Democracy Doesn’t Value Quantity Over Quality
To earn lots of followers on any sort of social media platform, it’s usually essential to post often. The more often one posts, the less time spent in between thinking about the merits of the content being shared. Since there’s an infinite number of ways to be wrong and only a finite number of ways to be right, this emphasis on quantity diminishes the average quality of the content over time.
Traditional media has many flaws. Like any institution, it’s only as good as the people within it. But historically there’s been enough variety to provide people with plenty of options to choose from. That diversity has usually enabled us to sort the wheat from the chaff. Unfortunately, as local newspapers keep steadily shutting down or cutting staff and broadcast media has become dominated by fewer and fewer large corporations, the professional journalists and columnists we once relied upon for news and analysis are becoming something of an endangered species.
It used to be understood by everyone that if we wanted to get the media’s attention we had to give some thought to the arguments we were going to make in order to achieve that goal. Getting even a small local newspaper to publish a letter to the editor required the writer to make at least a minimal effort to consider what sort of reasoning was most likely to get the editor’s or editorial board’s attention. That effort was mutually beneficial to both the writer and society bacause spending at least a moment or two thinking about how our words might be perceived by others, if only to get others to respect our point of view enough to publish it, is essential to maintaining both civility and developing an ability to persuade.
The same was true of press releases or public events built around the promotion of particular causes. The audience or audiences being targeted were much more of a factor in our deliberations regarding what to say and do when it was understood that getting our message out depended, at least in part, upon others whose job it was to sift through everything going on locally, nationally, and globally. Like everyone else, journalists had their biases, but if we took some time to understand what they were it was often possible to modify our arguments to appeal to them.
In this way, one could pitch a policy to a more conservative publication or broadcast media outlet by making the case the policy was more fiscally responsible than the status quo, while simultaneously promoting the same policy on its social justice merits to a more liberal newspaper or station. In other words, pre-social media there was a much greater incentive for those trying to build broad public support for their position to get out of their own silos and consider how they could sell it to audiences that did not share their perspective or priorities.
All that said, liberal democracy was never the modern equivalent of the Garden of Eden. It has always been messy and contentious. Free speech, including freedom of the press, does not ensure anything like perfect civic discourse. It is, however, the surest way we’ve come up with so far to maximize the probability that we get the best public debate we’re ever realistically likely to enjoy.
That we don’t live in paradise doesn’t mean social media hasn’t proved to be a serpent wreaking havoc in our weedy democratic garden. It’s not the fruit of the tree of knowledge this serpent is tempting us with, but the sweet if empty calories of external validation, righteous indignation, and tribalism. Taken together, these provide instant gratification followed by both individual and societal malnutrition.
Decisively responding to the latest news on our feed ensures that we appear firm in our convictions. Arriving quickly at conclusions untarnished by complicating things like context is central to any conscious or unconscious attempt to win fans efficiently. After all, none of the people who are content to wait for more information or who are drawn to lengthy arguments containing phrases like ‘one the other hand’ are likely to spend much time on Twitter where there’s only room for 280 characters.
It’s safe to say that all of us who use or have used social media to any significant degree have indulged the all too human urge to post what seemed to us like a great gotcha! intended to make someone or some group look evil or stupid. That it’s a temptation none of us can resist anywhere near completely demonstrates exactly why these services are such a pernicious threat to our norms. Yet we must find a way to resist.
Until very recently in human history, there were no technologies capable of communicating news in anything like real time to the public, let alone allow people to respond back. It wasn’t until advances in communication technology that began with the telegraph that the possibility of replying directly to the person on the other end of the line faster than the mail could move truly became a reality. Even then, these exchanges were limited and the communication itself wasn’t usually made public. Radio and television were not initially interactive at all.
It wasn’t until the Internet took off in the 1990s that the general public began to feel empowered to effectively respond both immediately and cheaply using technology that was readily accessible at home. Now, we can post unfiltered gut reactions without having to bother at all with pen and paper, let alone editors. Neither technology nor external human filters impose upon us the need to slow our thinking and more carefully choose our words.
There are some systemic changes we could consider that might help. However, there’s no single silver bullet out there that will fix the problem for us. Furthermore, as the Internet itself proves, both new technologies and our responses to them can easily produce unintended consequences. Regardless, uncertainty is no justification for ignoring the corrosive impact social media in particular is having upon our culture.
Ultimately, it’s our own nature that has brought us to this point. We can no longer naively assume that somehow systems built using short talking points and provocative images in order to both grab our attention and satisfy our desire for validation are capable of advancing civil dialogue or providing us with the kind of context citizens need to formulate informed opinions. We can no longer afford the luxury of waiting for public policy to solve this problem for us.
Companies like Facebook and Twitter will notice if consumer behaviour on their platforms changes significantly or if the public begins to abandon them altogether. This could lead them to make substantive positive changes on their own. Regardless, we should begin acting like agents rather than on instinct when it comes to how we interact with these sites and with the other people using them.
For example, consciously adopting common sense habits like reading at least one other source before responding to a tweet or post, or even just committing to read the article linked to in a post rather than simply reacting to the headline, will have a significant affect upon the quality of our responses. If nothing else, reading more than just the provocative tweet or headline will force us out of our individual and tribal silos and provide us with insights into how others are thinking. This will either cause us to change our position in response to new information or make the arguments we make on behalf of our own position more persuasive in the long run. Either of these outcomes would be welcome ones.
In addition, we should train ourselves to wait five, ten, fifteen minutes, or more before replying to anything that isn’t obviously urgent. We’ve all typed a reply when our blood was boiling, and we’ve all regretted it at one time or another. Replying immediately is the social media equivalent of pulling the trigger in the heat of the moment. Consciously deciding to wait is like putting a trigger lock on our brain. Wiser responses (including the decision to not respond at all) virtually always come to mind if we wait and allow ourselves to cool down, and a smarter conversation is what we need right now.
Finally, we also need to start thinking of ourselves as citizens rather than as consumers or mouthpieces for a particular political party or other interest. As such, we have obligations to one another. Intentionally sharing misinformation or willfully avoiding making the effort to research the issues we are commenting on is the behaviour of ideologues and the intellectually lazy, not patriots. Though we like to think only the “other side”, whoever they may be, is guilty of these sins, it is a habit almost as common as coffee on the left, the right, and everywhere in between.
If the shouting currently taking place online is any indication, few outside of online trolls are happy with the current state of affairs. We can’t do anything about how others choose to behave. That just leaves us with one option: to be the change we want to see.