Congratulations, we’ve nearly survived the first social media presidential campaign. Only two more days and we can move from the sturm und drang of this campaign to picking up the pieces and returning to normal life – or can we? I’m afraid that the current climate may very well be the new “normal.”
We’ve heard it over and over from the pundits: this has been a campaign unlike any other: the historic possibilities of the first woman president, the challenger who refuses to follow “normal” campaign strategy. The active interjections – some would say meddling – into the campaign of third parties: Russia, Wikileaks, comedy shows, the FBI…and us. We the People. Because of social media, this campaign has marked the first time that everyone with a social media account has acted as a campaign surrogate. Boy have we! And that has brought a mixed bag of results.
Unlike political professionals, who sling mud and insults, then climb out of the muck and go have dinner with their opponents before moving on to the next campaign, the same can’t be said for the average Facebook user. The professionals have always treated things said during campaigns as the cost of doing business, rarely taking it personally. A thick skin is mandatory in this business. But for the average citizen, it’s personal – very personal. Political beliefs, like religion, speak to the very core of who we are – they are part of our identity. To have someone question our political beliefs for many of us is to have our very being questioned. Is it any surprise when we react badly? And when partisan followers of one candidate slams the other, we feel personally attacked and respond accordingly. Just as an example, I observed passionate Bernie Sanders supporters posting insulting comments about Hillary Clinton supporters throughout the primaries, and for several weeks thereafter, and then wondering why Sanders couldn’t failed to attract more voters. Even more telling was seeing the various crowdsourcing fundraising appeals to enable Sanders supporters to pay for their trip to the convention, and hearing the offline reactions. “First you insult us, then you want us pay for your trip so you can insult us and our preferred candidate again? No freaking way!” What’s wrong with this picture?
We’ve moved from avoiding discussing politics and religion to “all politics, all the time” mixed with a plethora of websites all across the political spectrum spouting nutty conspiracy theories and flat out lies and a growing inability to restrain ourselves when faced with a keyboard and a social media channel. “Obama just committed treason on live TV!” shrieked a meme I saw this morning. “The FBI is going to arrest him!” Yeah, and I’ve got a bridge for sale in Brooklyn, too. The loony tunes on both sides are setting the discourse.
Consider the following: the presidential debates broke 60 year records for viewership. Over 84 million people watched the debates at home. Many, many more watched online, and at watch parties – let me say it again: debate watch parties. Compare that to the 115 million that watch February’s Super Bowl between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers. Politics has moved into the realm of interactive sport, and it’s become winner-take-all in ways we haven’t imagined and aren’t prepared for.
All you have to do is look at the average person’s timeline on Facebook. The currency of social media is humor, cute animal videos, and snark. Success in social media is measured in reach – the number of times your post is shared by others. Going “viral” is the ultimate success, and the fastest way to achieve that is to be funny, shocking or angry: emotions that rouse people to respond. This election has seen too many of us resort to memes and posts designed simply to rouse emotions in others. We’re essentially shouting at each other without listening, because listening doesn’t generate retweets. And as this campaign season has progressed, as we have grown immune to traditional campaign tactics, the posts and memes have grown more extreme out of the need to gain traction in the social media race.
The barbs and insults are real, as are the consequences: Broken friendships, lack of trust in those who support the candidate we don’t, the stress and flat out meanness engaged in by people in person and online. We as a society, as people, have been permanently changed, not for the better. This election “has unleashed negativity and somehow given license to be mean and hateful” according to Michigan State University Assistant Professor of Psychiatry Farha Abbasi, in a recent article for Bloomberg News. None of the political groups can understand how the others can possibly be sane and still think their candidate is anywhere close to being fit for the presidency, and therefore believe that the country is doomed if the opposing candidate wins.
All this participation may be good for ratings and drive revenue for the news organizations, and historians and social scientists will have enough material to keep them busy for decades, but the rest of us have to deal with the fallout. Teachers have been reporting on something they call the “Trump effect,” with students’ behavior mirroring the behavior of adults at large. Fear, anxiety, hostility and outright bullying with taunts of “terrorist” and “Isis” in elementary and high schools. It isn’t much better among the adults. Protests, beatings, vandalism, harassment and name-calling have become commonplace. We’ve seen firebombs of campaign offices and politically motivated arson at black churches. Trump’s new Washington DC was also hit with spray painted slurs. This country’s most famous politically opposed siblings Dallas and Brad Woodhouse, who are famous for debating the issues in joint appearances on TV, even stopped speaking to each other for a period of weeks this summer. So far, America’s most famous mixed-marriage is still intact, that of Democratic strategist and Clinton surrogate James Carville and former George H.W. Bush campaign director (and now registered Libertarian) Mary Matalin.
Mental health professionals predict feelings of alienation from whichever side loses on November 8th. The emotions that have been stirred up aren’t going to go away quickly, if they ever do. And on November 9th, a large chunk of the population is going to have to decide how to live with people they’ve spent the last several months insulting.
 election cycle has unleashed negativity and somehow given license to be mean and hateful
 CBS Sunday Morning, aired November 6, 2016.