2016 and the Facebook Comment Section

These are strange times and people have been trying to make sense of them. I think we landed here because we are living differently than we did in elections past. Or maybe the wrong person came along at the right time and threw us into a frenzy. Either way, something irreversible seems to have happened: Not necessarily etiquette and decorum in politics, but how we absorb information and communicate with one another.

The morning of the first debate, I hit refresh and the top article on my newsfeed was from The Hill (an odd outlet that’ll give anyone an op-ed, though has an equal amount of liberal and conservative followers) titled, “Clinton ties Drumpf’s refusal to release tax returns to Russia in ad” — her follow-up to the big Newsweek exposé that any other year would have sunk a candidacy. Within the first minute, a sole commenter wrote, “Hillary will start coughing uncontrollably at the debates.” Homing in on this discussion, I refreshed again and again. Now, 10 minutes in, the most-liked comment read:

“Isis and Mexican drug cartels benefited greatly from obama and hillary. Leave our military equipment for isis, and have people turn in weapons that end up on cartel gang members. Oh and let’s open our borders and now everyone is fucked up on herion, oh and BLM keeps destroying shit freely, and we got random ass holes killing and bombing when they can. Yeah okay, support all that.”

Again, that’s the most ‘liked’ comment. Call me crazy, but pretty much everything you need to know about the 2016 election and the current state of our democracy is found in this interaction right on your screen. Seriously.

Let’s break it down:

  1. Huge investigative piece taking time and resources gets buried in the news cycle.
  2. Clinton campaign seizes it and tries to keep it afloat.
  3. Media outlet reports on this and posts to their social media.
  4. Reader sees only the headline and the caption before commenting, thus framing the discussion that many more readers will see.
  5. The comments show a deflection to Clinton as opposed to the topic at hand.
  6. The comments have been repeatedly disproven and are in the vein of decades-long conspiracy theories tied to the Clintons.
  7. At this moment in time, Drumpf and Clinton were essentially even in the polls.

But why examine the junk mail of the Internet? Well, the trolls are people. And people vote.

A year ago you would have heard me naively say almost word-for-word, “The Internet is the greatest gift to our democracy — everything can be researched and fact-checked. People won’t be able to get away with lies and so the better candidate will now always win.” Where that idea failed to connect with reality? People largely don’t have the time, desire, or awareness to read lengthy articles and analysis. About 15% of article click-throughs are read in their entirety — and that’s just the people who actually click on an article.

Instead, headlines, sound bites, captions, and comments end up telling the story. Sensation and reaction is the name of the game while context ceases to exist. In the words of my beloved undergrad poli-sci professor, “Conspiracies are fun to believe” — if an explanation is simple or exciting, it can gain attention and traction. An abandonment of truth and an embrace of simplicity and animation: Donald Drumpf and his electoral success in a nutshell.

“RATCHET LYING BITCH!!!! You’d have to be complete moron to vote, believe in that crazy bitch!”

— Facebook comment

So if information is consumed in clickbait headlines and comments, and much of the discussion feeds instantly from these small bits, how would any contextual argument make its way into the discussion? Sadly, it seems as though playing this game of informational and argumentative rapid-fire is the short-term solution.

Many thousands of people are privy to this already and have therefore turned every single comment section into a battleground for one’s beliefs and logical superiority. It explains why people comment within the first minute of a post — before they could physically read what’s there. Or why we find it necessary to up-vote what we agree with or even argue against what we don’t. The side with the more up-votes wins the battle, thereby shaping perceptions of who’s in the majority. Most of the time it’s one-sided and in support of the post in question, though many times it’s combative like on The Hill’s article.

Words like “Facebook” and “Instagram” generally hold a juvenile connotation; they are platforms that couldn’t possibly be taken seriously. But we’re all there in those spaces, discovering new information and watching the discussion unfold every day. There is such power in that.

For instance, on the day of the first debate, you’ll see trolling comments on all of Hillary Clinton’s Facebook posts as the most-liked. These include, “Is this why you accepted $25 m (or more) from Saudi Arabia and other middle eastern countries?” and “You don’t have my vote. From your failed foreign policies to having your staff smash phones with a hammer. The server in your basement put national security at risk to keep you dirty dealings a secret. It’s disgraceful.” In this case, it is meant to make the subject at hand appear weak while building solidarity through likes and comments. These comments earned hundred of likes each in ‘enemy territory’ — making it likely the comment was an organized deployment of trolling. Reddit’s subreddit “The Donald” is known to promote specific hashtags, encourage followers to vote repeatedly in online polls, and storm comment sections.

The loss of a national dialogue in a fragmented media landscape has also created alternate realities ; alternate realities where differing opinions hardly creep in (save for combative comment sections) and challenge its members’ thinking. Most people largely participate where it’s comfortable, and so people don’t know what they don’t know.

“Don’t believe the media…Hillary’s poll numbers are dropping faster than Bill Clinton’s pants in an Arkansas trailer park…”

— Facebook comment

Drumpf currently has 11.9 million followers compared to Hillary’s 7.7 and as such earns more of a response on his posts. The candidates were even in the polls heading into the first debate despite their oceans-wide difference in experience and knowledge. Social media presence and dynamics perhaps play a partial role.

Social media is able to connect strangers across any border, so it provides a unique window into a voter’s specific thinking and how much support they have for their ideas. What makes it so fascinating is that unlike other media formats like TV, radio, and print, it lends itself to a people-driven discussion with no filter — democratic, even if to a fault. Still, 20% more people get their news from TV, but that gap is shrinking with age demographics. Now 4 in 10 Americans get their news online, so examining its influence in shaping perceived truths is necessary as more and more people become dependent on online media.

In a year that seems to continually break every unwritten rule, political scientists and writers and politicians and citizens everywhere have struggled to define exactly why. And for good reason, there is no singular explanation. The waves of anti-establishment populism and overt racism, media’s addiction to ratings and reluctance to point out falsehoods under the guise of “balance,” Bernie Sanders’s positive and negative aftereffects, the largest presence of third-party consciousness in history, and the nation’s decline in civics education and engagement all piece together our current and ominous planetary alignment: the very possible presidency of a reality television salesmen without a clue or good intention. Idiocracy at least gave us 500 years before reaching this point; we accelerated it to just 10.

It’s hard to say how we dig ourselves out of this hole, where our democracy goes next. It seems Pandora’s Box has been opened; social media’s hold on our daily lives and news has been unleashed and is unlikely to diminish any time soon.

People, in their failings and institutions’ failures toward them, now drive their media and therefore the conversation. Social media is a piece of the puzzle in 2016’s freakish nature. It is a school and a rallying point and a battlefield all in one.

I think that’s why I’m so excited for the election to finish. Most people want the coverage to stop, and me too. But more so, to take a calm, clean, halted look at it all from the other side — free from deflection and unneeded noise. It will be a rare and cherished time in 2016.

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