Madame Defarge’s Memes

madamedefarge_2119297bAt Wired, Issie Lapowsky summarizes some research that tells us something that is not surprising, that more or less no one is ever persuaded to change their mind about a political position because of a post they saw on Facebook.

I suppose people do actually think that their social media posts are badly-needed ammunition in the political war of ideas, and that their fierce, impassioned, and ironclad arguments will surely win over the misguided. I assume they really do think that. Intellectually.

But the truth, which I believe they at least feel at a gut level, is that these political social media posts are social tokens, signifiers of belonging to a particular group, earning good will and social capital by reaffirming that which they all already believe. That’s largely why I write political tweets, usually because I think I can do so in a funny way and get some positive validation that might begin to fill the abyss that is my self-esteem. My zinger about Trump or my spirited defense of Hillary isn’t going to move the needle one teeny tiny little bit in anyone’s mind, and I have no expectation that it will.

At this level it’s harmless (other than those perilous moments when my tweets are not affirmed and I fail to achieve validation). The problem arises when the posts and tweets and memes go from social tokens to something more like Madame Defarge’s knitting. Outside of the more black-and-white world of election-year D vs. R posts, social media posts involving politics and heated social issues are designed to affirm via othering, by striking clear delineations between the good people and everyone else who is irredeemably bad for failing to check every ideological box, whether they know those boxes exist or not.

And it’s not just reactions to one’s own posts that do this work. It’s the posts of others. Lapowsky writes:

The majority of both Republicans and Democrats say they judge their friends based on what they write on social media about politics. What’s more, 12 percent of Republicans, 18 percent of Democrats, and 9 percent of independents who responded say they’ve unfriended someone because of those posts.

So it’s not political persuasion, as we might like to believe, it’s shaking the trees for villains to fall out of, it’s political partitioning.

In the film Bananas, the Castro-like ruler Esposito delivers his first speech to his people, and tells them, “All citizens will be required to change their underwear every half-hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check.”

The kind of social media I’m talking about is that underwear you just changed, and you’re pretty damned proud that you did it after only 29 minutes.

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