Too close for comfort: How social media changed how we talk to (and about) each other in America

Garance Franke-Ruta
Senior Politics Editor
Illustration by Yahoo News; images: Getty Images, Gordon Donovan/Yahoo News

WASHINGTON — “We cannot afford to be so politically correct anymore,” Donald J. Trump thundered at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

“Here, at our convention, there will be no lies. We will honor the American people with the truth, and nothing else.”

Though fact checkers disagreed with his assessment that it was a lie-free convention, Trump’s from-the-podium denunciations of political correctness during the campaign resonated loudly. “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either,” Trump told Megyn Kelly at the Fox News debate in response to questions about his offensive comments about women. He would later dismiss his shockingly crude comments to “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush as “locker room talk.” As former White House adviser Steve Bannon recently told Charlie Rose on “60 Minutes,” “People didn’t care. They knew Donald Trump was just doing locker room talk with a guy. And they dismissed it. It had no lasting impact on the campaign.”

Offensive speech, true speech, politically correct speech — America has for the past two years been having a national debate about what the appropriate boundaries of public discourse ought to be. At the heart of this conflict is not just the question of who says what about whom, and how frankly, but a fundamental transformation in the technologies of speech over the past decade that has changed how the conversation itself is conducted. These changes have decreased perceived freedom of speech at the same time that they have magnified once marginal positions to create a novel public speech environment that can seem at once stiflingly conformist and shockingly extreme. And in the process of carving new public squares out of the once private realm of social ties, the new social technologies have made politicians of us all, subject to the same strictures on speech that formerly only truly public figures had to be concerned with.

“Our community is evolving from its origin connecting us with family and friends to now becoming a source of news and public discourse as well,” noted Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in his lengthy February letter to the public.

“Big tech’s incursion into public/civic life,” Slate tech columnist Will Oremus has called it and similar efforts from other major firms.

Social media has, by design, fundamentally reshaped how we have conversations with each other, moving casual speech from the auditory ether to the realm of the written. And it has vastly expanded the audience for conversations that used to happen in small communities of relatively similar people, replacing them with one-to-many interactions with people who potentially have a wide array of views, and weak or even no direct personal ties.

From secret Facebook groups to support Hillary Clinton to Twitter pile-ons to the so-called alt-right’s provocative “free speech” tours at college campuses, we now are living in a world transformed by a massive decline in undocumented and uncontested speech — for most of human history, the very cornerstone of how we existed in society.

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The transformation has been astonishingly swift. Seventy-nine percent of online American adults used Facebook in 2016, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center right after the election, and 24 percent used Twitter. Overall 86 percent of American adults use the internet, meaning that 68 percent of American adults were on Facebook in 2016 – and 76 percent of those checked in daily. Twitter users skewed younger and better educated than Facebook ones overall.

Just eight years ago, these social networks were so far from dominant that Pew didn’t even mention Facebook in its postelection analysis of how voters got their information, lumping everything digital into a single “internet” category. But we can get some sense of what’s changed from their early 2009 observation, “Usage of social networking sites has nearly quadrupled over the past four years—from fewer than one in 10 online adults in early 2005 to more than one in three today.” And most of that would have been Facebook, as by 2010, only 6 percent of the adult population, or 8 percent of the adult online population, was using Twitter.

While for early adopters it may feel like the social networks have been with us since the mid-2000s, in point of fact they were not very well-developed or widely used when Barack Obama was elected president.

Overall, only “55 percent of all American adults went online during the 2008 election season to get news or information about the campaign, to communicate with others about politics, or to contribute to the online debate,” Pew found. By 2014, the average Facebook user had 338 friends and cited “sharing with many people at once” as the top reason for using the network, and the number of people using Facebook was on track to surpass the onetime all-digital category. Importantly, Pew found as early as 2008, “those who are most information hungry are the most likely to browse sites that match their views.”

That observation was at the heart of a slew of articles and books dating back to technology columnist Farhad Manjoo’s oft-overlooked but analytically important 2008 book, “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society,” which located the new success of campaigns of what we would today call fake news — like the 2004 Swift Boat attacks on Sen. John Kerry — in the ability of partisan actors to manipulate the newly fragmented and increasingly digital media ecosystem.

