Social Media and Democracy

Earlier this evening, I saw a headline that gave me some food for thought. “America Strikes Back: Tea Party to Gather with Trump, Cruz, Palin, Duck Dynasty, More on Capitol Hill Against Iran Deal.” This appeared on the website Breitbart. After reading about Palin’s supportive comments about Donald Trump, it was not surprising to see her name, his and the Tea Party in the same headline. Although I should have expected it, the appearance of “Duck Dynasty” seemed discordant. It makes me feel that this “rally” is more about tribal identification than about foreign policy.

One of the most influential books on my thinking was Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. Although it is not exactly related, that book really hammered home for me how innate many of our social behaviors are and how that can influence our politics, economic order and other aspects of our society. When talking about politics, it is so easy to get caught up in discussions of policy or ideology and forget how much of it is purely social. As in the behavior of “virtue signalling”, out social behavior is often ostensibly about something else.

In recent months, the rise of mob justice on social media has caused me to distance myself from some people on the left who believe that the end justifies the means and can’t see that “Mob Justice Isn’t Justice at All.”

Since human behavior is malleable, it is always treacherous to talk about our innate impulses. Still, anyone who has survived grammar school knows that much of our beliefs, and even more of what we profess, is shaped by our social group. For instance, I sometime catch myself, not lying, but shading the truth to appear agreeable. I find myself saying that I’m “not religious” rather than that I’m “an atheist” if it think I’m talking to someone who might find the word atheist too shocking.

Nowadays, many people are getting their news, not from  newspapers, or even television or primarily news websites, but from social media like Twitter and Facebook. Even on websites, comments can add a social dimension to reading and thinking about a news event, an action which used to be principally private. When we did talk to our friends and colleagues about a news item, it was often hours after we first heard about it, giving us a chance to develop a preliminary opinion.

This year, I have felt very alienated from the positions held by people on the left. However, when I read articles on more conservative sites, I am left with the distinct impression that I could never be a conservative because, as a bisexual, formerly promiscuous, not quite white, urban dwelling, Burgundy swilling,television abstaining, atheist, I am not one of their tribe. It may not be that the Democratic and Republican tents are getting smaller, but they may be getting more tribal, less associated with political positions and more associated with sub-cultures and identities.

This led me to a bit of cogitation earlier about how some of our democratic rituals may have evolved as they did partly as a way to circumvent exactly this sort of behavior and allow us to be, at least for a time, a little bit more like a “rational actor,” although one could argue that as social animals there is nothing irrational about our socially motivated behavior.

We will see if in the face of social media our political institutions need to adjust.

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