Politics in the age of social media is often an ugly beast. Just look around over the last fortnight. The Posie Parker visit, the martyrdom or otherwise of Donald Trump, the opposing views on the legacy of Jacinda Ardern, the hardening of attitudes against China. We can be a virulent lot — at least those who choose to express themselves online.
And every now and then the hate and vitriol spills into real life. The scenes at the planned speaking event at Auckland’s Albert Park didn’t reflect well on anyone, and especially on those who stoked the anger.
Of course there have been extreme and intolerant views on both sides of political debates long before social media came along. You just had to head to the pub or to the local university commons to hear a whole spectrum of often intolerant, mis-informed and downright crazy opinions.
The difference was that for the most part we didn’t give all these radicals, misogynists, conspiracy theorists and blowhards their own media platform to broadcast their views to the world. They only very occasionally made it into leadership positions (where the result was always messy). For the most part they were lucky if three people heard their theories, before all three quietly mumbled about needing to move on, or go to the bathroom.
Back then, opinions tended to percolate for a long time in the background of society and only make the mainstream if and when they had reached a certain critical mass and were discovered by newspaper editors and editorial writers. These new ideas would be carefully scrutinised, and then a more sanitised moderate version of them cautiously added to the public discussion.
If the pre-internet days were suffocating and stifling of new ideas, and they often were, then today is the exact opposite. Social media gives a megaphone and a platform to everyone who wants one, and the resulting cacophony can be deafening. The end game is wild polarisation of public opinion.
Politicians were quick to draw on the opportunities social media provided. Facebook et al gave us a soapbox without the annoying filter of political journalists. Nearly all of us leapt at it. Initially we used it to report our offline activities and announcements to a wider audience in the way we wanted to present them. But somewhere along the line social media started morphing into a method to whip up the mob, and argue with and shout down those with whom we disagreed. To mobilise right-thinking people who shared our views and vilify those who didn’t.
I was one who initially liked a public mud-wrestle with political opponents — it seemed like another way to get your point across. But I grew uncomfortable with the polarisation such activity helped create.
Social media thrives on strong views and stronger emotions. Platform owners learnt quickly that indignation and anger drives online activity much better than happiness and agreeability. You only have to observe the difference between the Twitter feed you built for yourself versus the one generated by the algorithm, to know the algorithm writers are trying to find content that literally pushes your buttons.
And nobody attracts many likes or shares by being reasonable. You attract retweets and shares by being quirky and outrageous and standing out from the crowd. The more extreme and polarising your view, the better.
Donald Trump is in many ways the quintessential political creation of social media. He became President by telling outrageous falsehoods, taking extreme positions and firing up the mob (sorry, base). Sure, he also appealed to Republicans because he wasn’t Hillary Clinton, but from there on in it was always about getting attention, and never having to explain or justify what he said. Another blowhard, but a very powerful one. The result is a massively polarised America.
It always has been an option for an unscrupulous politician to whip up the mob. You don’t even have to be experienced. It’s a base skill of populists to divide the world into us and them, and ruthlessly attack them. Social media just makes it easier. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that we have entered into what appears to be a political age of mindless populism at the same time social media companies have become dominant in the competition for our attention.
And like it or not, social media isn’t going anywhere.
Politicians don’t have to lean into social media, of course. It is still possible for them to transcend the mob mentality and appeal to our better natures. To seek to unite us, rather than divide us. It’s just more difficult in the age of online mobs with megaphones and pile-ons.
Ardern managed it in response to the Christchurch terror attack. She united us all, of every ethnicity, origin and creed in the face of unspeakable and divisive evil. She rose to the occasion and the country benefited. As has been said elsewhere, it was her finest hour and became one of ours.
She was less successful in the response to Covid. She started out okay, but then let the mob off the leash to criticise the vaccine-hesitant, those who sought to cross the border, those who didn’t follow the mob’s rules. People who argued were vilified, and some were made scapegoats by her or her ministers.
We have seen the same divisiveness in the trans debate. Lesser politicians than the Ardern of 2019 aggressively attacked people whose world view they disagreed with, and intentionally or inadvertently licensed the mob to do the same. How much better would the outcome have been if a leader had risen above the partisanship of this culture war and encouraged civility and the ability to tolerate opposing views? It is not too hard to imagine a different, more unifying outcome if that had happened.
Similarly during the pandemic. If only we’d accepted the vaccine-hesitant rather than firing them from their jobs, or found a more compassionate way to look after those found on the wrong side of the border. Or managed not to call those protesting the strictures a river of filth.
That is surely the political challenge of our internet age. To overcome the hyper-partisanship of the public square by demonstrating civility and generosity.
Showing the ability to swim against the tide of aggressiveness and populism and provide truly inclusive leadership which encourages thoughtfulness and tolerance of different views.
It’s not an easy task. Our current leadership seems to find it easier to just agree with the currently ascendant mob rather than lead for everyone. But surely that makes it more important than ever.
- Steven Joyce is a former National Minister of Finance. He is director at Joyce Advisory.