Here’s a thought experiment: How much different would the 2016 U.S. presidential election be without social media? If the campaigns happened in 1980, or better yet, 1880?
Facebook had 1.71 billion active accounts in July 2016. The world population is 7.46 billion, which suggests 1 account for every 4.36 people; of course, that doesn’t consider fake accounts, multiple accounts, or the still-active accounts of those who have died. So let’s call it one account for every ten people. That might be the limit, though – a decline seems imminent.
Social media, as we know, does not obey the rules of conventional social civility – the predominant etiquette is unbridled vitriol. That’s arguably what has produced U.S. presidential candidate Trump, who has been praised for “telling it like it is,” and for not being “politically correct.”
Political correctness is snarkspeak for good manners. When I meet people face to face, in my neighborhood, at work, or at my daughter’s school, I don’t spout my innermost thoughts – I filter my conversation and lean toward friendly civility. I try to listen more than I speak. Most important, I assume the person I’m speaking with has the same intention.
By contrast, Facebook encourages its users to let it all hang out – especially the ugly, less considered (less grammatical) corners of the id. What might generate a frown and quick disengagement in real life will get a few immediate “likes” online, Pavlovian reinforcement of incivility.
My wife Susan rarely posts anything on social media, but lately has been compelled to respond when she sees friends justifying Trump’s most egregious behavior. Most recently, the father of a male classmate of our daughter’s defended Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” remark. Susan was concerned that her friend’s opinion could impact his teenaged son, which might then affect our daughter (or someone else’s daughter.)
One result of such raw, rude interaction is that increasing numbers will either unfollow one another, or leave Facebook altogether. Both are bad for Facebook, which benefits from a large, interconnected network (size matters!) The reach of social media posts (and advertisements) doesn’t increase by just one when a link between two people is established – it grows according to the size of the respective networks each person has already established. So when people unfriend or jump ship, Facebook’s losses are compounded.
What can be done? Twitter was forced to address the question when actress Leslie Jones publicly abandoned the platform rather than accept the torrent of abuse being heaped on her. The company suspended the account of Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, who complained that his rights were abridged. The banishment has only bolstered Yiannopoulos’ celebrity among the so-called alt-right, suggesting that simply removing bad actors isn’t enough.
Back to our thought experiment. Donald Trump has bragged about his social media following, which swells with approval as he gets more and more outrageous. He candidacy has arguably been created by and for social media, thriving as it does on provocation and unedited, unchecked assertions. I fantasize that if Facebook and Twitter were unplugged, Trump might flicker momentarily, perhaps register a brief look of panicked recognition, then vanish into the ether. Citizens would tap their phones furiously, then finally look up and see their fellow humans looking back. And they would smile.