Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, October 31, 2016

social media, emotion, and politics

I’m not going to enter this contest — I should leave it to people who need the money and the publicity more than I do — but if I were to answer the contest question, Are digital technologies making politics impossible?, I would say something along these lines:

No, digital technologies are not making politics impossible, but they have already radically changed politics in ways that none of the existing political structures have so far been able to adapt to. Digital technologies — more particularly, digital social media — have had multiple political effects, but the primary one has been to keep the people who use them in a constant state of extreme emotional stimulation. As Bianca Bosker has explained in a recent story in The Atlantic, Tristan Harris wants software engineers to take a kind of Hippocratic Oath that they will cease to take advantage of their users’ susceptibility to emotional manipulation, will cease their “race to the bottom of the brain stem,” but I cannot imagine a more pointless campaign. None of the current social media companies will act in a way that could take eyeballs away from their apps, because eyeballs are what they monetize; and none of their would-be successors will do it either, for the same reason.

Likewise, no more than a tiny percentage of users will develop any self-discipline or alter their habits in any way in response to being manipulated by their social-media apps. The addiction is too strong and too universally shared.

Some of those who feel silenced, marginalized, and powerless — especially those who also believe that they have declined as a a cultural force, or have had rightful power snatched from them — embrace the addiction to social media most enthusiastically because they get the most out of it. They come to believe that their voices are loud and powerful, or at least that they can strike a blow against their enemies. Thus they can devote a great deal of otherwise empty time to harassing and abusing anyone who doesn't live up to their expectations — which can mean not just evident political enemies but people whom they believe have betrayed their side. Consider the stories that have just appeared by David French and his wife Nancy French, explaining what it’s like to be on the receiving end of such abuse.

We can perhaps understand this behavior better by zeroing in on one particular kind of abuse. The Anti-Defamation League has just released a report which shows a marked upsurge in anti-Semitic social media activity in recent years, but the report also notes that of “2.6 million tweets containing language frequently found in anti-Semitic speech between August 2015 – July 2016,” 68% came from 1,600 Twitter accounts. Twitter has suspended about 20% of these accounts, but their owners can just create as many more as they want.

A look at his Twitter mentions suggests that David French gets some anti-Semitic abuse, even though he is not Jewish. (I do too, simply because Jacobs is a common Jewish name.) But the same people who produce a lot of anti-Semitic tweets are nasty towards many other racial and social groups, as well as those whom they think politically naïve or treacherous. They are not specialists in harassment, but rather generalists; and as the numbers above indicate, they are very, very active.

On websites where comments sections are still provided, such abusers will probably dominate the space; but precisely because of their behavior, comments have been disappearing from major websites for some years now. Facebook’s code architecture — its real-name policy, its reciprocity (I friend you, you friend me), and a few other elements — tend to limit, though certainly not eliminate, abuse there.

Which leaves Twitter.

In early 2015 Twitter CEO Dick Costolo wrote, “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we've sucked at it for years. It's no secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day. We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day.” Since then nothing has changed. Twitter simply is not seriously interested in protecting its users from abuse, and unless it is sold to a company that does care, it will remain an environment perfectly calibrated for incubating hatred.

It’s also true, though, that for people who want to communicate with an audience beyond their family and friends, Twitter remains by far the best option. So people like the Frenches won't want to leave it altogether until a better alternative emerges, and it’s hard to imagine that happening. We’d need everyone to move to a rival at once, or in very short order. In social media, incumbency has great power.

So, to return to the question with which we began, what are the political implications of this situation? Primarily this: that a very small number of angry and hate-filled people are empowered by Twitter’s code architecture and membership policies to spread their message of anger and hatred to people who have no reliable means of ignoring it, which leaves the entire Twitter-using world in a more-or-less constant state of emotional agitation. That the emotions generated are usually negative doesn't turn people away: as I have commented before, “It is impossible to understand social media without grasping that, as Craig Raine has said, ‘All emotion is pleasurable.’” And the pleasure of such emotion will inevitably outweigh any desire to have rational conversations. There’s a reason why Donald Trump and his most enthusiastic supporters like Twitter so much. As Richard Spencer, a pro-Trump alt-right white nationalist, recently said, "It's not so much about policy – it's more about the emotions that [Trump] evokes. And emotions are more important than facts."

To Twitter's power to stimulate emotion may be added the more familiar one of intermittent reinforcement, with this result: The emotional extremity of Twitter will continue to draw people like moths to a flame, even when that extremity makes it almost impossible for people to engage rationally and patiently with one another. And the communicative habits strengthened and intensified by Twitter will continue to bleed into the larger world of political discourse, as we have already seen in the Presidential debates of this season. (Just think about how fluttered everyone became when one person, Ken Bone, asked a question that presumed thoughtful and informed consideration of a complex political issue rather than posturing and grandstanding. It was like a message in a bottle, from another time and place.)

Unless Twitter makes significant changes to its code and policies — and as I’ve suggested, I think that highly unlikely — the “race to the bottom of the brain stem” will continue, and our political culture will become more purely emotional. Indeed, that process has gone far enough that even when Twitter gives way to a different platform, that platform will almost certainly intensify emotions more effectively than Twitter does. This is the communicative environment in which politics will, for the foreseeable future, be performed.

As I said at the outset of this post, “digital technologies ... have already radically changed politics in ways that none of the existing political structures have so far been able to adapt to.” In the coming years the existing political structures will certainly take adaptive steps. None of them are likely to console those who think facts ought to be more important than emotions, but that does not mean that we are wholly without hope. In the media/politics environment that is on its way, and to a considerable extent already here, the people who will achieve the greatest public good will be those who learn to encourage the better, the nobler emotions. All emotion is pleasurable, but there are only some emotions that we do well to take pleasure in. And those who learn to feel as they should can eventually be brought to understand the value of thought.


  • Well, this is depressingly accurate. As alarmist as some may think the idea, it increasingly looks like the current trajectory of society in terms of culture, politics, etc., is one that must be waited out. This isn't to say that rational arguments can't or won't persuade; its to say that we must wait until the world is able to *hear* these rational arguments for what they are.

  • "no reliable means of ignoring it"? I've ignored Twitter and Facebook from the start. I've lost out on base and pointless emotional (over)stimulation, I suppose, but it's a worthwhile trade-off to avoid becoming entrained by someone else's provocations.

  • Brutus, that sentence was about Twitter users, not all human beings.

  • Interesting the mention of social media facilitating a kind of “race to the bottom of the brain stem” in people's reactions and comments. Face-to-face an other conventional communication interactions are loaded up with norms and other sensations that force us to communicate a little higher in the evolutionary chain. I try to indulge in social media discussions with people who are obviously reacting from resentment while keeping my comments respectful and mindful of social norms. Not to take the high ground, but I think this is important work [though unpaid, and without professional acknowledgement] that needs to be done.

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