Normally when I write about social media, I pepper sources throughout my article. It’s a common habit among pundits; even in casual conversation, we frequently find ourselves pulling up sources to inform our audience and legitimize our position.
I’m mostly going to resist that impulse here, though, because my aversion to Twitter isn’t about some larger social issue. Simply put, I write about politics, and as such have learned to appreciate the importance of nuance and complexity in communication. Neither of these things are possible when you’re limited to 140 characters per message (unless you’re prepared to go through the gymnastics of weaving several tweets together), and as a result I find myself instinctively abhorring the political discussions that exist on that forum.
Like all political matters in 2016, this brings the conversation back to the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump. The man is a king of Twitter, churning out tweets that capture headlines which always seem to benefit his campaign, even when the immediate publicity is negative (see his attacks on Megyn Kelly and Heidi Cruz). As Amanda Hess explained in an op-ed for Slate, “What is the secret to Trump’s Twitter success? He’s cemented his reputation as a modern social media master by relying on age-old dick moves… his most Trump-ian tweets manage to hit upon all three of Aristotle’s modes of persuasion: logos (the appeal to logic), ethos (the appeal to credibility), and pathos (the appeal to emotion).”
This may be impressive on a technical level, but what has it done for the quality of our political discourse?
It is here that I must rely on memory. The 2000 presidential election was the first one to really engage my interest, and my main memory of that contest is how no one around me cared about it. Sure, there was plenty of interest after the election, when voting irregularities in Florida helped George W. Bush best Al Gore in the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote. Up to Election Day, though, I found myself passionately invested in the Gore campaign while the adults and teenagers around me were cocooned in indifference. People were somewhat more engaged in 2004, when the war in Iraq was raging and criticism of Bush’s post-9/11 policies began to intensify. It wasn’t until 2008, however, that people around me really started to engage with the issues of the day. The war in Iraq was still a top issue, but now we were talking about the flagging economy and the corrupt banks, about corporate lobbyists and the need for health care reform. Casual friends would debate the merits of single-payer health care versus a free enterprise system, or about how whether corporate deregulation or too much government was behind increasing unemployment. Even though this interest waned by the 2012 election, the underlying spirit of thoughtful civic engagement seemed to persist.
For some reason, though, I’ve noticed that casual political conversations have become less about substantive disagreement and more about punchy little declarations. While I have no idea whether Twitter created this culture, it’s pretty clear that the site benefits enormously from its prevalence. This is why Americans are seriously considering electing Donald Trump to be their next president; it isn’t that much of a reach for a nation that applauds social media vulgarity to think “Build a wall!” or “Make America great again!” are legitimate policy proposals. Instead of hearing meaningful commentary on the major issues facing our country today, I find that striking up political conversation is more likely to end in short declarations. Not always insults, mind you – just a handful of words that the participant deems sufficient to fully make his or her point. When in the past I would hear reasoning (good, bad, or indifferent), now I just get declarations like “Just bomb the hell out of ISIS” or “Round them up and send them back” or “We’d fix everything if we just stopped being so damn PC.”
Those aren’t hypothetical examples, by the way. I remember those comments verbatim from political conversations because their originators only uttered a single sentence.
Considering the advanced political apathy that marked the beginning of my interest in politics, the current climate is almost ironic. People are certainly paying attention to this election, and while the prospect of Hillary Clinton becoming our first female president should inspire this attention, that ain’t it. Instead of being bored with politics like they were sixteen years ago, voters are being captivated by an epigrammatic carnival barker, one who mastered Twitter and then imported his stylistic flourishes from that site over to the rest of his campaign. The result has transformed American politics forever, and while this may not be because we’re a culture that favors simplicity over complexity, that trait certainly hasn’t helped things. Personally, I don’t think Twitter created this itself… but the moment I become a Twitter-phile, will I join the ranks of those who don’t even notice this is happening?