Social media in the age of Trump presents us with two opposite dangers: a quantum increase in our political anxiety, and a gradual numbing of our political attention.
The paranoia problem seems clear. The greatest aggravation from our Facebook feeds used to be the unwanted pictures of faux reunions with high school frenemies-turned-mommy-experts, and the constant parenting humble-bragging. Now the dark side of Facebook and so many other online communities is the relentless diet of online rage and political panic.
Every re-post is a new call to arms, a new case for upheaval, a moment of mutiny. Calls for revolution are ubiquitous, and, like the stages of grief, usually followed by the predictable distressed updates and “live” broadcasts of angry, sign-wielding crowds. Again. And again. And again. Social media has become like a 911 call center—and the calls never stop coming in.
One recent story described the new anxiety:
“Consider how your relationship with social media’s changed since President Donald Trump took office. It’s no doubt helped you stay on top of each day’s fresh horror unleashed by the guy elected to lead our free world, like the Muslim ban railroaded into place by executive order at the end of last week. Maybe it’s helped you join—or even organize—some protests.
But social media’s likely put you on edge, too. Depending on who you’re friends with, the Facebook of today may feel less like a comforting place to stay in touch, and more like a triage unit, where everyone shouts their fears, frustrations, and arguments into the abyss. Or your face.”
No doubt our top leaders can act in ways to ensure they have “overloaded our circuits” so “nothing feels stable.” No doubt America’s army of therapists will soon be called in to treat our nation’s latest ailment: Trump Social Media Syndrome. The question is: If this new form of political paranoia is a sickness, what is the cure?
Abstinence is one idea: just stop using Facebook at all. Turn it off. Diversifying your news feeds is another: moderate the anxiety by at least clicking on a few stories that present a different view of the world and a different perspective on how to address the real challenges we face as a nation.
During a panel discussion about whether the media is at “war” with the new president, hosted recently by New York University, CNN’s Brian Stelter questioned whether people are “awash…in noise.” When the program turned to audience questions, a woman stood up and identified herself as a “member of the totally hysterical crowd.”
Can people live like this long term? And why would anyone want to? For some people, the only way to counter the social media pressure cooker will be to fall into a kind of political numbness. At some point, even some of the natural-born hysterics may get protest feed fatigue. If the world is always ending—and yet life goes on—then nothing is ever serious enough to shock us into real political action. Especially when we are at home staring at our phones.
Long before Trump, John Steinbeck, in his masterful book, The Pearl, wrote about the pace of information dissemination within a town. Before media theorist Marshall McLuhan was talking about how the medium shapes the message, Steinbeck wrote:
“A town has a nervous system and a head and shoulders and feet. A town is a thing separate from all other towns, so that there are no two towns alike. A town has a whole emotion. How news travels through a town is a mystery not easily to be solved. News seems to move faster than small boys can scramble and dart to tell it, faster than women can call over fences . . . The news swept on past the brush houses . . .
The news came to the shopkeepers . . . The news came to the doctor . . . The news came early to the beggars in the church . . . The news stirred up something infinitely black and evil in the town; the black distillate was like the scorpion, or like hunger in the smell of food, or like loneliness when love is withheld . . . and the town swelled and puffed with the pressure of it.”
We will never slow the movement of information back to the pace of those scrambling boys, because even those young boys now have iPhones and Androids. But we can choose how much and how often we let the constant barrage of information take hold of us. We can learn to resist the dangers of unjustified hysteria, and we can learn to resist the danger of becoming numb to real and present threats to our democracy.
Perhaps we would do better to listen more to our children, or to the grocery checkout clerk, to our doctors and bus drivers. In other words, if you’re looking for a cure for Trump Social Media Syndrome, it’s this: Spend more time talking to real people in the real world and less time arguing with their Twitter or Facebook avatars.