to be aggressive on social media. In a country where many tout nationalistic exceptionalism and might, systemic inequities of class, gender, race and sexuality linger. It is good that these issues are brought into the limelight in think tanks, the halls of Congress, classrooms and casual in-person discussions. Activity on social media from people representing different issues takes on a more mixed image. It is true that worthwhile, substantive content is shared and discussed on social media through informative threads, helpful resources for information, and conversations that may leave users with more knowledge and perspective. However, since people are more likely at a given time to interact with complete strangers in the comment sections and therefore can opine with seemingly more anonymity, some turn to the vast division in people’s beliefs as to what America should become and feel more safe in facilitating tension. Users release flurries of heated remarks and mockery towards one another concerning trivial issues that fail to represent much greater and ongoing problems in society but instead mirror the content of their online echo chambers. This is unsurprising, considering that according to a Pew Research survey, 84 percent of social media users believe that the statement, “People say things when discussing politics that they would never discuss in person,” describes social media sites well. Despite the fact that some people want to express beliefs in good faith, social media has become a platform of increasing vulgarity and frustration. 

Another reason for the absence of substantive discussion in social media politics is the boring nature of traditional political discourse. There is a special thrill in spending time on social media looking at hypocrisy among news anchors or what politician drank water mid-speech or which activist humiliated that college student. We naturally enjoy seeing content that reaffirms our moral sanctimony, and we have social media to partially blame for reinforcing that tendency. Social media algorithms are designed to keep users drawn, not informed or satisfied. In fact, algorithms can be the determinant factor in how people see the world, so much so that the line between fact and fiction may blur. 

This is where radicalization can fester. If one were to view a few Facebook posts about a conspiracy theory about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the algorithm may understand firsthand that this is the kind of content that appeals to the user. It makes the pattern of content a curious user scrolls through self-reinforce, and it builds a more constricted understanding of reality, regardless of whether it reflects the truth or not. When people are increasingly pushed into hyperpolarized filter bubbles of thought, they find a sense of community and develop a strong animosity toward the “other,” which is psychologically invigorating. These elements of thrill and bitterness in social media controversies have corrupted what would otherwise be substantive discourse. It curiously puts into perspective why QAnon accelerated in popularity throughout the last few years, notably among those who have not been as exposed to politics before. In a time when the current political struggles in America are viewed as moral crusades, connecting Chrissy Teigen’s use of pizza emojis to her alleged association with high-profile Democrats and Jeffrey Epstein in acquiring adrenochrome from children in the basement of a pizzeria becomes psychologically appealing. Yet, it means nothing. Chrissy Teigen just likes pizza. 

Why is this lack of substance harmful? Since the middle of the previous decade, a sea change in politics revolutionized online political interaction. As former President Donald Trump changed the character of the Republican Party and further augmented the negative image of conservatism, liberals became increasingly disgusted, yet determined to advocate for change when granted the opportunity. Many of them have taken on responsibilities such as conversing with those in disagreement, posting important updates about political developments and even calling voters in swing states during the 2020 election cycle. Social media, however, is a more prevalent hotspot for people to fulfill their desires for validation or to affirm their moral sanctimony. People on opposing sides of the political binary are much less respectful to each other on social media than in real life for this reason. Since the state of affairs under Trump’s presidency had inflamed division more than in previous years or possibly even decades, people frequently unfriend or block one another because of something one may have said about a certain politician or some other measly nuisance not worth the attention it is being given. This further fed into Trump’s ability to garner a political base because he only empowered the uproar against “cancel culture” as a pugnacious consequence of “liberal tears.” It allowed him to embrace his overt misogyny and non-traditional mannerisms as a bulwark against the liberal sensitivity falsely generalized by those who oppose liberals. This is an important example about how anger, especially when exploited and weaponized by influential figures, consumes Twitter feeds and self-perpetuates.

Furthermore, it is counterproductive to civilized discourse and the prospect of progress when people consistently block or unfriend others for differences on trivial issues. Many who are passionate about politics but block users in disagreement are left with a constrained social media circle that only consists of people with similar ideas and values. This further worsens the atmosphere of agitation because it makes those who narrowed their field of acceptable viewpoints more likely to condemn others’ moral judgement for the slightest differences. It becomes a feedback loop. And it isn’t solely focused between liberals and conservatives. For example, it is not unusual for Biden voters in comment sections to curse out leftists who wanted to vote for a third party, and vice versa. This vitriol is a story vastly different from what happens in person, and blocking others on social media turns a space for potential discourse into an unproductive echo chamber that puts rare dissent at risk of swift condemnation. 

Disinformation also plays a crucial role in magnifying frustration and hostility in different social networking platforms. Bots and fake accounts take social media vitriol to a greater level by elevating content that warps the truth. They function as technological sleeper agents, hashtag hijackers and “trolling.” The sources of fabricated accounts tend to be both foreign and domestic, though there is a growing awareness of their dissemination by foreign sources in the wake of election interference revelations, particularly Russian interference. Disinformation does something much worse than just elevate rudeness according to political differences. When lies, “alternative facts” and situations taken out of context conjure up multiple realities, they become psychologically effective in pitting people against one another through emotions of anxiety and rage. A video of then-candidate Biden in October circulated among conservative networks and social media accounts, in which he slipped up and said, “We have put together I think the most extensive and inclusive voter fraud organization in the history of American politics.” Those who were in denial about Trump losing the 2020 election referred to Biden’s quote as a Freudian slip, and despite how unimportant that moment was, it became part of a campaign of lies that eventually drove an angry mob to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6. It’s one thing when political differences create tension; it’s another thing when social media manipulation makes basic reality disputable. As technological advancement makes media manipulation easier and more attractive, the societal detriments grow. 

Diversity of thought is essential to a functional democracy. Democratic discourse has been significantly corrupted and made into a platform of animosity by elements that factionalize perception of reality. While social media should ideally produce beneficial interactions, participation or accumulation of knowledge, the element of thrill behind trivial issues and prevalence of anger have had a negative impact on people’s mental health. Also, isolating oneself from adherents to a different political train of thought will never fuel change. My hope is that in the future more people can be kind and understanding, but also wary as to how different kinds of social media engagement affect their mental health. It’s important to ask oneself whether engaging in combative argument with somebody on Facebook who randomly comments, “Commie Dumbocrats want to RAISE GAS PRICES!! TRUMP 2024!!” is really worth it. People occasionally share concerns about spending too much time on social media, yet maybe it is also important to concern oneself about the return value of that time. 

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