Why Social Media is ruining political discourse

The Atlantic

The endless flow of content doesn’t need to make sense to create engagement.


YouTube is designed to catch you and not let go. Sometimes I access the site just to watch one thing, but then one of the related videos catches my eye. I watch that one, then another and another, and soon a five-minute visit has stretched far longer. If it’s half an hour of movie trailers, then I’m just indulging in a guilty pleasure. But what if I followed a link to “Q—The Plan to Save the World” and wound up staying for one outlandish conspiracy video after another? YouTube’s associative linking is designed to keep me clicking and watching. It has turned into a mechanism for political indoctrination, suggesting through sheer repetition that an international cabal is threatening to take over the world.

These false conspiracy theories can delude the public. But social media’s negative impact on the political process isn’t just a matter of their content—which includes, for example, intentional misinformation and hate speech directed toward ethnic and religious groups. The problem is also built into the structure of these digital applications.

Propaganda is nothing new; it has appeared in pamphlets, books, and newspapers practically since the invention of the printing press. But social media seem particularly susceptible to spreading disinformation. That’s because social media engage viewers in a way that designers call “flow,” a psychological idea adopted as a digital-design strategy by video games. Flow focuses on keeping the user moving from one element to the next, repetitively, in search of gratification from the act of consuming media rather than from engaging with its content.

When programs such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are used for political messaging, they bring flow along into the political process, even if the messages they carry are truthful and nonconspiratorial. That makes these media a threat to coherent political discourse from the age of print.

In the 1970s, the Hungarian American psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi adopted the word flow to describe a state of engagement that arises when people are completely focused on an activity, such as tennis or rock climbing. Around the same time, the sociologist Raymond Williams also used the term to describe the way American television’s rhythm of programs and advertising is calculated to keep viewers watching hour after hour. More recently, flow has become a term of art in video-game design. Unlike television, games require interactivity, and designers try to keep the player in the “flow channel,” where the play is neither too difficult and frustrating nor too easy and boring. Social media combine the flow of television and the flow of video games to keep the user scrolling through post after post. The motivation here is obvious: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram only earn money if you stick around to view more ads. All flow media engage people through repetition and association. Ideally, for the businesses that run them, that engagement would be endless.

Social media sometimes feel addictive. But as entertainment, flow doesn’t seem like it would threaten the fabric of society. The problem arises because social media have also become a major platform for political information and discussion. According to the Pew Research Center, 68 percent of Americans received at least some of their news from social media in 2018. Both mainstream politicians and extremist groups use Facebook and Twitter to spread information.

Applied to politics, flow buries discussion about civic action under endless streams of text, images, and videos.

Let’s consider one of the clearest manifestations of the politics of flow: online conspiracy thinking, such as the kind spread by the movement QAnon. It flourishes not only on Facebook and Twitter, but also in the videos and channels of YouTube, and now on Instagram as well.

Read: The reason conspiracy videos work so well on YouTube

It works like this: An anonymous figure known as Q emits a stream of “data dumps” on the imageboard 8chan. These oracular pronouncements are then analyzed and spread by the QAnon group to a larger audience of readers and viewers. The dumps cluster around a core idea: that Donald Trump and some loyal followers in the military and government are engaged in a clandestine, existential struggle against an international cabal of evildoers. Q claimed to have discovered, for example, that Hillary Clinton and other prominent Democrats were running an international child-sex-trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor in Washington. “Pizzagate” was only the first of a series of improbable claims Q manufactured: Robert Mueller is actually working with Trump to expose the Democrats; Angela Merkel is the granddaughter of Adolf Hitler; and the Queen of England is part of the cabal.

As each new claim emerges, it is added to the network of conspiracies. There is no end to the process of interpreting Q dumps and adding new conspiratorial strands, especially because QAnon can simply incorporate contradictions and disappointments into its future messages when the predicted apocalypse doesn’t arrive. Q had predicted that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta would be arrested. When that didn’t happen, QAnon followers just incorporated it into the conspiracy. The false dates were designed, they claimed, to trick the cabal into complacency.

It might be wrong to call QAnon a conspiracy theory at all. In a recent study, the political scientists Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum distinguish between conspiracy theories and this new brand of conspiracism. Traditional conspiracy theories are relatively coherent narratives that seek to explain some disturbing aspect of the political or social world. The new conspiracism presents incoherent, often contradictory assertions rather than a consistent story.

Conspiracism flourishes on social media. In part that’s because it’s so easy to tweet or upload. But the flow-oriented structure of social media also fosters conspiracism. You can’t tell a coherent story in a 280-character tweet, but you can provide a tantalizing assertion or allude to shared story fragments, especially if you use code words and acronyms (such as QAnon’s WWG1WGA) or iconic images (such as the alt-right’s Pepe the Frog). Taking part in the QAnon conspiracism means learning how to read these codes and fragments, and perhaps eventually contributing to this flow with your own posts or videos.

