You’re doing social media wrong
Inoculating Democracy in the Information Age.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “The Tipping Point,” Gladwell says “Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push — in just the right place — it can be tipped.”
The size and scope of the cable news machinery designed specifically to tip once unimpeachable ideas like “Democracy” and “Freedom” has clearly metastasized in the age of Trump. While the entire Left speak about the entire Right as if it has joined some kind of sneaker-clad death cult, the same could be said about the latter’s opinion of the former, and the words that both side uses like “freedom” and “life” no longer seem to mean what they used to mean. An alien from another planet might watch our 24-hour news cycle and believe ours was a civilization circling the drain, but it’s important to recognize one very important fact: That’s exactly the point.
In 2017, PBS’ “Frontline” produced a two-part documentary called “Putin’s Revenge” in which they detailed Vladimir Putin’s long battle against democracy and the U.S., and how he believes the fall of the Berlin Wall was the biggest catastrophe in history. It’s an incredible documentary, but one thing it doesn’t cover enough — particularly because it pre-dated much of it — is how vigorously fundamentalist Christians and white nationalists in the U.S. have found themselves aligned with and joined in on Putin’s nonstop propaganda attacks on Democracy throughout the western world.
Fox News, One America News Network and Sinclair Broadcast Group are all well-funded, pro-Trump, pro-Putin propaganda machines churning out metric tons of so-called news every minute of every day with one thinly-veiled message underlying all the mess and conspiracy theories: Democracy has failed you.
We get caught up with the little details here and there, the ridiculous stories about palace intrigue and Democratic in-fighting, but underneath it all is a goal upon which the entire global right wing has found common cause: the destruction of Democracy. They’re in some ways clever about it, in other ways self-delusional, because they don’t attack it head on. They attack Democracy by redefining its primary characteristic: freedom. Christian fundamentalists call it “religious freedom” to be free to discriminate against LGBTQIA in any way they want. The ultra-wealthy want to be free from taxes, oversight and scrutiny. White Nationalists want the “freedom of speech” to spout their hateful ideas on social media platforms, free from de-platforming. Vladimir Putin wants a world free from Democracy, and why wouldn’t he? If his people see democratic leaders tearing down their own free press, citizens of democracies killing themselves and each other in record numbers and unable to receive healthcare or education without incurring crushing debt, then why would they ever want that for themselves?
So they attack us where we’re most vulnerable: our minds.
Even if you’ve never read Gladwell’s book — or even heard of it — , you’ve definitely heard of its premise, particularly if you’ve ever heard or used the term “viral” when describing videos or memes or ideas. In fact, the word “meme” itself is indirectly a reference to this very premise, which is that ideas, fads, fashion—and now the occasional YouTube or social media video—can spread like an epidemic. The book draws several comparisons between the spread of fads — like the Pet Rock craze of the ‘70s and the popularity of various drugs at different times and places — to the spread of diseases — like the early years of the AIDS epidemic.
Since the advent of social media, the theories of this book are proving as undeniable as gravity, and nowhere is that more true than in democracies with un-censored free speech. In countries with both freedom of speech and freedom of the press, social media has become the front lines for the battle of ideas like those advocated by Anti-Vaxxers and Flat-Earthers.
Extremists on all ends of various spectrums have been able to swell their ranks through social media, and despots from undemocratic countries have been using troll factories with thousands of fake accounts to spread their own ideas as if by “regular Americans,” but all that is news so old you can’t credibly call it “news” anymore. What may be news is all the ways that you’re probably helping them.
Yes you, reader, but probably me as well to some degree. My only other Medium post was published a few short weeks after Benedict Donald’s “record-breaking” inauguration with the title Maybe we weren’t actually friends to begin with. In it, I vigorously advocated the un-friending of people whose ideas you find toxic and un-American, so yeah, maybe I’m less likely to have been helping spread un-democratic posts and ideas through social media, but in the grand scheme of things, who knows?
The point is we are all vulnerable, and thinkers on the left are by nature more willing to adopt another’s point-of-view before passing judgement, but it’s high time we started to realize what’s actually at stake here: Democracy itself. Both Brazil and Hungary recently turned away from democracy by voting into power far-right, anti-democratic leaders, and even the capitalist bastion The Wall Street Journal is touting the potential economic benefits of turning away from democracy. Anybody who believes that Democracy in the United States is safe, just isn’t paying attention.
So what can we do?
The first thing we have to do is recognize that each and every one of us is an organ in this organism of civilization, and that our social media accounts are the arteries and veins through which the healthy and unhealthy ideas pass. Whether we like it or not, we spread those ideas around — and not just the ideas we hold dear or personally believe, but EVERY idea we post or retweet or like passes along to every other organ along the line.
Now that we recognize this fact, we need to act like white blood cells. We need to actively promote ideas like democracy and the rule of law, and in some cases we need to stop giving our wackiest friends and family a platform for their craziest and stupidest ideas. We shouldn’t necessarily ignore the most heinous and terrible ideas — on the contrary, we do need to fight them, but we need to pay close attention to that very thin line between changing minds and validating biases. You see, most people have no concept of the political ramifications of their actions on social media. Most people just see it as a place to hang out with friends, troll their enemies and frenemies, and some, a place to “own the libtards”.
But whether you like it or not, social media IS the frontline for ideas as big as Democracy, Socialism, Capitalism and Authoritarianism, and there are well-funded, single-minded forces on the other side.
On our side, it’s basically just us, regular people, but we do have one small advantage: the truth. Actual democracy is the best form of government for people who love other people. Sure, things can move faster and more decisively in nondemocratic forms of government, but the greatest percentage of citizens are served better in the long run by democracies full stop.
So continue giving your crazy uncle or nutty friend from high school a platform at your own peril, but recognize you’re also imperiling all of us.