My gloss on Chris Bail’s excellent new book (introducing the idea of the “Social Media Prism”) is that the primary mechanism by which social media drives polarization is by letting us observe other people.
This observation is distorted, as Bail argues effectively, by how the attention economy produces a “race-to-the-outrageous” and how both global spirals of silence and local eddies of apathy cause the disengagement of moderates from political discussions. This post is about another dynamic, one that would exist even if the social media looking glass were crystal clear:
Millions of Americans are miserable. The internet has “gotten worse” because Americans are not ok. Near-universal internet access means that there are immiserated, lonely people spending many hours a day online. The breakdown in the social fabric, climbing "prime-age" unemployment and high rates of addiction and mental illness manifest themselves in our mutually-constructed online spaces. There is a misery that wants to make itself known--to inflict itself on the world--that social media enables. We are reaping what we've sown; the interconnectedness enabled by the internet and the gains from open communication/cooperation cannot succeed while so many are left behind.
Mary Gaitskill, one of the clearest-eyed observers of the American condition, describes living near a squalid community recently decimated by Hurricane Katrina and ignored by the government in her essay Somebody with a Little Hammer. After watching some quotidian cruelty committed by a desperate, downtrodden neighbor, she reads to her English class an excerpt from Chekov's famous story Gooseberries:
Just look at this life: the insolence and idleness of the strong, the ignorance and brutishness of the weak, impossible poverty all around us, overcrowding, degeneracy, drunkenness, hypocrisy, lies….Yet in all the houses and streets it’s quiet, peaceful; of the fifty thousand living in a town, there is not one who would cry
out, or become loudly indignant. We see those who go to the market to buy food, eat during the day, sleep during the night, who talk their nonsense, get married, grow old, complacently drag their dead to the cemetery; but we don’t see or hear those who suffer, and the horrors of life go on somewhere behind the scenes. Everything is quiet, peaceful, and only mute statistics protest: so many gone mad, so many buckets drunk, so many children dead of malnutrition.
Social media gives voice to these “mute statistics.” The cruel, anonymous Twitter accounts attacking Twitter micro-celebrities are precisely what Chekov invoked in a later passage:
At the door of every contented, happy man somebody should stand with a little hammer, constantly tapping, to remind him that unhappy people exist, that however
happy he may be, sooner or later life will show him its claws, some calamity will befall him—illness, poverty, loss—and nobody will hear or see, just as he doesn’t hear or see others now. But there is nobody with a little hammer, the happy man lives on, and the petty cares of life stir him only slightly, as wind stirs an aspen—and everything is fine.
For so many people in my class — blessedly “successful” knowledge workers safely sequestered in pleasant suburbs, college towns or gentrified urban neighborhoods — the horrors we encounter only on social media are a more or less accurate reflection of the lives of millions of Americans.
One of my relatives has never been very tech-savvy or studious; to make things worse, he suffered a serious head injury in bar fight that permanently damaged his cognitive functioning. He’s now in his early 60s. I recently learned that he has never used a computer, but is thinking of learning how. He lacks both the scaffolding of employment and the social resources to learn to use the internet well, and never developed the deceptively specific (invisibly specific, to the educated knowledge working class) skills and intuitions shared by the creators and implied consumers of internet content. If he gets online, he is at serious financial risk; never very financially savvy, he will be defenseless against the legions of outright scammers, identity thieves and ransomware extortionists.
And his presence as a consumer of online news will have negative consequences, both for himself and for the wider information environment. He is an embittered, lonely man, the perfect target for information fraudsters who will claim to explain that the source of his pain is some despised group (immigrants, the deep state). Consuming this information might make him feel better, but it will make him more confident in false beliefs about what members of his various outgroups are actually like. Even worse, it will contribute to the success of the bullshit vendor; directly, through ad revenue, and indirectly, by increasing their view/like/retweet counts and thus their credibility.
"Democratization" is easiest to think in terms of identifiable categories. Certainly, the expansion of the legal right to vote was done through explicit modifications to the law. But while demographics are a useful proxy, they cannot fully explain the relevant latent variable: there are simply some people who lack the capacity to use the internet.
All societies produce outcasts, misfits. Some people are born with physical bodies or neurocognitive styles that differ from societal ideals; others suffer serious injuries or illnesses, traumas and addictions; some are denied access to the resources, stability and dignity they need to flourish; still others simply don't fit in.
Some societies are more tolerant of these people than others. Some have religious or social institutions to care for them, while others have state-run safety nets. Adjusting for wealth, the United States at present is particularly brutal. Government programs are stingy. Social and familial groups have been eroded by capitalism's demands and the horrors of mass incarceration. Veterans are numerous and suffer terribly. Mental healthcare is inaccessible. Recreational drugs are cheap, ubiquitous and powerful. Wage growth is non-existent. And that was before the pandemic.
