As is obvious to anyone who spends time perusing “political Twitter,” social media is an ugly place for partisan discourse.
Which makes it an easy target for anyone searching for something to blame our deep (and growing) political divisions on. The propensity for radicalization online has resulted in a growing discomfort with what social media has become—leading both Republicans and Democrats to push for greater regulation of “big tech.” (Albeit, both sides have distinctly different policy goals in mind.)
Politicians eager to be seen as solving a perceived cultural problem are clamoring to “do something.” And, as usual, “something” is synonymous with “anything,” as was evidenced by last month’s theatrical congressional hearings regarding social media’s role in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
However, in truth, the political radicalization and division ostensibly being driven by big tech aren’t the fault of federal inaction, faulty algorithms or inconsistent moderation decisions made by the platforms themselves. The depraved political climate that dominates much of social media is, at its core, far more sociological and cultural, than technological, in origin.
That’s not to say it’s unreasonable to suggest sites such as Twitter and Facebook haven’t amplified the political chasm that divides our nation. After all, users of such sites seem to regularly bubble-wrap themselves in like-minded online communities while viewing the ideological opposition with ever-increasing contempt.
And while algorithms likely play a role in the resulting political radicalization, it’s not as if extreme tribalist inclinations haven’t always been a part of the human experience. Political disruption and cultural factionalism predate the technological democratization of free speech by millennia. From the earliest days of organized religion to American colonists committing an act of civil disobedience in Boston Harbor, tribal instincts have always been a mainstay of the human condition.
In other words, we are biologically hardwired toward tribalism. Social media—indeed the internet in general—can certainly act as a conduit for some of the worst manifestations of this tendency, but it’s not the catalyst.
The features of social media that made it possible for protestors to storm the capitol were precisely the same features that allowed pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong to stand up to a totalitarian communist regime in mainland China, and empowered activists protesting police brutality on American streets over the summer. And so, while big tech might empower the worst tendencies of tribalism, it’s basic functionality is also capable of giving power to truly positive cultural movements.
As a tool for organizing, communicating and connecting with individuals, social media has been one of the greatest democratizing technologies since the printing press—and as a result, it has become easier than ever for ideas (both admirable and deplorable) to find receptive audiences.
However, while social media has traditionally been (mostly) agnostic in this regard, politicians have long been incentivized to act as accelerants to the tribalism that is radicalizing modern politics. Politicians grift off the outrage generated by conflict. After all, fundraising emails aren’t written to calm partisan division or highlight the common ground between political factions—they’re crafted to emphasize the differences and profit off the animosity individuals have for those not in their particular tribe.
As a result, overcoming the radicalization of modern politics will require a grassroots, bottom-up, cultural shift. As Andrew Breitbart repeatedly pointed out: Politics is downstream from culture — and the kind of cultural change that is needed to deescalate the political divide apparent on social media (and elsewhere) won’t come from handing over more control of this century’s “public square” to a class of politicians who treat every disagreement, every partisan battle and every perceived political slight as campaign fodder. If change comes at all, it will come from millions of individuals acting freely in their own life to adjust how they interact with society’s deeply damaging fixation on partisan politics.
In other words, what’s wrong with political discourse on social media isn’t something that can be “fixed” from the top down—and it is certainly not going to be fixed by giving partisan politicians the power to regulate the single most important tool for democratizing free speech.
There’s a lot to hate about how tech giants run their social media platforms, and how those platforms facilitate the devolution of civil political discourse. However, most of the problems apparent with social media are a reflection of the problems inherent in our broader political and popular culture.
For all of its faults, social media isn’t what’s wrong with today’s political climate—it’s merely a window to what is.
Michael Schaus began his professional career in the financial sector, where he became deeply interested in economic theory and the concept of free markets. Over a decade ago, that interest led him to a career in policy and public commentary—working as a columnist, a political humorist and a radio talk show host. Today, Michael is director of communications for the Nevada Policy Research Institute and lives with his wife and daughter in Las Vegas.