Open your streaming information amalgamator of choice – Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Apple News – and you’ll see new posts and stories ever rising to the top of the list, not because they’re of greater impact of importance, but because they’re the most recent. This is reverse chronological order and all it cares about is the next thing. In the article Social media is keeping us stuck in the moment, Clive Thompson makes the argument that the use of reverse chronological social media feeds can push information out of sight too quickly by constantly refreshing the feed to the newest tweet, post or article.
History recedes in a flash. What happened last minute is immediately pushed away, as is last hour, and the last day. It makes it awfully hard to examine the past, even the quite recent past.(Thompson, 2017)
This morning I was scrolling through my facebook newsfeed – a newly acquired habit that I am not very proud of. I left facebook in 2016 in the midst of the election turmoil. Since the start of the pandemic, I have dipped my toe back into facebook though on a much smaller scale. I rarely scroll through the feed. But I do find myself idly browsing the news section, taking in headlines which are basically the same every day – EVERYTHING IN THE WORLD IS LITERALLY AND FIGURATIVELY ON FIRE. Once in a while I will stop to read an article.
Today’s article was about Donald Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power in November. One more bizarre, self-serving, vaguely terrifying comment by our Commander-in-Chief. And I scrolled on, not feeling much but a numbed sense of anxiety that is always with me now, willing to toss this bit of information with all the rest in the deep black hole of what has already happened.
We are living in a reverse chron presidency. I have grown so accustomed to our political leadership making bizarre, self-serving, vaguely terrifying comments, and the media sucking them up and blasting them into our brains through shrieking blond television personalities or bloated red faced men pounding on desks, that they rarely actually penetrate the emotional wall I have erected to keep me safe from an unreliable and partisan mass media. Each horrible thing that is said and obsessed over by the news media is then replaced by the next horrible thing.
In the article The Dark Psychology of Social Networks, Jonathan Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell describe the behavior of moral grandstanding or the use of moral talk for self-promotion. “Like a succession of orators speaking to a skeptical audience, each person strives to outdo previous speakers.” There is a reason that suggesting someone is “on a soapbox” is generally perceived as negative – people don’t like to be preached at when they’re not expecting it. If you were walking down the street and someone was standing on a corner shouting about almost anything – climate change, saving the turtles, the evils of Walmart or the impending return of Christ – you would likely hurry past. Yet online and on our television screens, we allow these moral grandstanders to use emotional displays and public shaming to grab our attention. Instead of allowing cooler heads to prevail, we let passion and fury to guide our content consumption and, ultimately, our political and social ideologies.
If you constantly express anger in your private conversations, your friends will likely find you tiresome, but when there’s an audience, the payoffs are different – outrage can boost your status.(Haidt & Rose-Stockwell, 2019)
Haidt and Rose-Stockwell present that using emotional language can boost tweet virality by 20% on average, but social media and its focus on moral grandstanding is only the next step in a long march toward what Harold Innis described as present-mindedness or “an obsession with the immediate.” (Thompson, 2017)
Since the inception of our country, the Founders fears of mob rule have encroached on the failsafes built into the Constitution: from the rise of mass political parties beginning in the 1820s with the Democratic Party versus the Federalist Party, to the polarization of the media, to the popularization of the Executive Order. (Rosen, 2018)
During the election of 1912, the progressive populists Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson insisted that the president derived his authority directly from the people. Since then, the office has moved in precisely the direction the Founders had hoped to avoid: Presidents now make emotional appeals, communicate directly with voters, and pander to the mob.(Rosen, 2018)
So while the widespread and immediate dissemination of populist rhetoric may be a hallmark of our ever-Tweeting President, the push away from James Madison’s vision of a republic governed by reason over passion has been in the works for many generations.
No president in the history of our country has ever refused to leave office peacefully. Trump’s threat may very well lead us down a road that we have no map to follow. Or, more likely, his statement was just another bizarre, self-serving, vaguely terrifying group of ill-considered words that tumbled out of the bizarre, vaguely terrifying mouth of a narcissist. Fifty more narcissists will comment on this statement in various news outlets and then a million frothing, enraged Americans will take to social media to comment further still. And then in a few hours, or a few days, the next thing will come along, and this salacious story, too, will fall victim to our obsession with the present.
Rosen, J. (2018, September 12). James Madison’s Mob-Rule Fears Have Been Realized. The Atlantic; The Atlantic.
Original Painting is “Young Decadent” by Ramón Casas, 1899. Edits by me.