Welcome to Good Faith, a Substack about how social media has supercharged the culture war and driven everyone insane. The popular line is that the internet is rife with people acting in bad faith. For eight years, I was in charge of audience development at Mother Jones, which means I’ve spent a lot of time getting people hooked on politics. What I learned was that there are definitely people who do act in bad faith, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it’s actually a pretty small minority of people. Most people are acting in good faith—they’re just stupid and busy and tired and human.
Let me tell you some assumptions I have about you that are totally based on the unfortunate fact that you are a lot like me: you’re an idiot. (I mean this in the nicest possible way.) You’re dumb. You’re less informed than you think you are. You’re more biased than you think you are. You are more guilty of the things you judge other people for than you know. Speaking of which, you are more judgmental than you know. You are less deliberate than you realize and also less deliberate than other people think you are. Most of the things that you do, you just do unthinkingly.
It’s not all bad, though. You’re a generally nice person. You’re less malevolent than you are sometimes accused of being. You aren’t a saint. You haven’t sold all your worldly goods and moved to care for lepers, but you have a general preference for justice and kindness. You act poorly sometimes but hope that those occasions don’t define you. You truly believe they shouldn’t. You’re a little less than you wish in all the ways that are good and a little more in all the ways that are bad: more selfish, more vain, less thorough, less brave.
In short, you’re desperately like other people. Your details are your own, but that’s just the bit of the MadLibs you filled in yourself. The rest of the sentence is the same in every edition. Like other people and for all these very reasons, you have become way more involved in the culture war over the last decade.
Here’s Jon Chait in New York Mag:
It was only a generation ago that politics was considered by all but the most painfully earnest to be an uncool thing to care about. Even if you lived in Washington, D.C., it was normal to spend an evening with friends without ever bringing up politics—or, if the subject happened to arise, to discuss it through the prism of ironic detachment. Expressing partisan sentiment was especially unfashionable among college-educated people. National politics consumed much less attention in popular culture and general-interest magazines. [...]
Republicans began mobilizing a good decade or more before Democrats did—retreating into a news bubble first defined by talk radio and then by Fox News (established in 1996). The Republican Party’s 1994 class, swept into Washington on a wave of anger, cast themselves as “revolutionaries” bent on saving the country from the civilizational threat posed by what they took to be Bill and Hillary Clinton’s libertinism and socialistic schemes. Not until George W. Bush’s reelection campaign did Democrats begin discussing the stakes of national politics in similarly existential terms. In 2004, Citizen Change began a campaign to make voting “cool.” […] The very idea of comedians earnestly putting their craft at the service of a partisan cause was still novel; today, of course, it’s notable when a comedian doesn’t take a stand on national politics.
Trump’s presidency represented the apogee of these national trends.
This is not good.
Addiction to the news makes people stronger partisans, and the strongest partisans are the worst at describing the attributes of their political opponents. Highly engaged Republicans are worse at describing Democrats than low-engagement Republicans, and the same goes for Democrats—exposure to politics has warped their perceptions. What an utterly devastating indictment of our political culture and the news media! The media’s job is to convey the world, not to distort it.
For eight years, I spent every day trying to get people to care about political news. Sometimes it was easy. Sometimes it was actually about big things. But most days it wasn’t.
Digital media is about moving people down a funnel. You start with the widest possible range and move them over time to greater levels of engagement and support. It all starts with a click. It doesn’t even need to be a click to read a story. It can be a click to have someone like something on Facebook or share it. But it’s a gateway drug, and the idea is that eventually they subscribe or donate or get a tattoo on their face or whatever.
Most people don’t proactively follow the news. They aren’t wholly oblivious, but they don’t subscribe to newspapers or watch CNN. They catch the evening news once in a while and absorb the events of the day through osmosis. This is a simple fact about humans that is built into every iteration of the journalism business model, and it is why every journalist and every publisher has at one time or another said that the world would be better if more people followed the news.
When God wants to punish us, he gives us what we desire most. And so, verily and merrily, he gave us Facebook.
Mark Zuckerberg’s social network became an infrastructural piece of the modern web by enticing virtually everyone to join so that they could stay in touch with friends, see photos of their grandchildren, and look up people they dated decades prior. But Facebook’s newsfeed has also increased the amount of news that people see, whether they want it to or not. You will scroll down the newsfeed looking for photos of your nephew and scan a great many different types of content, many of which are news articles that have been shared by your friends. Eventually, you will click on one of them. The way that the newsfeed works is that once you do, it will infer that you’d like to see more like it, and the next time you scroll through the newsfeed, you will see more news. Eventually, you will like a publisher on Facebook. And from there, your destiny is written. You are now a news consumer.
This simple dynamic has wrought massive changes on journalism, on society, on politics, on relationships, and on everything. There is an old journalism line about how the least appealing headline to an American reader would be something like “Canadian Health Minister Doesn’t Resign,” or, in other words, “Thing You Didn’t Know About in Place You Do Not Live Does Not Happen.”