But all societies have historically restricted the ability to influence their information environments to people who conform to their standards. In a small group, social status is conceptually inseparable from influence. In larger societies, mediated by formal institutions like the church, the state, academia, or broadcast media, people have to advance through one of those institutions, spending years learning and performing normative behavior, to be granted informational authority. Disruption could happen, primarily through building a social movement in explicit opposition to the dominant institutions, but these movements were similarly hierarchical and required years of commitment to the cause.
Today, of course, the internet has democratized communication, and it is no longer the case that only people who have devoted many years to an institution who are granted the capacity to speak. It is worth noting that these institutions were inherently conservative and that they reinforced oppressions. Herman and Chomsky's description of the broadcast media in Manufacturing Consent is not a positive one.
The contemporary emphasis on group-based dimensions of oppression is necessary, but imprecise. Every identity group — every intersection between identity groups — contains some individuals who do not and will never fit in. But since these misfits are not a coherent group, social-media inflected discourses are unable to consider them coherently.
Instead, the social media prism presents the most miserable members of every identity group as exemplars of that group.
Think about the least functional, least capable person you know. Or think of the beggars on the streets of our cities, people who are visibly Not Ok. The democratization of internet access means that these people have smartphones or even just computers at the public library.
I am reminded of a chilling piece of investigative journalism from earlier this year, about a serial internet harasser from Toronto who had spent decades inflicting revenge on people who she believed had wronged her. The victims of her harassment campaign had difficulty getting her to stop, either through appeals to Google or the law, and eventually hired a private investigator to track her down and demonstrate convincingly that she was the person responsible for creating harassing websites:
This is a bad scene.
There is an undercurrent of classism here. Her many victims suffered terribly, to be clear, and the legal infrastructure/architecture of the web needs to be reformed. But what kind of content moderation system is robust to millions of broken, embittered peopled willing to spend thousands of hours inflicting pain on a society that let them slip through the cracks?
Again, literary fiction proves useful for developing a thicker understanding. Ben Lerner explores these themes in his latest book, The Topeka School. The protagonist (a blue state intellectual growing up in a red state milieu) is opposed in the narrative by Darren. The product of a broken home, Darren is also physically and cognitively non-normative. It is impossible for him to succeed, either socially or through the meritocracy of the school system. His only refuges are the base masculinities that now comprise a universally-derided aesthetic archetype: guns, martial arts, and the try-hard aesthetic of black/dragons/flames/outre sunglasses indoors.
He is a social outcast, but also a person, a teenage boy. In the climactic final scene, he is driven (by cheap, potent drugs, and social pressure) to an act of misogynist hyper-violence. At the high school graduation party, the cool kids get him to smoke meth and hit on a girl; he feels like he’s fitting in, until he learns that they’re still just making fun of him, like they have for his entire life, and he breaks her face with a pool ball. This will permanently consign him to the role of a pariah, doubly enforced by the state and society.
Now think about what happens when he gets the internet and uses it for 12 hours a day. The end of the book depicts a Trumpian turn for Darren. The racist losers at the gun shop are the only people in town who tolerate his presence. Darren has no resources, no friends and no human capital. Social media will connect him with thousands of other people like the guys at the gun shop, exploiting his suffering and anger to peddle evil narratives.
And then Darren will provide these digital platforms with the content that they really want: a pathetic loser searching for community in the only way our society affords, yes, but also a “Trumpkin,” posting stupid versions of evil politics. It has become acceptable — even celebrated — for elites of every stripe to gain status within their communities by “dunking on” stupid things done and said by the outgroup. We constantly re-affirm, to the recommendation algorithm and to the content aggregators gaming it for money, that this is why we’re on social media.
Our society has failed people like Darren. Previously, society and the state had been able to ignore the people we've damaged and abandoned, but the internet means that this is no longer possible. They are exacting revenge, tapping at our doors with little hammers, reminding us that they exist.
Ultimately, this is democracy in action. In American history, as the franchise was extended, the concerns of the newly enfranchised groups could no longer be entirely ignored. They were incorporated into the space of political competition, admittedly filtered and structured by the elite-run two-party system. Electoral democracy requires *active* participation, however, and this limits the kind of people whose views are represented even in a world of universal suffrage. This electoral democracy still excludes the poorest and least capable in our society, who cannot keep up to date with politics and make it to the polling station to actually cast a ballot.
In contrast, the democracy of online communication is much more passive. The engines of information supply, for profit or influence, are carefully attuned to the desires of each and every consumer. Rather than being undercounted to the point of non-existence, social outcasts living lonely lives that leave them many hours to consume media are part of the mass that mutually constitutes our online information environment. Our most extreme failures to take care of one another cannot be ignored.
"Democracy" has taken a bit of a beating in the past decade. Inherited information and political institutions have been floundering, leaving many longing for the cruel certainties of authoritarianism. Here's the true believer's classic rejoinder: "Sure, the US called itself a democracy then...but *real* democracy has never actually been tried!"
The democratization of online communication has demonstrated the hypocrisy of this view. There was always a moral imperative to be more caring and inclusive; it is now a political necessity. We all hate Facebook, and Facebook (the corporation) is, admittedly, terrible. But to a large extent, we hate Facebook because Facebook is other people.