Columns, Opinions

Jacobs ’18: The narcissism of social media politics

By
Staff Columnist
Tuesday, March 7, 2017

We’ve all seen social media’s power to catalyze political change by providing users with a platform to organize and share ideas. After all, the Arab Spring clearly benefited from the proliferation of Facebook throughout the Arab world — approximately nine out of 10 Egyptians and Tunisians reported that they used social media to participate in protests. Here at Brown, taking part in a local protest has never been easier: We’ll see an intriguing Facebook event while scrolling through our newsfeeds, and within seconds, we can designate ourselves as participants.

Despite these clear advantages, the rise of social media as a platform for political discourse has had some very pernicious consequences. Perhaps the most widely acknowledged criticism of using social media as a platform for news and politics has been the formation of political “echo chambers” that insulate us from contrarian perspectives, prescribing a diet of information almost exclusively composed of arguments we agree with. In particular, many recent articles have detailed how Facebook conditions our newsfeeds to match our political preferences. The results of this are quite clear: increased polarization, a lack of nuance and, above all, a blunted ability to understand and empathize with other perspectives.

These effects are compounded by the self-oriented nature of social media. On platforms like Facebook, we tend to create profiles that cast flattering images of ourselves. Much of Facebook — where the items you like, friends you have, articles you share and posts you write are all open to the community — is about cultivating an image. This is as relevant for 20-year-old pre-professionals with calculated, pristine and sophisticated profile pictures as it is for those that have transformed their walls into bastions for memes, dark humor and obscure irony.

When we engage in political discourse on Facebook — by sharing an article, writing an impassioned post or exhorting onlookers to sign a petition — we are generally conscious of how our online behavior will be perceived. This works alongside the desire to be accepted — and even praised — by the social communities that we inhabit. What results from this is a kind of neutering of political discussion on sites like Facebook; we choose to post things that will be approved by our Facebook friends and generally supported. Politics is thus inextricably linked to our feelings of social capital.

Consider, for instance, when someone shares a New York Times video depicting the plight of Syrians or the brutality of Boko Haram in Nigeria. Viewers who see the post on their newsfeeds are not simply engaging with the video alone; they are also responding to a third party — the person who posted it.

Thus, through social media, the tragedies of impoverished and war-torn communities become interconnected with our public images. World events that have nothing to do with us are suddenly used to gain likes and win approval on social media platforms, and it’s frequently done through the commodification of injustice, horror and unspeakable cruelty. Though this type of “virtue signaling” may incentivize greater political involvement online, I think this is a repugnant and narcissistic way to engage with politics.

The issue is exacerbated by the nature of social media platforms themselves — in particular, their cold ambivalence to the content they facilitate. And I know any person reading this will know exactly what I’m talking about — your Facebook newsfeed might read something like this:

“Buzzfeed has posted a video of drunk girls reacting to puppies”; “A U.S. airstrike hits a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan”;   “J.K. Rowling says we should not pronounce the ‘T’ in Voldemort”.

On Facebook, everything is given the same visibility. Every post has “reaction” options and a comments section (best avoided). And everything is funneled into the currents of superfluous information, the endless monotony of cheap entertainment and engineered dopamine rushes. The abhorrence and triumphs in world news becomes inseparable from everything else, blunting our sensitivity to violence and injustice as well as our empathy for others. The war game montage plays in 1080p right above footage from the real war.

Of course, social media does not have to be desensitizing force and beacon for narcissistic politics. But we need to seriously reevaluate how we engage with politics and world affairs on these platforms. In particular, we should all consider why we share the articles we do and what we hope to gain by writing impassioned posts on Facebook. By looking inwards toward our own reasons for political engagement on social media platforms, we might become a bit more understanding of one another and genuine in our compassion.

Julian Jacobs ’18 can be reached at  julian_jacobs@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*