New York Times contributor Nitsuh Abebe explained in a recent column how social media is hurting political discourse in America.
Abebe’s insights on the current state of political discourse were highlighted in a tweet by Heterodox Academy Founder Jonathan Haidt last week. Abebe argues that social media forces political discourse to take place away from its traditional settings like classrooms, courtrooms, and family dinner tables. These traditional settings typically lend themselves to order and civility. On the contrary, social media is like “one gigantic city teeming with protests and counter-protests.”
This is not a result of some sea change in human psychology. It’s an issue of infrastructure. The types of arguments we once venerated — the kinds of critical-thinking dialectics that educators tell us hone the brains of students — make sense in orderly, deliberative settings, places like classrooms and courtrooms and Platonic dialogues. But that is not where online speech takes place anymore. Social-media platforms knocked out the walls of an infinite series of salons, turning them into one gigantic city square teeming with protests and counterprotests, each faction equipped with slogans and banners, each trying to command space and crowd out the opposition.
Abebe explains why this new digital space is harmful to productive discourse. Different political factions are constantly trying to gain the attention of the masses. And no one, in our age of increased political tribalism, considers if our own beliefs might ill-conceived.
They turned all speech into public pronouncements, and thus all conversation into a strange form of activism, part of a zero-sum battle over which ideas will find a foothold in our collective attention. In the midst of an information war, to express any opinion, sincerely or not, is seen as giving it space and therefore material support. Nobody stands in the middle of a march holding a sign that says, “What if One of Our Demands Is Unwise?”
You can read the entirety of Abebe’s column here.