by John Grove
Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French observer of nineteenth-century American politics, always placed a much greater emphasis on the habits and manners of the people than the laws, elections, institutions or officials. Democracy, he argued,“is found in all the details of daily life as well as in the laws.”
So rather than offer extended commentary on the federal constitution or the polarizing political figures of the time, Tocqueville examined American society and the tendencies of its citizens. If Tocqueville were observing America today, the revolutionary impact of social media on the habits and manners of the American citizen would likely be one of his central themes.
Some political effects of social media are headline news: Facebook pages run by Russian impostors; the collection of personal data to personalize political ads; The incredible transformation of political campaign strategy. But perhaps the most sweeping revolution brought about by social media is in the way it has transformed the way the average citizen observes, interprets and interacts with the world around him.
There was always great hope that the internet, and social media in particular, would give rise to a wave of political engagement and dialogue as people were exposed to diverse viewpoints and encouraged to engage with new ideas. Yet the actual impact has been to further solidify the echo chambers that cable television and talk radio had already created. Tools like Facebook’s infamous algorithms ensure that we read and digest only those materials that we already agree with, reinforcing our own personal perspectives rather than broadening our view to engage others.
Social media also provides an endless stream of anecdotal stories which serve to reinforce our ideological commitments. The recent kerfuffle involving a school group at the Lincoln Memorial is the prime example of this. This incident and subsequent revelations spawned a wave of commentary noting that we tend to interpret events like this through our own ideological lens. A recent article in The Atlantic, however, goes further to ask why we should find the incident so important in the first place? “Take away Twitter and Facebook and explain why total strangers care so much about people they don’t know in a confrontation they didn’t witness.”
The most likely reason one would give is that we believe such incidents reflect broader societal realities. But there is little reason to believe this, without some sort of evidence to that effect. Certainly, there are some Trump-supporters who have bullied and intimidated racial minorities. Likewise, there are illegal immigrants who have committed terrible crimes. The existence of such occurrences, however, does not prove or disprove either a left-wing or a right-wing narrative about society at large. Isolated incidents do, however, provide instant psychological confirmation of the narrative that we are already inclined to believe. Fifteen years ago, nobody would have heard of Covington Catholic High School, or the incident that took place on the Lincoln Memorial. No newspaper would consider two groups of protesters screaming at each other to be newsworthy. But since captivating, emblematic images and videos can be seen by millions of people around the world in a matter of hours, such incidents dominate the public imagination.
Finally, social media serves to make us hasty in our response to public events. In the past, the average citizen would read about important events in the newspaper the next morning. Within recent memory, most news was consumed at the end of the day watching the evening news. In the age of social media, however, the only news we consume is breaking news. Within minutes, descriptions, images and videos of unfolding events are at our fingertips. And within a few more minutes, rival interpretations begin to proliferate: There is continual pressure for opinion leaders to stake out a position on developing stories. If traditional media figures fail to comment on a breaking news story, they run the risk of becoming irrelevant. If an elected official fails to comment, they may be accused of hedging. Or worse, they may risk losing the opportunity to control the narrative. The result is that no sooner does news break than there is a flurry of ready-made commentary fitting the event neatly into one or another ideological viewpoint. The citizen does not even need to exert any personal effort to twist a story into his or her own preferred worldview. And of course, the media platforms provide simple, immediate means of self-expression in the forms of likes, angry emojis, and 280-character blasts.
Writing in the 1830’s, Tocqueville observed that the newspapers of the time (what we would today consider partisan or ideologically-motivated news magazines) had the ability to break individuals out of their personal shell and usher them into a productive, common life together.
“It often happens in democratic countries…that many men who have the desire or the need to associate cannot do it, because all being very small and lost in the crowd, they do not see each other and do not know where to find each other. Up comes a newspaper that exposes to their view the sentiment or the idea that had been presented to each of them simultaneously but separately. All are immediately directed toward that light, and those wandering spirits who had long sought each other in the shadows finally meet each other and unite.”
Social media, it may be argued, produces an opposite effect in today’s world. Inundated by a continual stream of images, videos and voices directly to our computer screens and smart phones, we hardly feel any need at all to seek out others. We become passive consumers of information without any need to seek it out or examine it ourselves. Because of all the information we see flash before our very eyes, we become ever more sure of ourselves, not inclined to doubt anything that seems to back our preconceived view of the world.
Tocqueville was concerned about an individualism which prevented people from raising their eyes beyond their personal affairs to think about the wider world. In an age where that world comes directly to us, we may have a different form of individualism to worry about – one in which we easily and neatly fit the outside world into our own personal shell.
1 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Trans. By Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 295.
2 Tocqueville, Democracy in America, p. 493.