Saddened – Social Media, Election 2016 and Beyond

Government and the excitement of political campaigns – a passion of mine since I was a young boy. I was the 8-year-old kid who would proudly say I wanted to be a politician when I grew up. To think that was in the times of great turmoil in America – 1968. The assassination of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, riots in the cities, the disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, a horrible war in Vietnam, and the election of Richard Nixon in a squeaker over Hubert Humphrey. 1968 was truly a year that will always be remembered for turmoil.

Fast forward to 2016. We all live in a different world of instant everything. The internet, 24/7 multiple news channels, social media, and again, great division.

This presidential cycle has been one of surprises around every corner and the improbable Republican insurgency campaign of Donald Trump. Yes, the billionaire playboy, reality TV star, wins the Republican nomination. Pundits a year earlier had written him off as a novelty candidate, a joke, a modern P.T. Barnum, someone who had zero chance at the nomination. It’s been a campaign like none other. One where truth doesn’t matter. Decency and decorum are thrown out the window. A campaign, and a candidate, who knows no shame.

This could be a very long piece about Donald Trump and his campaign from Hell. But, instead, this is about something that has fueled his campaign – the rise of social media. The rise of Facebook memes, Twitter tweets (with truly tasteless hashtags), and all of the new internet platforms that have given anyone with a keyboard or a phone an instant voice to the national discussion – no matter their knowledge (or lack thereof) of context, history, government, or anything else for that matter. We’ve seen lies and conspiracy theories passed off as truth. YouTube videos, with no basis in truth, connecting these conspiracies one to another left for people to stumble upon and take them at face value. For me, this is the sad story that has poured gasoline on the fire of American politics and given rise to a huge bloc of Low Information Voters who have been able to take their voice to the world. Voters who can only process the issues as long as the depth of thought fits on a bumpersticker, a 140-character tweet, a Facebook poster – and yes, influenced by those YouTube videos filled with nonsense and accepted as gospel. People new to the process and using these powerful internet tools, call those that oppose their man (or woman) mentally deranged, stupid, Un-American, and far, far worse. When, in reality, they have no idea what they are writing about except in context of the one-liners and fire bombs from Twitter, The Drudge Report, Fox News, Facebook, and other sources of information from the darkest corners of paranoia and sickness on the web.

I have always had a healthy skepticism of the internet and social media culture. In fact, sometimes I have been convinced that it’s all done far more harm than good. This 2016 campaign has made me lean far more to the latter. I have participated (in fits and starts) in this culture and have only become more convinced that social media only assists in breeding ignorance, hate, and lack of civil discourse in the democratic process in ways far more powerful than the possibilities for positive use.

On several occasions in the past few years I have become disgusted at this always-on, internet obsessed culture of insanity. Whether it be because of the great time suck, seeing people with their heads down staring constantly at their phones, realizing that we have become a society addicted (in every clinical sense of the term) to this technology, or observing the new, high-tech abilities we have that make it so easy for people to be so awful to one another. But, without question, it’s been the campaign of 2016 that has been the biggest eye-opener of them all. It saddens me to see a political process, that I once loved, become a cesspool of hatred and ignorance, fueled on by a con artist and huckster like Donald Trump and social media memes. The “other” side hasn’t been wonderful, but it’s a far cry from what we’ve seen from Donald Trump. It’s about debating within the “norms” versus something we’ve never seen before – a national campaign based on lies that need to be fact checked 24/7.  A debate about policies is now a quaint notion – maybe gone forever – except in the corners of fresh air where people actually come together (almost surely offline) and discuss actual issues, policy proposals, and goals as a nation. It’s not happening in social media or the data hogging town squares, owned and operated by young billionaires, that are now populated, polluted, and driven by the lowest common denominator.

All I have described above is beyond sad to me, it is a devastating blow to my hopes for the future of our planet. This brave new world is a dark, dark place. Decency, at its core, has been hijacked by this instant, always-on, impulsive, culture of web addiction and the dumbing down of our society as a whole. Some of us remember times that were turbulent (like 1968), but were certainly recoverable. Today, I’m not so sure.

– Mike Swickey