“In the last few years, pollsters and political researchers have begun to document a fundamental shift in the way Americans are thinking about the news,” Manjoo argued, in words as timely today as their were more than nine years ago. “No longer are we merely holding opinions different from one another; we’re also holding different facts. Increasingly our arguments aren’t over what we should be doing … but instead over what is happening.” The new fights would be over “competing visions of reality,” he predicted, correctly.

MoveOn cofounder Eli Pariser continued the argument in his 2011 book, “The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think,” blaming personalization as well as fragmentation for the failure of the digital utopian dream.

“For a time, it seemed that the Internet was going to entirely redemocratize society,” Pariser wrote. “Bloggers and citizen journalists would single-handedly rebuild the public media. Politicians would be able to run only with a broad base of support from small, everyday donors. Local governments would become more transparent and accountable to their citizens. And yet the era of civic connection I dreamed about hasn’t come. Democracy requires citizens to see things from another’s point of view, but instead we’re more and more enclosed in our own bubbles. Democracy requires a reliance on shared facts; instead we’re being offered parallel but separate universes.”

“Left to their own devices, personal information filters are a kind of autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas, amplifying our desire for things that are familiar and leaving us oblivious to the dangers lurking in the dark territory of the unknown,” he warned.

At the same time our speech is more public and potentially contestable than ever before, we are increasingly cocooned in digital media worlds that reflect and reinforce our own views. And we increasingly live in physically atomized and homogenized communities that reflect our own values back to us, as Bill Bishop documented so well in 2004’s “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart.”

These dynamics work in dark synergy to amp up political polarization. Also contributing to the divisions are two political cycles’ worth of gerrymandering that have led to a congressional map where seats often are more vigorously contested from the intraparty extremes in primary cycles than by opponents across the aisle.

We are surrounded by a world that reflects us online, except that our once private speech utterances now increasingly take place in micropublics, where we are forced to patrol the boundaries of our filter bubbles, defriending and muting and blocking those who intrude upon or take exception to our worldviews.

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The effort and drama involved in defending what is said online — the ever-present tension between competing worldviews and different speech communities that are now endlessly visible to each other — at once drive people away from the new public squares and radicalize those who witness the fights within them.

There have been many famous cases of individuals driven from the most public of the new digital public squares, Twitter. “Ghostbusters” actress Leslie Jones left Twitter after becoming the target of a broad harassment campaign, though she later returned to using the service. “Twitter, for the past five years, has been a machine where I put in unpaid work and tension headaches come out,” wrote author Lindy West in January, explaining why she was leaving the site. In return for what she shares with the world, “I am micromanaged in real time by strangers; neo-Nazis mine my personal life for vulnerabilities to exploit; and men enjoy unfettered, direct access to my brain so they can inform me, for the thousandth time, that they would gladly rape me if I weren’t so fat.”

Her real reason for leaving “wasn’t the trolls themselves … it was the global repercussions of Twitter’s refusal to stop them,” she wrote, in words that take on additional weight after Charlottesville:

The white supremacist, anti-feminist, isolationist, transphobic “alt-right” movement has been beta-testing its propaganda and intimidation machine on marginalised Twitter communities for years now – how much hate speech will bystanders ignore? When will Twitter intervene and start protecting its users? – and discovered, to its leering delight, that the limit did not exist. No one cared. Twitter abuse was a grand-scale normalisation project, disseminating libel and disinformation, muddying long-held cultural givens such as “racism is bad” and “sexual assault is bad” and “lying is bad” and “authoritarianism is bad,” and ultimately greasing the wheels for Donald Trump’s ascendance to the U.S. presidency. Twitter executives did nothing.

Meanwhile Jason Kessler, the organizer of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, has cited the public vilification of publicist Justine Sacco over an offensive tweet about AIDS and Africa as a turning point in his own political evolution. “It was an awkward joke; an attempt to be edgy in the hands of an amateur comedienne that fell flat. But it whipped up the social justice hate mob into a frenzy,” he wrote in 2016.

