What if we’d had social media when the Kennedys, and King were assassinated and on 9/11? What is the effect of this, as well as of the internet, on our times? The effects of the internet are treated Sunday in a New York Times book review of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr.
Dan Gillmore in Salon writes on what would have happened had social media in its present state been available at the Kennedy assassination (at which the Zapruder film was the only visual record) and on 9/11, when victims were using cell phones to speak to loved ones. (Gilmore also offers a link to his old blog, which I commend to you, that treats some of these matters at greater length.)
http://www.salon.com/technology/dan_gillmor/2010/06/05/social_media_and_september_11 (I’m a little confused about how permalinks work at Salon.com. I hope this works for you.)
These three items and Gilmore’s question about whether or not the presence of social media at these historic events would have increased the “blood lust” felt by Americans really clicked for me. (Others probably had this epiphany before me but one must cope with epiphanies when they come and for me it was 06/06/2010.)
Is the “blood lust” that I think Gillmore correctly identifies as one of the strongest immediate emotions Americans (and many others) felt reflected in our current political environment? We didn’t know who was responsible for the tragedies he discusses but we knew they were tragic and unmerited. Whoever did it was clearly “not our kind,” out of synch with what “we” believe (about something, but “we” didn’t know what at the time, “we” just knew that it was not how “we” do things), deserving of the harshest treatment possible, lawful if that was harsh enough but beyond the law if it was not–this was “outlaw” behavior.
Currently we read, and many feel, a similar sense of undifferentiated anger about our current circumstances and we have social media and the internet available to connect to those of like-mind. The government seems to many or most to be responsible for our situation. (It may be worth noting that there is no “mirror” on either social media or the internet; the aphoristic injunction to look first to ourselves finds no place in either.) Government is big and cumbersome. Its continent-spanning solutions don’t always (some would say “often”) work locally and locally is where people live. If BP, the fifth largest oil company, seems ill-equipped to stop the Gulf spill after building and maintaining the well until the explosion, one has to wonder whether and where the much larger government will find the means to plug it. Yet BP can’t be allowed to say “trust us” since it appears we have been doing that for some time and the results aren’t great. This situation and others seems to force a choice between “bad” and “worse.”
But my question is, to what extent are the flames of political anger stoked through social media and the internet? In the course of a day someone actively tweeting and blogging about the spill, to focus on only one of a plethora of things people are angry about including joblessness, bailouts, legislative paralysis, health care, Social Security, foreclosure, Wall Street executive pay, immigration, the wars, etc., is the anger and blood lust kept alive? Note that at the very moment of the tragic event, there is a “we-they” divide before “we” can identify “they”. How does this affect our polarized politics? (I’ve deliberately left out racism, partisanship, religion and more as I want to consider the issues that are seen as legitimate for public concern, not because I don’t think these sometimes play a part.)
It isn’t news that angry people can’t be reasoned with easily but it may be news that the phase that usually follows unreasoned anger yields a cold calm to permit discussion and acceptable, if not necessarily optimal, problem-solving, may never arrive if the fires of unreason are stoked minute by minute. Is this, or its effects at one or two degrees from the actual social media stimuli, what makes a Tea Party and keeps it running without a coherent organization? Does unremitting stimuli make it, despite similarities with the Republican Party, willing to take on Republicans for nominations as well as incumbents generally? Is there a continuous stimulus here to “rewind” current and recent past events until these outrageous situations are no longer facing us so that we can move forward in a different way, avoiding them? Well…?
If the answer to these questions is “yes,” as my first thoughts suggest it is, then we can look forward to a new Republican Party, more angry and uncompromising than the present one (How about that!) in the new Congress, especially in the House but increasingly in the Senate. New Republicans in both houses will be angry and old Republicans will feel pressure to “anger up.” Members of congress will have to stimulate their followers constantly to maintain support/anger (look for lots of money spent on social media by congress and the springing up of “good government” websites to monitor members time devoted to making videos, approving tweets, Facebook posts and the number of people employed to keep all this going). Governing will be next to impossible, given the number of things already uncovered as worthy of anger. The Democrats will feel some of this angering internally too. Proposals for more than the minimal requirements of government operations will be “hollered over” endlessly. Under the surface, reasonable people in both parties will struggle to make things work.
Let’s get down to it: if the Democrats and Obama don’t rally their troops (These should be the same troops but if you’ve noticed, once a president is in he presumes upon the support of his party across the spectrum. Bush did, Obama does and they aren’t the only examples.), whatever the 2010 election holds for them, 2012 is likely to be the end of the Obama administration and of Democratic strength in Congress. The Democratic Left, of which I would consider myself a member if Obama’s actions define the center, must abandon “anger” and become the wind in his sails if he is to be re-elected. That is more true than ever as the current Congress contains “Blue Dog” Democrats whose hold on office probably depends on embracing anger and in 2012 the total number of senators who have had to face the anger syndrome will be two-thirds of the whole.
Is all of what I’ve speculated a matter of social media stimulated and sustained “blood lust?” No, but I think it changes the game significantly. The speed of our communications along with the freedom we enjoy to express ourselves make it easy to fan flames that would have burned down to embers only a few years ago. Since I don’t believe in “rewinds” and I think the freedom is the point of our civil society, I intend to ride the mustang until it throws me, I tame it or we learn how to work together.