What Do You Do with a Problem Like Social Media?

The larger theme of this colloquy is whether “social media” are “broken.” Will Rinehart’s essay hones in on a particular version of that question, which is whether “fake news” is in some sense responsible for course and outcome of the 2016 election. In doing this, he cuts down the “broken-ness” question into something more bite-sized, and hooray for that, because doing so gives us fulcrum we can use for leverage into larger issues.

Will makes many observations that I think are essentially correct, but draws a number of inferences from those observations that I think may be incorrect or correct but too narrowly gauged. But let’s focus at the outset on some things I think he’s gotten right.

Will correctly notes that commentators and politicians across the American political spectrum have decried the use of social media platforms to spread disinformation, and that this has led some of these critics to “chide these platforms.” He’s appropriately skeptical about whether it makes sense to focus on the social media platforms when (he believes) the real focus ought to be on “institutions of governing.” (I agree that examining and perhaps reforming these institutions is a necessary condition for American progress, although maybe not a sufficient one.) Will then looks back into the history of how we talk about democracy in the United States. Although I share philosopher Karl Popper’s view of the poverty of historicism, I nonetheless think that Rinehart’s grounding of modern concerns in historical perspective is generally the right initial approach.

Will’s essay veers off into a less useful direction, I think, when he settles on somewhat binary distinction between (a) “modern conceptions” of democracy that stress an informed citizenry and (b) an earlier period of U.S. politics in which “individuals weren’t expected to make rational choices when voting.” That earlier period, he says, didn’t much require that voters know the issues—they just had to pick the candidate or party they preferred. But, per Will’s narrative, populist initiatives such as civil-service reform and the secret ballot, together with the rise of national newspapers, weakened party politics by reducing the incentives for party loyalty. With secret ballots, you don’t risk riling your neighbors when you vote for Party X in a Party Y district—perhaps because you have been persuaded by a Party-X-leaning national newspaper. But you also don’t vote for Party X because it might increase your odds of getting a job as a postmaster or an appointment as a justice of the peace. Thanks to the reforms beginning in the late 19th century, voters and party stalwarts got fewer sticks and also fewer carrots. (Or so it was believed—peer pressure and patronage are slippery beasts that evolve quickly.)

Will correctly notes that our “modern conceptions” of democracy in the United States have as one premise that “the informed citizen” as a “pillar” supporting what we think makes the American Republic work. And I think he’s also right to say that when an election (or an entire election cycle) departs from what’s expected—our expectations may be based on polling data and on media accounts—the temptation for our political observers is to seize upon an easy culprit to blame. Because social media are new, still growing, and still transforming our public life, it’s easier to target them as the problem, even though Will rightly observes that the available data don’t seem to support the trendy idea that Facebook or Twitter or Google are centrally responsible for electoral dysfunction. Americans, like most other world cultures, tend to view new developments in mass media first with fascination and then with alarm lending itself to a moral panic. We saw such a moral panic about porn on the capital-I Internet a couple of decades ago, about television a couple of decades before that, and about consumer-research-based advertising a couple of decades before that. (And don’t get me started on video games and comic books.)

So, when it comes to Will’s underlying thesis—that we should focus more on democratic institutions than on the purported problem of “fake news,” he’s got both logic and facts on his side. He’s right to underscore Jonathan Rauch’s comprehensive argument that populist political reforms have been destabilizing. But I wish Will would give more credit to the possibility that social media can actually be a substantive force for good.

In my own international work, I’ve seen democratic movements in many other countries using Facebook to publicize injustice and mobilize political action. David Kirkpatrick’s book The Facebook Effect kicks off with an account of how a single Facebook user in Colombia leveraged the social-media platform to mobilize public opposition to the FARC guerilla movement. These uses of social media (yes, Instagram and Twitter play their roles here as well) ought to be the centerpieces of any argument that social media aren’t, in fact, “broken.”

But Will’s not-so-ringing defense against the charge that social media are “broken” or that they facilitate the spread of “fake news” is this:

What people do online is engage in the pointless babble that is so often derided. They go online to express sociability and maintain bonds, not debate politics. Snapchat isn’t built on political rants, it is built on videos and pictures of family, pets, and the sweet banality of daily life. Much more social media is like this than we tend to imagine.