Complaints and asides about our new digital speech communities are a daily part of living in them. “Every time I get off Facebook I feel like I need to decontaminate. That site is toxic,” wrote Jordan Uhl, one of the organizers of June’s March for Truth on Trump’s Russia ties, on Friday. “I wanted to write about [Hillary Clinton] and engage rigorously with her ideas far more than I did. But I didn’t. In part, I did not have the energy to deal with the inevitable backlash, from corners right and left,” writer Roxanne Gay admitted in the New York Times. One of the largest Facebook groups of Clinton supporters was a secret (or open-secret) group because women wanted a place to express their views without being pounced on for holding them. “As much as possible,” group founder Libby Chamberlain told the Washington Post, “it removes the risk that they’re going to be attacked for their views.”  “It’s become a thing now, where I see one of my peers tell their story, then get dogpiled by 22yr olds for furthering problematic narratives,” wrote David Wynne about his generation of queer men, who experienced a different world than do young gay and lesbians today. Lesbian author and filmmaker Sarah Schulman went so far as to write a book, “Confict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility and the Duty of Repair,” to take on the contemporary culture of “overreaction to difference.” “The mere fact of the other person’s difference is misrepresented as an assault that then justifies our cruelty,” she charges in it.

As Facebook and other tech companies come under increasing scrutiny for their lack of oversight of the public commons they have created and the space they’ve allowed to trolls, bots, and foreign agents with disruptive intent, it’s worth also considering the role they’ve played in creating an environment seen as stifling the speech of both liberals and conservatives.

For good and for ill, we now live in an environment of highly contested speech, where more people than ever before in human history can see and publicly react to the different views around them.

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In many ways, the underlying dynamics cannot solely be laid at the feet of the tech companies. Benjamin Barber argued in his seminal 1992 Atlantic magazine article, “Jihad vs. McWorld,” later a book of the same name, that the rise of global culture fueled the rise of defensive tribalism and fundamentalism as traditionally isolated communities were forced to defend their old ways and cultural identities in the face of a homogenizing media onslaught:

Just beyond the horizon of current events lie two possible political futures — both bleak, neither democratic. The first is a retribalization of large swaths of humankind by war and bloodshed: a threatened Lebanonization of national states in which culture is pitted against culture, people against people, tribe against tribe — a Jihad in the name of a hundred narrowly conceived faiths against every kind of interdependence, every kind of artificial social cooperation and civic mutuality. The second is being borne in on us by the onrush of economic and ecological forces that demand integration and uniformity and that mesmerize the world with fast music, fast computers, and fast food— with MTV, Macintosh, and McDonald’s pressing nations into one commercially homogenous global network: one McWorld tied together by technology, ecology, communications, and commerce. The planet is falling precipitantly apart AND coming reluctantly together at the very same moment.

Barber was writing in a world dominated by television, but the echoes of his argument hang over the debate about today’s digital world.

“Progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community,” wrote Zuckerberg in his letter. “This is especially important right now. Facebook stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community.”

Barber’s broad theory was the opposite of the technocratic utopianism of Zuckerberg and other digital leaders. Proximity and visibility can increase conflict, as old ways of living feel themselves to be under assault and people dig in to defend their views. Globalism gives birth to reaction, the vision of a world community leading to a hardening of the lines around those viewpoints that the broader global community cannot or will not absorb. In a diverse world, as in a diverse nation, there will be competing visions of the best life and deep disagreements about who should wield power.

“Rhetorically, the tech companies gesture toward individuality — to the empowerment of the ‘user’—but their worldview rolls over it,” argues Franklin Foer in his just-released book, “World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech,” a deep look at the changes wrought by the foursome Europeans call GAFA: Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. These big tech companies “are shredding the principles that protect individuality,” he argues. “Their devices and sites have collapsed privacy; they disrespect the value of authorship … they hope to automate the choices, both large and small, that we make through the day.”

They believe “we’re fundamentally social beings, born to collective existence” but in fact they are an example of the twinning of “monopoly and conformism,” actors that marry corporate “concentration” and intellectual “homogenization” into a powerful new threat to the very idea of individuality.

