Facebook is a great virtual space where friends and families meet and trade photos and videos, share fond memories, tell stories about their last vacation and launch interminable political squabbles that end with brutal rounds of “unfriending.” This exceptionally nutty political year seems to have exacerbated all the worst aspects of the digital forum’s variant of “dialogue.”
In the early summer Sandersnistas and Hillaryists crowded my Facebook page with digital scolding that managed to aggravate just about everybody. That finger-pointing and wagging has been Trumped since the end of the Democratic convention by the terminal conflict between Mrs. Clinton and the Donald’s dead-ender apologists.
Social media has been described as a political “game changer” in the 2016 election cycle, alleged to introduce innovative iSpaces for candidates and potential voters to interact. Indeed, there is some evidence of a positive impact on voting this cycle. The Journal of Communication reports that when people used Facebook to remind friends about voter registration deadlines, the resulting turnout increased between 15 percent and 24 percent. According to Reuters, a Facebook reminder contributed to a surge of nearly 650,000 new voter registrations in California alone.
Despite the innovative technology, a lot of what I see in the digital town square is the same political vitriol and lunacy we’ve experienced in the past, now merely accelerated to light speed. As the election grinds on (good grief, for three more months?!) the ad hominem attacks and condescension-drenched commentary continue apace on the Facebook feeds of millions of Americans who had appeared more or less sane before this presidential race began. Where are those adorable and emotionally soothing piano-playing kittens of yesterweek, my fellow Americans? Have we forgotten how cute puppies jumping on babies are?
The thousands of political “discussions” hosted on Facebook feeds have been great for the company’s numbers, and Facebook has found an exceptionally lucrative new revenue stream in political ad sales and services. Facebook reports that in July 42 million U.S. users generated 406 million “likes, posts, comments and shares” related to Donald Trump, and 33 million fellow U.S. Facebookers generated 313 million of the same for Hillary Clinton.
Still, I find myself wondering if all the vilification and unpleasantness gathering on its pages will ultimately work against the social media giant’s long-term popularity. Facebook never really captured the under-30 crowd—the young folk prefer the textual disappearing act of Snapchat or Instagram’s enthusiasm for duck lips—and all the political infighting could exhaust its aged, if coveted demographic. How many are already suffering from dramatic-posts stress disorder after one too many exchanges with former friends and newly estranged relatives?
Why do we keep at it? A lot of us are simply addicted to Facebook. Seriously. Four out of five neuroscientists will tell you that social media addiction is an actual thing that I did not just make up for this column. The “rightness rush” you experience just after that perfect rebuttal is not imaginary. Facebook lights up the same neuroreceptors in your brain that are energized by old-school dopamine triggers like nicotine or opium. Will a Joe the Camel-style scandal or a social media 12-step program threaten Facebook’s future?
Beyond friendship-scorching debate this year, Facebook has also become the internet’s latest conspiracy warehouse. Cyberspace, of course, has long been a hatchery for America’s paranoid stylists, a Bughouse Square for the outing of “false flag” operations like the Boston Marathon bombing and just about any mass shooting event. But fact-challenged conspiracy-mongering has reached new heights on Facebook as the candidates head into the final turn.
One acquaintance of an acquaintance found her way to the top of my feed recently with a post about a series of mysterious deaths that are, with varying degrees of difficulty, being associated with Hillary and the D.N.C. “You can’t make this stuff up,” she finally wrote in amazement at the vast, unprovable and completely nonsensical murder conspiracy she was propagating.
“Yes, you can,” I wanted to counterpost. “You can indeed make this stuff up; you just did!”
You may notice that I wrote “wanted to counterpost.” I did not, in fact, post that witty retort to her feed.
I’ve already got 17 other timeline arguments with near-strangers to feed and care for. A fella has to know his limits.