It is very obvious why people are increasingly mad about politics all the time

The case against social media

“We are way, way angrier about politics than we used to be,” Kevin Drum writes in the latest issue of Mother Jones, “something confirmed by both common experience and formal research.”

The point of the piece is to identify the cause of our angry culture war nightmare. What is the main driver of this problem?

The facts of the case are this: this thing, this anger over politics seems, according to surveys, to have begun about 20 years ago and has gotten increasingly worse over time.

Kevin goes through the suspects and concludes that the answer was staring us in the face the whole time:

The answer to the increasing amount of hate in our politics, then—the only answer that fits the data—is almost certainly Fox News, along with the increasing despair and commitment of conservative evangelicals. We saw it in the Fox-led tea party eruption of 2009. It’s evident in the fact that white evangelicals are the most faithful viewers of Fox News. It was behind the monthslong Fox coverage of “fraud” following the 2020 election. And we’re seeing it right now in the endless Fox coverage of critical race theory and supposed anti-white bias in general.

The article is well worth the read but Kevin is wrong. Fox News is not the problem. 

That doesn’t mean it’s not a problem! It’s just not the main reason everyone is mad about politics all the time.

The real culprit is one Kevin considers but dismisses: social media. 

“Social media can’t be the main explanation for a trend that started 20 years ago.” This is silly. Social media platforms really started to expand in the latter aughts, and sure enough, the beginning of this trend predates that, but that doesn’t mean it can’t explain everything that has happened since, the same way kindling is less responsible for an out of control fire than the gasoline an arsonist adds to it. 

Kevin’s main gripe with social media is disinformation, which is indeed very bad. Disinformation is particularly harmful when it comes to things like vaccine conspiracies. And it certainly contributes to the spread of false political beliefs like Trump’s election lie. But disinformation is not why this country has been split in two. It’s not why everyone hates each other. Blaming disinformation for our polarization and anger problem is something Aaron Sorkin would do. Because in Aaron Sorkin films if everyone hears a good and honest speech, they all agree. But that’s not life. In real life, if everyone was honest all the time, you’d all still hate each other.

Blaming disinformation is an easy answer in the same way that blaming Trump or Facebook’s specific policies or Fox News is an easy answer. The harder truth is that social media networks by their very nature force us to confront the rest of the world on a daily basis and our minds are not great at handling that.

Let me walk you through the case against social media:

According to a Pew study from the salad days of 2016, 94% of Facebook users report seeing political content in their feeds. Eighty-nine percent of Twitter users reported the same. There is no chance that if that poll were conducted today, the numbers would not be higher.

Sixty-four percent of Americans say that social media has a mostly negative effect on the country.

Fifty-five percent say that they are “worn out” by politics on social media and the various dramas it provokes.

Seventy percent of social media users say they avoid posting about politics themselves. 

Now let’s stop at that number for a second. It is almost certainly the case that a small minority of highly politicized users post the overwhelming majority of political content online. But the 70% of who say they refrain from interacting with those posts are wrong. They are just interacting with them in different ways. They might “like” a post or click the link in the post. They might take a negative action against the post, hitting the “anger” button, muting the poster, or simply continually refusing to engage with their posts at all. All of these are signals that are used by the FB algorithm to decide what you should see when you log on the next day.

Simply put, you are seeing more political content because even if you don’t realize it, you are actually sending more signals to the algorithm that you do want it than otherwise.

But let’s put the algorithms aside. Let’s pretend they are totally blind and don’t read any cues from you. You are still engaging with the content in your own mind. You are having a thousand thoughts either about politics or about how much you hate politics or about the poster who won’t shut up about politics You are influenced by the number of Likes on their posts. You are influenced by any apparent political consensus of your newsfeed. It is influencing how you see the world.

But this is only the beginning.

Sixty-six percent of Facebook users say they mostly follow people they know in real life. This is pretty much impossible. The human brain is not wired to have as many friends in real life as people have on Facebook, and the number is for most people rising higher every year as you accumulate more connections. This has a few effects: it broadens the size of your “gossip network” and, since you really aren’t meeting this many people in real life all the time and deciding to be FB friends with them as an extension of an in-person relationship, the criteria you are using to decide who becomes your friend is changing. You are becoming “friends” with more people than ever before for reasons different than ever before. But it’s hard to recognize this behavior in yourself, so 66% of Facebook users think they are still making friends the old way. 

A thing about friends is that we think of them as similar to us. Not in every way. But we see their similarities more than the differences. We take on the traits of our social groups because we are social animals. 

Every time you log on to social media you are participating in an act of personal identity building and also an act of group identity building. Now you have a social graph larger than your brain can handle, that is filtered by algorithms designed to anticipate the things you want to see and from the people you want to talk to the most. And now you are in a situation where the small number of highly engaged political people are having a far greater effect than any time in history. 

The group you are in—the group of your like-minded friends on social media—has various norms. It has a moral framework. And participating in the expression of that moral framework is a group bonding experience. 

When people enter these groups they gain a new thing in their brain: group self-esteem. Often group self-esteem will take on greater importance than your own self-esteem, a term known as deindividuation. And so we shore up the integrity of our group. It is a good group! And we respond to threats to the group’s self-esteem, some real and some symbolic. Real threats can be tangible fights for things on this Earth, symbolic threats can be violations of the group’s moral boundaries. 

Participating in the defense of the group’s self-esteem is satisfying. Importantly, it doesn’t need to be in a very big way. You do not need to go into the streets and fight. You do not need to even share a post or retweet something. You do not need to comment or Like the post. You do not need to even click on the link. All you have to do is be exposed to the content and see the way others in your group respond to it emotionally. 

 Let’s circle back to Fox for a second. Fox News is a delivery system for content that affirms our partisan identity. It gives you bad outrageous things that tell conservatives liberals are as bad as they thought, it gives good and satisfying things that tell conservatives they were right all along. There are lots of delivery mechanisms like Fox on both the right and left but Fox News is indeed the real big player. (Although talk radio was playing the same song to a similarly massive audience before Fox News was even a thing.) Social media platforms are another type of delivery mechanism. They aren’t the same in lots of ways; one way they’re different is that despite what paranoid people think, there is no one at the helm of these social media networks trying to intentionally push right-wing news over left-wing content, or the other way around. They don’t care how you vote. Another important difference is that they are social. All this stuff about group behavior is a zillion times more relevant. And lastly, it’s just more. You spend far more time than you think on social media. You're exposed to metric tons more of this stuff on social media than you would even if you watched cable news for 5 hours a day. 

In a 2017 study about moral outrage, Yale psychologist M.J. Crockett found that, “participants were more likely to learn about immoral acts online than in person or via traditional forms of media (print, television and radio” and that “immoral acts encountered online evoked more outrage than immoral acts encountered in person or via traditional forms of media.”

Scrolling through a social media feed is like freebasing moral expression.

What happens after some very bad thing is brought to the attention of your group? You and the rest of your group condemn the news story or bad tweet or whatever that moral violation is (even if you only just scoff to yourself). You are bonded closer together and your moral framework is reaffirmed. Except social media platforms have gotten incredibly vast and inevitably you will discover a group of people who disagree with you. They are the other group. And there are lots of them and they are defending that which you find indefensible. It does not matter that there might as well be as many people who agree with you. You are shook. There are more monsters in the world than you thought.

In this world—a world that you entered entirely because of social media—there are monsters under every other bed; snakes slithering under every other stone; there are cannibals afoot and if you make one small mistake they’ll pounce and gobble you up in the night. In a world like that, it only makes sense to be angry!

That world isn’t real. It’s a fiction. But it’s a fiction we’re all increasingly trapped in.