You and I have both read a lot of post-mortems about the 2016 presidential election, a lot of thinkpieces about the unthinking and unthinkable Donald Trump.
But here’s a question I haven’t seen anyone take seriously: did we Americans assume that digital culture would gradually lead to a more enlightened population, only to wake up on November 9th and realize that it has only enhanced our more regressive elements? Did we look up for a minute from our smartphones, see America in ruins, and get a sinking feeling that maybe all this time we’d spent online was hurting America, not helping?
Some of you are laughing, thinking: you thought the internet was making people more tolerant? Yes, I get it; yes, I reddit. But let me make the case that from 2005 to 2016 or so, there seemed to be an emergent, evolving, somewhat progressive “digital consensus,” the loss of which is part of Charlottesville weekend’s online primal scream.
The rise of social media coincided with the rise of progressive elements in American society. When George W. Bush won his second term in 2004, there was almost no social media to speak of: no Twitter, no instagram, no famous Facebook, not even MySpace, really. When Bush got “shellacked” (his word) in the 2006 midterms, social media was becoming a thing, a process that accelerated the following year when Steve Jobs brought out the iPhone. The second most important development of 2008, after the election of the first African-American president, was Facebook passing up MySpace in total users. On some level, millennials were saying that they preferred transparency to MySpace’s (and many blogs’) look-at-my-hip-avatar anonymity. And on some level, the rise of Facebook and Obama seemed related: they both promised that the light of clarity and honesty would dispel the horrible decisions of yesteryear (Iraq, Katrina, Friendster, MySpace). They both used a lot of blue stripes, “cool” instead of hot.
Until 2016, social-media-plus-smartphone-enabled Americans hadn’t elected a Republican President. The ten years from Katrina (August 2005) to Charleston (June 2015) were remarkable for enfranchisement of disadvantaged groups, and it was hardly crazy to assume that social media platforms were at least as responsible as Barack Obama. From 2006 to 2010 or so, many celebrities (not just Mel Gibson, Michael Richards, Paula Deen, Don Imus, and John Mayer, but a lot of others) tweeted or said intolerant things that ricocheted around the newly empowered Twitterverse and caused said celebrities to lose their previous stature. As Rooney Mara’s character put it in The Social Network (2010), “The internet isn’t written in pencil, Mark, it’s written in ink.” No more scrubbing the record clean; the best disinfectant seemed to be the sunlight of social media. The digital consensus, abetted by the most famous Silicon Valley companies (who were all left-center-ish), seemed to be forming around a certain progressive/centrist blend of tolerance and moderation; you could no longer say, frankly no longer think, stuff that would bother a room of grandmothers. Now look, no one is calling the internet Candy Land, but was it really so naïve to think that if everyone put everything online, almost like a modern Roman forum, we’d sort out a somewhat centrist, or even non-partisan, consensus on the big issues?
You’ll notice that paragraph included “seemed to be” more than once. Even as leading social media took on a firm WhatDoYouHaveToHide?-flavor, certain elements retreated to the shadows and continued to post like it was 1999. (Reddit and 4chan had, and have, a very distinct bare-bones Web 1.0 flavor. Even youtube is remarkably stripped-down, and user-friendly for malevolent users.) Anonymity and avatars, which may have improved tolerance of women and the LGBTQ community (if your online identity is fungible, what’s the big deal?), were used to cover some of the most vile, reactionary rhetoric. Much of it was dressed up as humor, as Emily Nussbaum explained. And after the 2008 financial meltdown, opposing the digital consensus seemed to overlap with “anti-elitism” and “sticking it to the man.”
Now, many will tell you there was never a digital consensus. That if anything, the internet has segmented us all into our customized realities, and we can now block out any information we find less than salutary. That the internet exaggerates the extremes. No doubt, last year, the customizable nature of the internet helped enable voters’ manifest frustration with the calcified two-party system; in some ways, that helps explain why the leftist Bernie Sanders hangover has lasted so much longer than the old Ralph Nader and Dennis Kucinich hangovers. (We can have everything else we want from Amazon; why not political representation too?) But it’s also true that only one person can be President; only one person is permitted to spearhead policies that directly affect millions of Americans. Consensus or not, all this digital culture was in many ways (if not at the statehouse level) redounding to the benefit of progressives and Democrats…until November 9, 2016.
Was digital culture a poisoned chalice? Did progressives and even centrists spend too much time on smartphones trying to “win” (or look good in) social-media arguments, while missing what was really happening? Was limited slacktivism too limited?
Watching Nazis march freely in Charlottesville, claiming a presidential mandate that the president did not refute (until yesterday), many are wondering if the worst parts of America are in ascendance.
But beyond yesterday’s tardy rebuke, there’s reason to think Trump didn’t exactly end, or invalidate, the “digital consensus.” Corporation-monitoring social media campaigns like #grabyourwallet and #notbuyingit are still working; just ask SeaWorld, Google, United, Nordstrom, or Fox News (well, ask Bill O’Reilly). Even as Trump seeks to disenfranchise groups, Republican politicians (!) rally to the defense of American values. And the numbers suggest a more #woke digital consensus. Last year at this time, on major news sites and social media, anti-Hillary Clinton comments were at least as prominent as any others (no doubt aided by the three Bs: bots, Bernie-crats, and Putin’s Boys). This year, even on right-wing sites, the comments aren’t even close to evenly balanced: the best of the #woke digital consensus swamps the “like” totals of any #MAGA-commenter, usually by a ratio of at least 100 to 1.
So if you ever pause your smartphone-fiddling fingers long enough to despair that your distractions may be enabling a Trump-led American decline…don’t despair. Digital culture may yet get us out of this. Or at least, we better act as though it can, considering it’s not like Americans are about to adopt any alternative (say, Chinese) versions of Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. We are stuck with a world where current social media and smartphones are comparable to how Homer Simpson described beer: “The cause of, and solution to, all life’s problems.”