Online conspiracism offers an extreme example of the politics of flow, but an obsession with streams of information instead of their content is also affecting the political mainstream. Donald Trump has become a consummate flow politician, and Twitter is his medium. During these first two years of his presidency, according to Trump’s Twitter Archive, he has tweeted more than 600 times about Russia and collusion, more than 400 times lamenting fake news, and more than 200 times each about Clinton and Obama. Often, the tweets carry a simple, emotional conclusion, such as “No Collusion” or “Just more Fake News.”

Taken together, the tweets embody a theme of personal grievance and betrayal. But they do not form a coherent or even consistent narrative. In the weeks after the release of the Mueller report, Trump declared the report both a total vindication and a hit job—in the same tweet. His supporters don’t seem to notice the contradictions. And his detractors might not notice either—the flow generates too much material for anyone to keep up with, even professional political analysts and reporters.

A presence on Twitter has become almost a job requirement for columnists and pundits. YouTube can also be a valuable educational resource with videos of political roundtables, academic conferences, lectures, and interviews. But the flow-oriented design of these media inhibits extended debate. When the liberal economist Paul Krugman tweeted a critique of the inconsistency of Republican policies on interest rates, for example, most of the more than 100 replies were simply derisive comments about Republican hypocrisy—posts created to derive pleasure from online riposte rather than advocacy for a particular position.

By contrast, blog posts and articles in online newspapers and magazines are not flow media; they are digital extensions of the kind of political writing that characterized printed newspapers and journals in the 19th and 20th centuries. There might be an opportunity for the readers to comment at the end of the article, but their responses do not contribute to flow and engagement in the same way. Even formal news and commentary often decays into flow fodder, such as when people post gut-feel responses to social media about articles they haven’t even read, based on the headline alone.

The politics of flow now poses a serious challenge to the earlier tradition of political debate. Some pundits have interpreted Trump’s populism as a realignment of the traditional political narratives of the left and the right. In both his presidential campaign and his presidency, Trump showed how easy it was to break both narratives into incendiary fragments that could be reshuffled into a variety of combinations. From the left he took opposition to international trade agreements and economic globalism; from the right, hostility to social programs and the federal bureaucracy (“drain the swamp”). On health care he managed to borrow from both left and right simultaneously, implying that he could repeal Obamacare (as conservatives fervently desired) and yet somehow replace it with something better and universal (that liberals had hoped for). He promised tax cuts and a large infrastructure program at the same time.

This was not a coherent agenda, but it works as a tweetable series of promises. Yet it was compelling to much of the American electorate, who no longer seemed to care about the coherence of political rhetoric. What mattered was that these promises all felt gratifying in the moment, addressing the feelings of grievance and betrayal that some citizens shared with Trump himself. That’s also why it doesn’t matter if the promises were kept, or if they contradicted with one another.

Trump’s opponents have had a hard time adjusting to this new order. In her 2016 campaign, Clinton was stymied by Trump’s unlikely candidacy and kept vacillating between presenting her complex agenda and attacking his lack of fitness for office. Trump has doubled down on flow politics since the election, tweeting thousands of times since his inauguration in 2017. The television and print-news media now broadcast and publish his and other politicians’ tweets, which they rarely did in the Obama years.

Read: Instagram is the internet’s new home for hate

Flow isn’t just for conservatives, either. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s rise demonstrates that the politics of flow has a home on the left, too. AOC’s progressive agenda may be more coherent than Trump’s, but she is just as effective on Twitter. Like Trump, she understands how to use the platform to mobilize her 4 million followers in the moment. Last November, for example, she responded to a Fox News report on “radical new democratic ideas” by tweeting, “Oh no! They discovered our vast conspiracy to take care of children and save the planet.” Trump has many times more followers, but AOC’s tweets generate far more engagement (retweets, likes) per follower. When she arrived in Congress last year, AOC even gave a tutorial for fellow Democrats on the use of Twitter to connect with constituents.

She’s even more effective on Instagram, where her casual, personable approach to explaining policy in the context of her daily life wins huge engagement. Her fans see Instagram as an effective way to brand policy, such as the Green New Deal. But some worry that AOC’s Instagram success risks replacing political discussion, including the need to respond to challenges from the press, with social-media broadcasting.

AOC has a more coherent political agenda than Trump, and it’s tempting to say that she is using social-media platforms in the service of a more traditional political program. As a media-savvy young person, she sits between the two worlds. But even when used toward those ends, flow media still encourage a superficial, affective approach to politics that undermines traditional discourse.

The politics of flow likely will continue to redefine political discourse in our country. Flow makes video games and social-media sites more engaging, but the phenomenon might already have refashioned political discourse and permanently changed the institutions that depend on reasoned debate. And yet, flow’s engagement is so gratifying for so many, it’s difficult to let it go. Even if the public decided that the civic costs of social media outweigh the private pleasures, it might be too late, and too hard, to turn back. If it triumphs, the best we can hope for is a new breed of media-savvy AOCs with good ideas—and a sensitivity to the cost of expressing them in social-media form.

This post is adapted from Bolter’s new book, The Digital Plenitude: The Decline of Elite Culture and the Rise of New Media.

JAY DAVID BOLTER is the Wesley Chair in New Media at the Georgia Institute of Technology.