How memes undermine U.S. politics

Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it’s not the soul of democracy.

In the month since the 2016 election, there has been a lot of discussion and debate about the role of the media, “fake news,” and the social media “echo chamber effect.” Many people, including myself, believe these influences are dysfunctional and have a very negative influence on our political process.

Brevity is one of the core problems in news and social media that prevents us from having meaningful political discussions. It’s a problem for two reasons.

First, if you have to be brief, then you can only express conventional thoughts that are already familiar to your audience. Noam Chomsky, in his book Manufacturing Consent, calls this concision: the practice of limiting debate by limiting allotted time. This is a form of censorship.

If you only have 2 minutes between commercial breaks on TV, or 60 seconds for a radio show call-in comment, you don’t have the time to explain new ideas, much less to answer questions.

Unfortunately, most Americans get their news from TV networks and radio shows. The four most popular radio shows in the country are “All Things Considered”, “The Rush Limbaugh Show”, “Morning Edition”, and “The Sean Hannity Show.”

Each of these radio shows has an audience of over 12 million.

By contrast, the most popular newspaper is The Wall Street Journal, which has a little over 2 million subscribers. The top four national newspapers combined have a circulation of about 6 million — half as much as any single radio show.

TV news audiences are also in the range of 10–50 million people, depending on the week.

This is a huge problem that contributes to the inability of the left and the right to find common ground or even agree upon common facts.

Second, brevity only communicates with your existing allies and reinforces your echo chamber.

Since concision only allows you to express familiar ideas, people who are not familiar with your political positions or beliefs are more likely to ignore and dismiss them. The people most likely to respond and engage are the ones who already think similarly.

Not only does this reinforce the echo chamber effect, it excludes people who don’t already understand. It clarifies who you see as an ally and who you see as an enemy, and it discourages people who are in the middle from asking honest questions.

Of course, posting memes or thoughts that we agree with is emotionally satisfying. But the consequence is that it increases polarization, limits public debate, creates enmity, and prevents us from honestly examining new ideas.

The next time you’re about to share a tweet or re-post a meme, please think about it carefully first. Are you going to help break the cycle of division and ignorance, or contribute to it?