Social media rewards performance over actual politics, and hinders productive and nuanced policy discourse.
Our societies have become more polarised than ever and social media is at the root of the division. Instead of feeding the beast by focusing on virality, clout and catchy slogans, politicians need to be preoccupied with the deep questions and novel policies that will help us rebuild after the pandemic.
Politicians across the board need to ditch the Twitter feuds and virtue signalling displays. Social media is destroying our politics, as the medium shapes — and breaks — the message.
The temptation is understandable: young people, between the ages of 16 and 24 are much more likely to consider social media platforms as their primary news source, with 36 percent doing so compared with the 14 percent for the general population.
But young people on social media are not engaging with politics. At best, they are engaging with the performance of politics. That is not the same thing.
This performance is wasting ours, the media’s and politicians' time. Too many news cycles have been taken up by one tweet or Instagram photo, instead of policy debate.
Not all media are suitable for all purposes. Social media is great for targeted advertising by small businesses or for building a community of supporters around a startup, but it is simply not built for the levels of depth, nuance and debate that political discourse requires.
The term ‘flow’ was first coined by the Hungarian psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s to describe a sensation of complete focus on a single task, from rock climbing to surgery. More recently, the concept of flow has been used as a design concept to describe both video games and social media; they are both designed to keep us entertained for as long as possible.
The only content that really works on social media, and keeps scrolling in ‘flow’ is the simplest and most dramatic.
But the square peg of politics simply can’t fit into social media’s round hole. 38 percent of online users stop reading a news article before they even have to scroll. Those who finish the article are a minority.
Even existential issues — questions of life and death and the policies that make the difference between one and the other — can be made into viral cannon fodder by social media.
A full 24 hour news cycle was spent focussing on UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid’s use of the word ‘cower’ in relation to Covid-19, for example. Was this helpful, and for whom? Or was it another example of the type of faux-outrage that is good for social media but bad for all of us?
Similarly, do we believe that Labour MP Dawn Butler’s breaking of parliamentary protocol to call Boris Johnson a liar was done to create accountability and provide effective opposition, or for the viral factor?
Most people think that social media affects the length of content. But as well as making content shorter, it also changes its style. To keep users focussed and online, they must be served content that they are most likely to engage with, creating the ‘echo chamber effect’.
In the age of Trump, Brexit and the Black Lives Matter movement, Western democracies are more polarised than they have ever been. And it shows: one study found that over half of Americans believe that American is in the throes of a ‘cold civil war’.
We assume, when we scroll through our news feeds, that everybody thinks the same as us. This is due to a phenomenon discovered by Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahnemann called the ‘availability effect’. The more we observe an opinion or event, the more common we believe we believe it to be.
This is what makes social media echo chambers so dangerous — and why politicians must not participate in them. It is echo chambers that make us feel so much outrage when we meet people whose opinions differ to our own; we assume that opinion is ludicrous because we simply aren’t used to seeing, or engaging with it.
Each type of media works for different propositions. Social media is the most cost-effective, meritocratic way for businesses to target customers and for company founders to build their networks. But politics is about more than ‘buy my product’.
We used to rely on manifestos to decide who to vote for. They were much longer than 280 characters — and for good reason.
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