So we shouldn’t worry about social media because they’re more or less inconsequential “babble”?  Nice try, but as the Supreme Court has shown us, it’s a lot easier to justify censorship of any exercise of freedom of expression if you can show that it lacks “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” Even if only a few social-media users leverage their platforms for political expression, I’d take that to mean that the platforms definitely do have “serious” political value.

But I’d make the argument that even what Will dismisses as “pointless babble” does in fact have a point. Expressing sociability and maintaining bonds is, in my view, as central to making the American republic work as debating politics is. It’s also central to our understanding of the First Amendment, which we generally understand to protect any kind of expressive communication—including what Thomas Emerson characterized in 1963 as the First Amendment’s support of “individual self-fulfillment”—not just political debates. What’s more, it’s clear that the social media we may first explore for fun or “the sweet banality of everyday life” are tools that, thanks to our hands-on experience, we can later leverage in political processes. Even if, as Will states, 2016 wasn’t “the election of social media,” there’s no particular reason think 2020 won’t be. And it’s likely than that Jonathan Rauch’s suggested reforms—aimed at strengthening political-party organizations—won’t be in place before then. Rauch writes:

The biggest obstacle [to strengthening political parties] is the general public’s reflexive, unreasoning hostility to politicians and the process of politics. Neurotic hatred of the political class is the country’s last universally acceptable form of bigotry. Because that problem is mental, not mechanical, it really is hard to remedy.

If hatred of politics and politicians is a mental problem, then maybe we need to address it as a nation through talk therapy: the group therapy of social media. No one can seriously dispute that, whatever else these platforms are used for, individuals use them a lot nowadays to express concerns about our political process and to chart a path forward.

Will asserts that “[f]rom the very founding of the United States until the late 1890s, individuals weren’t expected to make rational choices when voting” and that, post-populist-reforms, we’re still in need of what Michael Schudsen called “a language of public life that reconciles democracy and expertise.” But that’s not my takeaway even from the most anti-majoritarian passages of The Federalist, which, in number 22, underscores that “[t]he fabric of American empire ought to rest on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE.” (No one discouraged Publius from using all-caps.) Presumptively in our republic, the people have the expertise to pick leaders with governmental expertise.

Of course, sometimes the people make bad decisions in voting. Whether you exalt the wisdom of crowds or decry the madness of crowds, the fact is that crowds are at the heart of making our republic work.  Sure, sometimes our crowds do goofy things, but sometimes they do the right thing. Free-market theory recognizes that crowds may know more than even the best experts, but economic booms and busts show us how all too frequently there’s a lag time as our crowds advance up the learning curve. For me, the prospect of our crowd’s sharing personal and political knowledge and even wisdom directly with one another—rather than, say, merely through the imperfect signaling of prices—is a central promise of social media. Yes, our social-media platforms are certainly imperfect, but they’re also evolving, not least because they do have a stake in listening to our complaints. They’re not “broken” any more than a baby who can crawl but can’t yet walk is “broken.”  What they are, instead, is a work in progress. What we need to do when social media manifest social dysfunction is give them—and us—the space in which to grow up.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • We expect that voters should be well-informed, and to that end the press is essential. Yet reconciling democracy and expertise is no easy task, and examples of the press behaving badly seem all too common, particularly in the form of fake news. Yet Rinehart argues that concern over fake news may be overblown, and he suggests that our democracy’s real problems lie elsewhere.

Response Essays

  • John Samples draws on Thomas Emerson’s Toward a General Theory of the First Amendment to argue that social media is doing a reasonably good job at satisfying four widely shared values. He argues that it is doing particularly well in contrast to the television monoculture that preceded it.

  • Mike Godwin argues that social media is still in its infancy, and it is much premature to declare it “broken.” He adds that non-political expressions of sociability should not be dismissed as valueless; they have great value both in themselves and as part of the process by which a republic is formed and perpetuated.

  • Kate Klonick argues that social media has empowered individuals to create a democratic culture that is much larger and more powerful than just what they do at the polls. Social media allows grassroots activism to work in new and important ways that don’t always aim at changing the way people vote, but that do change society all the same.