Thoughts on Social Media and Politics

The United States Capitol building

“How did we get here?” has been a recurring thought for me as I watch current events in American politics unfold. The political polarization in the country is as bad as it’s been in recent memory, and things feel like they’re accelerating more than slowing down. It seems as though the only thing that people can generally agree on is just how divided we are.

So, how did we get here?

It’d be absurd to claim that our current disfunction stems from just one cause, but I do think that the changes in how we communicate with each other have been a major contributing factor. I’m talking about social media, of course, as cliché a subject as that may be. I’ve thought a lot about just how toxic politics usually are on social media, where tribalism is rampant and anger is the default emotion.

I’d like to share a hypothesis on why politics on social media are so toxic. Not an answer or a solution, just some of my thoughts.

I am of the belief that most political issues of the day are massively complex subjects that require a great deal of nuance to address properly. Truly black-and-white political issues are the exception, not the rule. When we fail to acknowledge this, we’re more likely to regress than progress.

Social media platforms, in general, heavily favor short-form easy-to-consume content. Pictures and GIFs dominate feeds, and it’s generally accepted that most commenters on an article probably haven’t read past the headline. I think this is a problem, because these platforms don’t give nuance the space to breathe.

Some social media platforms are even designed around enforced brevity through intentional limitations. Twitter only allows 280 characters. TikTok limits uploads to 60 seconds. This brevity may be good for comedy, but less so for political discourse. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these services have some of the most toxic political climates I’ve encountered from mainstream social media.

Conversely, when I think of the most valuable and productive political content I’ve seen, I think of long-form videos and podcasts, where honest people are able to engage in good-faith discussions, debates, and dialectics about difficult subjects. This content often measures hours in length, not seconds, because that’s what addressing complex issues with nuance requires.

280 characters is not enough space to deliver a nuanced opinion on most political issues, or to build real understanding with people you disagree with— but it is enough space to shout out one of your tribe’s pre-approved opinions, or to grumble about how awful those people on the other side are. To borrow one of Yahtzee Croshaw’s colorful analogies:

We live in an age where mass communication has counterintuitively turned all attempts at verbal debate into a basketball game where the teams are on different courts, and stand around a basket racking up meaningless points and throwing shit over the dividing wall.