Facebook itself is grappling, more than a decade after its founding, with some of these issues. As individuals feel themselves to be threatened by being thrust into direct, seemingly intimate conversations with those they disagree with, the divides between them often only harden, and they seek out communities of agreement.

“Research shows that some of the most obvious ideas, like showing people an article from the opposite perspective, actually deepen polarization by framing other perspectives as foreign,” Zuckerberg noted in his February letter.

“Research suggests the best solutions for improving discourse may come from getting to know each other as whole people instead of just opinions — something Facebook may be uniquely suited to do. If we connect with people about what we have in common — sports teams, TV shows, interests — it is easier to have dialogue about what we disagree on.” Facebook would be rolling out tools and a new focus on “safe” and “meaningful” groups to build these alternative communities.

The big question is if it’s ever going to be possible for this kind of reconciliation and shared understanding to happen online, thanks to the inherent dynamics of the medium he helped create.

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It can be harder to see other people as real in a world that is all too often virtual, where people are performing for an audience, where there are grave questions about whether the communities we are partaking of are real and where people routinely say things to each other with a vehemence and passion that’s as much a factor of the distance between them as their actual intentions.

But the past year has also seen some astonishing examples of the collapse of seemingly hardened online identities in the face of physical reality and real human society, governed by actual laws. And the law takes comments made online seriously, even when those who make them insist they are merely performing in character before their micropublics.

In Charlottesville, a young white man ripped off his Vanguard America white shirt when confronted by a crowd. “I’m not really white power, man — I just did it for the fun,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

“What happened?” a reporter asked him. “Scared the shit out of me,” he replied.

He was there because “it’s kind of a fun idea,” he later explained. “Just being able to say ‘white power,’ you know?”

“Crying Nazi” Christopher Cantwell made the sort of threats in a crowd he had made online as the manager of what he told a judge was “a racist podcast,” and he now sits in a Virginia jail, bail having been denied as he awaits trial on charges of pepper-spraying someone during the melee in Charlottesville. His lawyer sought to play down his aggressive and racist statements at the rally as the performances of a shock jock, although the crimes he is charged with seem consistent with those sentiments.

“Pizzagate” gunman Edgar Maddison Welch pleaded guilty to assault with a dangerous weapon and transporting a firearm over state lines after firing an AR-15 in a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant that had become a magnet for bizarre online conspiracy theories. He was sentenced to four years in jail.

And most recently, former hedge fund manager Martin Shkreli had his bail revoked by a judge for posting a comment to his 70,000 Facebook followers offering a $5,000 reward to anyone who could snatch a strand of Hillary Clinton’s hair during her book tour.

“The fact that he continues to remain unaware of the inappropriateness of his actions or words demonstrates to me that he may be creating ongoing risk to the community,” said U.S. District Judge Kiyo Matsumoto, explaining the decision to hold Shkreli.

“This is a solicitation of assault. That is not protected by the First Amendment.”

And yet this — and the defense of those actions — is the sort of thing we see online all the time: the idea that what he was doing lay somewhere between joking and trolling. “He did not intend to cause harm,” Shkreli attorney Benjamin Brafman said. “Being inappropriate does not make you a danger to the community.”

The judge disagreed. But ultimately the legal system cannot be the forum for adjudicating speech in the public square; it has an interest only insofar as other criminal accusations have become part of the picture.

Will efforts by the digital companies themselves be the solution? In the wake of the Charlottesville march, many internet providers have sought to shut down radical forums and cease to give platforms to white supremacist groups for online organizing.

This may force those groups to use older tools to organize and spread their message.

But “no-platforming” steps by the big companies also reinforce the message that fuels grievance from extremists and raises concerns that these companies, having created new public squares, are now taking on a role of stifling speech in the name of politics.

And so the free speech fights roll on, morphing into in-real-life conflicts as they go. Digital provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, banned from Twitter, and other alt-right figures are headed back to Berkeley, Calif., at the end of the month, where they will surely be met by angry antifa protesters and students who object to their presence. And where we will see again what digital fury looks like when made flesh.

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