Here's a framework for understanding how social networking is changing US politics. It's raw, simple and (hopefully) useful.
The political parties and the media aren't the primary actors in the US political system anymore. Increasingly, politics is being waged online by networks. A fight between two powerful and very different online social networks (I gave them names that are both descriptive of how they operate and easy to remember):
- The bad boys (similar to a gang or tribe) network grew in support of Donald Trump. It proved innovative and fast enough to circumvent first the Republican party's and then the media's control of the electoral process. It was decisive to his victory.
- The mean girls (similar to a social clique or ruling aristocracy) network solidified in response to Trump's unexpected victory. Its cohesion and single mindedness neutered the Trump administration even before he took the oath. It's FAR more effective than the Democratic party and the media at exercising political power.
- The battle between these networks is evolving rapidly. For example, when a few small extremist groups from the bad boy network recently attempted to take control of the network through an organized protest in Charlottesville, they were roundly defeated and driven to ground by actions orchestrated by the mean girls network.
Bad Boys vs. Mean Girls
The real differences between these networks can be seen in how they organize themselves and how they fight:
- Bad boys. A loose decentralized network (populist and alt right, etc.). It has one organizing principle: disrupt the status quo. This network fights like an open source insurgency composed of many small groups and individuals acting independently. It disrupts from the shadows. It's opportunistic, disorganized, and aggressive. It misleads, angers, and intimidates. It scores victories by increasing fear, uncertainty, and distrust.
- Mean girls. A tightly interconnected network (blue check Twitter and alt left, etc.). It has one organizing principle: repel the barbarians. This network fights like a ruling clique, albeit vastly larger than we have seen historically due to the scaling effects of social networking. This network openly connects people in authority across every major institution (from education to the media to the government to the tech industry) and leverages it and the politics of identity to establish moral authority. It fights by categorizing, vilifying and shunning enemies. It scores victories by manufacturing consensus.
- Both of these networks have their own moral and emotional framing for the news and events. Members prove their membership, particularly in the mean girls clique, by amplifying and repeating this moral framing when retweeting or commenting on news spread via social networking. Bad boys prove their membership through action i.e. exploiting every weakness by generating outrage, memetic reframing, and relentless trolling.
What this means
These networks have already replaced many of the functions previously accomplished by the political parties. They have also rewired, likely forever, how we consume news. Here's some insight into how they are likely to impact the future:
- We face a paradox. This online war will persist as long as there isn't any meaningful political change, but there can't be meaningful change as long as this war persists. In the meantime, all of the underlying economic and social problems that have hollowed out the US over the last three decades will worsen. Worse, the existential crisis (a crisis that's already killing more Americans than the entire Vietnam war every year) will deepen and the chance of a catastrophic outcomes will spike.
- If we're lucky, these networks will develop ways (apps and tools) to coerce and/or compel elected representatives into specific actions (aka drive change). The parties will either fight this development or embrace it. The party that fights it will be destroyed. The party that embraces it would have the potential to make the changes needed to prevent a wholesale collapse of the republic.
- If we are unlucky, we won't see meaningful change and this existential crisis will drive us into authoritarianism. The form of this authoritarianism depends on which network wins. If the bad boy network dominates, we could see a dictator like Putin (or much worse) climb the ladder of chaos by scapegoating and purging enemies of the state. If the mean girl network gains control, we could see intersectional identity (all identities are in a perpetual struggle for dominance akin to Communist class warfare) mutate into an ideology that violently purges groups of people who become obstacles to progress. In their extreme forms, both of these outcomes could create big piles of bodies. Let's hope we avoid that.