The National  Memo Logo

Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

With folks yapping all day on social media — Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and the rest — how can there be such a thing as a “spiral of silence” online?

Easy. Just make the experience of online political debate so disjointed, impersonal and unpleasant that people shut themselves up. Or they hide out in groupings where everyone says much the same thing. In that case, what they’re doing is cheerleading, not debating.

The “spiral of silence” is a theory that people hesitate to say things they believe others in their group won’t agree with. It predates the Internet age.

Let me add that the “spiral of silence” disproportionately affects the shy, the thoughtful and the female.

Social media were supposed to free these cooped-up opinions by offering new venues for speaking one’s piece. But this high-minded promise of a vast online town hall for pensive argument has fallen flat, according to a new report by Pew Research Center and Rutgers University.

If anything, people seem less willing to engage in real back-and-forth about public affairs on websites than they are in old-fashioned personal settings, the researchers found.

We’re talking about politics here, not hiking trips, kitchen renovations and dog adoptions. And the politics we’re talking about is not a rally for Sen. Foghorn — the sort of thing that works well online — but a real hashing out of political differences.

To find out how the public ranks social media as a place for political debate, the researchers asked questions about Edward Snowden’s leaks of the National Security Agency’s operations. They used this issue because polls found the public fairly divided on the subject.

Only 16 percent of respondents who use Facebook said they’d discuss it there. And only 14 percent of those on Twitter said they’d talk about it on Twitter.

But 40 percent said they’d be willing to debate the matter at a family dinner table and 32 percent at a restaurant with friends.

Why aren’t we doing more political interchange online? For starters, the Web fragments us into bands of the like-minded. People with minority views can huddle with others holding the same views, making them feel safer, part of a majority.

Further, online interaction is notoriously devoid of restraints on anti-social behavior — doubly so when creeps hide behind fake identities or go anonymous. Not everyone can laugh at “You are an idiot.” And for the vulnerable, squads of lowlife trolls can multiply the hurt.

Here’s another possible reason for social media’s poor showing as a stage for political debate. How can anyone engage in a serious discussion on Facebook with videos of goats nuzzling monkeys cluttering the feeds, alongside pix of weddings and kayaks?

As for Twitter, how can anything more complicated than the temperature in Chicago be discussed in 140 characters or fewer? What passes on Twitter for political debate is often a battle of links. People offer a link to a longer article or post and then add only a handful of their own words, such as “I agree” or “This guy is right” or “You’re wrong, read this.”

According to the Pew-Rutgers report, people weren’t even using social media for basic information about the Snowden-NSA conflict. Almost 60 percent said that television/radio was one of their sources. Some 34 percent said they used online sources other than social media — mainly the sites of mainstream news organizations, I bet. Only 15 percent sought knowledge on the issue through Facebook, and a mere 3 percent used Twitter.

It all sounds paradoxical, but here we have it: Noise only increases the silence on things that matter to our society.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

AFP Photo/Nicholas Kamm

Want more political news and analysis? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

Advertising

Start your day with National Memo Newsletter

Know first.

The opinions that matter. Delivered to your inbox every morning

Eric Holder

The failure of major federal voting rights legislation in the Senate has left civil rights advocates saying they are determined to keep fighting—including by suing in battleground states. But the little bipartisan consensus that exists on election reform would, at best, lead to much narrower legislation that is unlikely to address state-level GOP efforts now targeting Democratic blocs.

“This is the loss of a battle, but it is not necessarily the loss of a war, and this war will go on,” Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general and Democrat, told MSNBC, saying that he and the Democratic Party will be suing in states where state constitutions protect voting rights. “This fight for voting rights and voter protection and for our democracy will continue.”

“The stakes are too important to give up now,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which for years has operated an Election Day hotline to help people vote. “Our country cannot claim to be free while allowing states to legislate away that freedom at will.”

In recent weeks, as it became clear that the Senate was not going to change its rules to allow the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to pass with a simple majority, there have been efforts by some lawmakers, election policy experts, and civil rights advocates to identify what election reforms could pass the Senate.

“There are several areas… where I think there could be bipartisan consensus,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, in a briefing on January 20. “These areas are all around those guardrails of democracy. They are all about ensuring that however the voters speak that their voice is heard… and cannot be subverted by anyone in the post-election process.”

Becker cited updating the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which addressed the process where state-based slates of presidential electors are accepted by Congress. (In recent weeks, new evidence has surfaced showing that Donald Trump’s supporters tried to present Congress with forged certificates as part of an effort to disrupt ratifying the results on January 6, 2021.) Updating that law could also include clarifying which state officials have final authority in elections and setting out clear timetables for challenging election results in federal court after Election Day.

Five centrist Washington-based think tanks issued a report on January 20, Prioritizing Achievable Federal Election Reform, which suggested federal legislation could codify practices now used by nearly three-quarters of the states. Those include requiring voters to present ID, offering at least a week of early voting, allowing all voters to request a mailed-out ballot, and allowing states to start processing returned absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

But the report, which heavily drew on a task force of 29 state and local election officials from 20 states convened by Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center, was notable in what it did not include, such as restoring the major enforcement section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was removed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. It did not mention the Electoral Count Act nor growing threats to election officials from Trump supporters.

“This won’t satisfy all supporters of the Freedom to Vote Act, but this is a plausible & serious package of reforms to make elections more accessible and secure that could attract bipartisan support,” tweeted Charles Stewart III, a political scientist and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. “A good starting point.”

The reason the centrist recommendations won’t satisfy civil rights advocates is that many of the most troubling developments since the 2020 election would likely remain.

Targeting Battleground States

Keep reading... Show less

Former president Donald Trump

By Rami Ayyub and Alexandra Ulmer

(Reuters) -The prosecutor for Georgia's biggest county on Thursday requested a special grand jury with subpoena power to aid her investigation into then-President Donald Trump's efforts to influence the U.S. state's 2020 election results.

Keep reading... Show less
x
{{ post.roar_specific_data.api_data.analytics }}