Do you remember LiveJournal? It existed in-between social media outlets like Facebook and blogs. It was a place to post whatever was on your mind, but those thoughts weren’t limited to a set number of characters, or hidden behind a “read more” link on a page designed to be a continuous rage-scrolling experience. I liked LiveJournal because I enjoyed writing long-form life updates.
LiveJournal was primarily for words, and while there were pictures and memes there from time to time, it was generally about the text. Facebook today is like the spam folder of my email account: click-bait articles, pointless memes masquerading as news, “news” from propaganda websites, and often days old content that’s no longer meaningful. If I didn’t use Facebook for work, I’d probably hide it five days out of seven.
It’s probably not fair to blame Facebook for the polarization in our politics today, but it definitely has played a role. Despite beliefs to the contrary, newspapers have generally had a political point of view in the United States. In fact several newspapers in the 17th and 18th Centuries were created strictly to be mouthpieces for political parties. For much of the 20th Century journalism had a true “golden age” of less slant and more truthfulness. Most major papers have carried that ethos forward, but cable news most definitely has not.
We often blame the polarization on Fox News, but the desire to turn political news into a street-fight began with CNN on shows like Crossfire. Fox News just took that to the next level, with a network dedicated entirely to one point of view; it’s become an echo chamber of angry white men and blonde white women yelling to the juiced up mob. It was bad enough when Fox News viewers lived completely in their cable-tv silo, but social media allowed them to take that anger and push it forward.
No longer did anyone have to tune into Sean Hannity to get the latest poorly informed white-rage, instead, Facebook brought it to the masses for free in the form of memes and articles from “news services” that were designed to incense instead of inform. The left eventually embraced this form of communication too, but in a much lesser version. (Yes, many of my liberal friends, you too share inaccurate memes and “news” from propaganda outlets.) Despite conservative cries that social media favors liberals, it overwhelmingly promotes (generally inaccurate) conservative points of view. Facebook especially is a cesspool of right-wing garbage. (As I write this the most ten visited posts on Facebook came from: Franklin Graham, Donald Trump, and Fox News. Some liberal bias!)
What social media has done, which can’t really be done on an outlet like Fox News, is create an interactive echo chamber. Now you can read the rage-inducing news you love, and “own the libs” in the comments section all at the same time! You’ll also only have to interact with people who believe exactly as you do, and because your political party, its politicians, and “your” news choices have told you everything that disagrees with you is “fake news,” you can now discount any narrative you personally disagree with! (Hello Mr. Hand.)
This has spread to the left too. I remember it pretty specifically in the Democratic primaries in 2016. I love you my Berner friends, but Sanders wasn’t nearly as competitive as certain news sites made it sound all those years ago. The end result of that misinformation was a leftwing anger that continues to reverberate (I’m not looking forward to the comments this paragraph will draw) in Democratic politics. Some of that passion is undoubtedly good, but much of it is unproductive. When everyone tells you someone is winning, it’s easier to believe that’s the case. Something similar might have happened this time around too, but I think COVID-19 made that more difficult.
I’m lucky enough to have never completely lived in a bubble. I moved around a lot as a kid and a young adult (Illinois, Virginia, Tennessee, Missouri, and Michigan) and as a result I’ve always had a very diverse group of friends. It’s more apparent now as an adult than it was when I was younger, but even then I knew I was a Yankee living in states that were still fighting the Civil War. I don’t remember arguing with my classmates in high school (Tennessee) about who should be President in 1988. My college years were a little bit different; by 1992 the battle-lines were more sharply drawn, but people weren’t being disowned for voting differently.
Today’s politics have become something else entirely. My Facebook feed is a mantra of “If You are a Trump Supporter You Will be Blocked.” Despite my absolute hatred of Trump, and I’ve been pretty vocal about it, it’s not a step I’ve taken. The idea of living in a bubble frightens me greatly (and I think it should frighten you too). Do I believe that voting from Trump enables racism, ends protections for LGBTQ+ individuals, erodes the barrier between church and state, hurts average people, and massively contributes to a public breakdown in civility? Yes, whole-heartedly. Do I believe that EVERYONE who votes for Trump is a Nazi? No. (Nazi is a big word, and while it applies to Trump, it may not apply to your Grandpa. Besides, if you want to change someone’s opinion, starting with “you are a Nazi” is probably a non-starter.)
(And self-care is important, if you need to unfriend everyone who disagrees with you, that’s your business. Do what you have to do.)
It shames me greatly to admit it, but my father is a Trump voter. It sickens me because I think he’s better than that. But do I believe that my father, who taught me to be kind to and accepting of others is a Nazi? No, I don’t. I still think he’s a good person, though perhaps confused, or unsure of exactly what his vote does to marginalized groups. I’ve lived in the Midwest, I understood why people think the Democrats had abandoned that part of the country back in 2016. It makes less sense to me in 2020, but perhaps when all you hear from others “you are an idiot!” and “you are a Nazi!” it probably makes you double-down on your bad choice.
I don’t think all of my old-high school friends voting for Trump are Nazis either. I think they are misguided, living in echo chambers, denying reason, scoffing at facts and perhaps have been blinded by an echo-chamber of friends, news sources, and church bake-sales encouraging them to vote for an orange monster. A classmate posted a meme recently suggesting that Democrats and the media were trying to steal the election (despite no evidence of such a thing). What’s sad to me is that she truly believed this, by not completely throwing her out of my life at least there was the opportunity to say her meme was inaccurate. (In a nice way of course. Shouting “you are stupid!” doesn’t help.)
I have to think that those echo-chambers are a form of magick capable of changing consciousness. If all you heard day and night was messaging about how bad Joe Biden was it would probably make you start to wonder. I know what you are thinking, “pull your head up out of the sand!” but I truly believe that when we no longer engage with those we disagree with, it becomes harder and harder for people to get the sand out of their eyes. Certainly some people are beyond redemption and are voting for Trump precisely because he’s a racist shit-head. Maybe it’s because I’m a “glass half-full” kind of person, I refuse to believe they all are (even if their votes have massive ramifications that are most certainly racist and against the liberties of many of my friends).
I’ve tried to write this post several times over the last few years, and I’ll admit that I’ve been frightened to do so. We’ve entered a period of time in American history where people seem obsessed with “purity.” Don’t shop at that store! Don’t eat that food! Don’t talk to that person! Hobby Lobby is gross and I don’t shop there, I also have a friend who works at one. These things can be complicated. It feels more and more like any deviation from the liberal or conservative party-line makes you a pariah. There is no room for nuance or for discussing our disagreements. (And sure, there are some things that are not up for debate, but we argue about the minutia today when we agree with the bigger picture.)
Bubbles are easy place to live in. We do it a lot in the Pagan Community today by only surrounding ourselves with people who practice our traditions. But you can’t change hearts and minds when you only live in a bubble. Telling people to vote against Trump when all your friends were already going to do that doesn’t accomplish much. You can’t fight misinformation when the only people you talk to already agree with you. I’m probably fighting a losing battle, but I’m going to continue to yell from my mountaintop instead of from inside a bubble.