A huge portion of stories about American political news fits this rough description. When I was working in media, every day I would need to get someone to read an article about a potential political development in a place they didn’t live, that didn’t affect them, and that was completely unrelated to any of their interests. How would I do that? I would make it about a broader narrative. I would personalize it.
So, if I were tasked with writing a story about a bill in Rhode Island to ban lobster fishing, I’d write about a small state doing big things for animal rights. I would frame this story about this bill in a way that would entice people to share it because it says something about who they are. If I can trick someone in Kansas who doesn’t care about lobsters to engage with the post because they do care about puppies, then not only will other people see the lobster thing, but our friend from the Sunflower State will also see my next post about gun control.
We’re a decade deep into the social media era of American journalism, and the whole population has internet poisoning. Internet poisoning is when someone spends so much time online that they come to believe that real life is as warped and strange as the internet. It’s when you become addicted to connectivity, consumption, and distraction. It’s when you post pathologically. It makes you sadder, more outraged, and more pessimistic because the internet is a contagion.
The other thing that makes internet poisoning so insidious is that you don’t need to catch it directly on the internet. You can get it second-hand. “The American political system has a case of internet poisoning,” the New York Times’s Liam Stack memorably said once. So does the entire media system in America, from cable news on down.
The historian Barbra Tuchman described the Renaissance as when “the values of this world replaced those of the hereafter,” and you could say something similar about this era in which the values of the internet became paramount. If that sounds like an exaggeration to you, I agree, but also, look at Instagram. Better yet, go to any beautiful place in the world and watch people experience that beauty. They come to create the content that they share online.
The internet has become the smithy in which our identities are forged and the battlefield on which they are deployed. And if it is a battlefield—which it is—then it’s one of those World War I battlefields where trenches were dug and lives were churned for no discernible gain.
Take an ounce of societal pessimism, two squirts of internecine partisan warfare, a jigger of self-righteousness, shake it up, add two olives, and you get a culture war. A culture war is something that doesn’t matter unless you squint and have a drink.
It’s a pyramid scheme of emotion and grievance. At the top are media personalities and politicians with direct interests in it. Every following level decreases in participation until, at the bottom rung, you have people who are caught up and consumed in it but don’t have really any true agency in it. Think of someone who watches MSNBC all day, doesn’t work in politics, and has a life completely unrelated to it. They gain nothing from caring about politics as much as they do. It stresses them out. It occupies their time. But it has no ends. They are not soldiers in the culture war so much as they are casualties of it.
But the internet allows people to climb one rung up the pyramid. You can post your opinion on Facebook or retweet your favorite news anchor. At this point, you become someone who, in some very small way, is actively participating. This is a good feeling! You have purpose! You are a part of something larger! There is a war raging, and your contribution is a little bullet you’re firing for your side. But now you bear a responsibility. You have decided that you are doing something meaningful, and if you stop doing it, something bad will happen.
This is insanity. Tweets and social media content are not little missiles. They are content. They are primarily entertainment. When something is entertainment, you can look at it with distance. But when something is warfare, it is much harder to do that.
More than a decade ago, Chris Matthews wrote a book about how people should live their lives like a campaign. He went on the Daily Show to discuss this and was mocked. “This sounds awful,” Jon Stewart teased, to laughter. Jon Stewart was right.
Political campaigns are goal-oriented operations, but life isn’t like that. Everyone hates political campaigns, but at least they serve a purpose. The type of politics incentivized by the internet takes all the negatives about political campaigns and abandons any of the actual benefits. They cause immense stress, and that stress makes us unhappy, and it makes us unhealthy. It also makes actual politics much harder to be made real. Pluralism is hard when you think you’re a Lord of The Rings character.
Back to Good Faith. Media companies don’t do this because they give a shit about your beliefs. They do it because they need to survive. This is the hand that was dealt them. And social media companies aren’t showing you a zillion stories about lobsters because they want you to feel one way or another about crustaceans. They want you to see things you will engage with so you’ll spend more time on their site. And you aren’t clicking on the lobster thing because of some deliberate plan to boost the reach of the lobster ban. (Well, maybe you are, but mostly you aren’t.) You’re doing it because it was an opportunity to touch your own humanity.
Everyone is acting in good faith here. But the result in the aggregate is that a lobster ban in Rhode Island becomes a highly personalized shibboleth dividing people who live in Kansas and are allergic to shellfish.
The idea that everyone is acting in bad faith is itself a perfect example of the conspiratorial cosplay that social media inspires. There need to be villains. There are some villains in the world, sure, but they’re small-time. Far more interesting are the 98% of people who are trapped in this hell because of a confluence of understandable but regrettable properties of people and platforms.
So welcome to Good Faith, which isn’t about bad faith, and where every Monday and Friday you can read new posts about how everyone is well-intentioned, stupid, and desperately in need of checking out from politics. If you’re waiting for permission to care less about politics, here it is.