Many commentators argue that the 2016 campaign saw unusually high levels of partisan animosity, misinformation and offensive rhetoric, citing social media as a key culprit. A recent NPR piece suggests that the very DNA of sites like Twitter makes them “antithetical to sophisticated, thoughtful political conversation.” By facilitating divisive and disrespectful speech, these sites appeal to the lesser angels of our natures. In short, we’re told, social media are poisoning our democracy.
It is not clear, however, that social media alone are to blame for our current political climate. Though it may be true that social media act as vehicles for divisive and offensive speech, it is certainly also true that hateful rhetoric, harassment and partisan rancor existed long before digital technologies. It may be that these technologies are just rendering more visible already existing patterns of harassment and misinformation.
Social media use can be problematic
Critics point to the role of social media both during and after the election as evidence of their negative influence, arguing that they have undermined socially beneficial preference falsification, eroded democratic norms and led to an overall decline in civility. For example, members of the so-called alt-right are identifying Twitter users with “Jewish surnames” and harassing them. Women with an online presence — especially women of color — are frequently the targets of insults, death and rape threats, and cyberstalking.
In recent weeks, critics have also argued that social media are amplifying the “fake news” problem, by transmitting biased, misleading and outright false information more quickly and creating filter bubbles in which users only see material that confirms their existing biases. Facebook, now the largest source of traffic to news sites, has been heavily criticized for allowing fake news stories to reach its almost 2 billion users. False stories that indicated that the pope endorsed Donald Trump (he didn’t), that Clinton sold weapons to the Islamic State (she didn’t), or that an FBI agent associated with the leak of Clinton’s emails was part of a murder-suicide (also not true), went viral during this election cycle.
Some observers are now concerned that the president-elect is operating in a social media echo chamber of his own, relying extensively on sites like Breitbart for information, while skipping intelligence briefings since the election. And scholars have shown that the spread of misinformation has troubling implications for democratic politics, even leading to acts of violence.
Social media may be the medium, not the cause
Yet these arguments may be mistaking the symptoms for the cause. It is not clear that social media platforms like Twitter have constructed a divisive and offensive polity any more than the telegraph, telephone, radio or television did before them. Like social media, these technologies were also widely criticized for undermining democracy when they first appeared. Rather than creating divisions, however, these technologies might instead be uncovering the fissures that already exist within the American public.
What the rhetoric surrounding the 2016 election highlights, in other words, is a breakdown in democratic habits of accountability. It is clear that we do not acknowledge one another as equal partners in the shared work of self-government. We should not focus solely on the DNA of the institutions — whether political, social or technological — that guide our politics. As many political theorists would argue, the civic DNA of the people is just as important.
For almost two centuries, political theorists have reminded us time and again that democracy consists in more than a set of institutions. Observing the rise of fascism across Europe in 1939, the American philosopher John Dewey noted that “the depth of the present crisis is due in considerable part to the fact that for a long period we acted as if our democracy were something that perpetuated itself automatically.” Dewey — echoing earlier observers of democracy like Alexis de Tocqueville — argued that the substance and success of democracy lies “in the attitudes which human beings display to one another in all the incidents and relations of daily life.”
For democratic institutions to work properly they must be supported by democratic mores: strong habits of “amicable cooperation” (Dewey) and ties of “affection and respect” (Tocqueville) between citizens. And, as John Stuart Mill argued, developing those habits of democratic accountability requires a degree of uncertainty about what we know, and a corresponding willingness to “consider the thoughts and circumstances of others” in the development of our opinions and of our judgments.
Democratic habits are being eroded
As the dust settles after the election, it is becoming obvious that these habits, which are so crucial to the success of democracy, have been eroding for some time. Indeed, despite the recent focus on the “blight” of social media, marginalized groups repeatedly noted during the 2016 election that the seeming explosion of racist and misogynist online speech is not new. Its appearance on social media simply magnifies the forms of “casual” bias that women and minorities are regularly subjected to in all spheres of their lives. In doing so, social media are making these experiences explicit to those who may otherwise be comfortably distant from such realities.
Moreover, offensive speech is not just a consequence of the prevalence of social media sites. Consider that post-election incidents of hateful speech and harassment directed at marginalized groups have also been carried out by individuals without the cover of digital spaces. What these incidents highlight instead is the legitimation of a breakdown in democratic habits of mutual accountability.
By contrast, cultivating democratic habits along the lines of what Tocqueville, Mill and Dewey suggested means engaging with the varied, and overlapping, interests and circumstances of the multiple groups that constitute America. This suggests that recent calls to reflect upon the condition of the white working-class men and women who purportedly swept Trump into office should also heed what intersectional feminists have been pointing out for years. Demands like this often obscure the diversity of groups like the working class, itself a demographic composed not only of white men and women, but also of immigrants, people of color, Muslims and LGBTQ communities.
Democratic theory would therefore suggest that we should not simply blame social media for corrupting our democracy. Indeed, doing so blinds us to the underlying problems that those technologies reveal. The rhetoric and results of the 2016 election should instead open our eyes once again to the necessity of cultivating individual habits of mutuality and accountability, and of resuscitating the civic DNA of the American public. There is no better time for scholars, students and citizens of American democracy to embrace political theory, and to place the study of norms alongside the long-standing focus on institutions and data science.
Scholars can pay more attention to how people are using social media to work against online harassment. For example, researchers have programmed bots to combat racist tweets. And groups like Trollbusters and HeartMob organize volunteers to act as online support systems for users who are being trolled, showcasing how citizens can exercise democratic habits in digital spaces. However, other spaces, such as universities, civil associations, and even our families are potentially important “schools of democracy” too. The goal should be to make all of the spaces in which we live — whether on or offline — schools of and for democracy.
Commentators who focus on digital technologies while taking the everyday work of American democracy for granted may be making a mistake. Democratic theorists have warned us of the dangers of complacency where democratic habits are concerned. After all, democracy is not a sure thing and American democracy is no exception in this regard. Rather, what does make America exceptional — what drew Tocqueville, Mill and Dewey to study it in the first place — is that it is one of the most important experiments in democracy on Earth. The continuation of that experiment relies, now as ever, on cultivating the habits of democratic citizenship.
Jennifer Forestal (@seejenspeak) is assistant professor of political science at Stockton University.
Menaka Philips is professor of practice in political science and director of gender and sexuality studies at Tulane University.