Nicholas Carr has an article up in Politico Magazine, titled "How Social Media is Ruining Politics." The article is deeply flawed, because Carr seems completely unaware of how Politico and news organizations like it have been damaging our political discourse long before the rise of social media. Almost every point he makes about social media is undercut by this lack of awareness. Not to get too "No, YOU are!", but if Carr, or more appropriately Politico, wants to know who is ruining politics, they should try looking in a mirror.
Carr makes two very large mistakes. The first is that he focuses entirely on presidential level, completely ignoring the role social media plays in local politics. The second and more problematic mistake is that he mistakes what politics actually is. Carr focuses entirely on campaigns, when politics is also policy, governance, compromise, legislation, votes, and basically everything else those elected to our government do. Carr's elision of this rather important aspect (you know, the actual substantive part of politics) tells you all you need to know about his point. But we're going to explore it anyway:
Carr opens by listing the ways in which this cycle's crop of presidential candidates are using social media. "Ted Cruz live-streams his appearances on Periscope. Marco Rubio broadcasts 'Snapchat Stories' at stops along the trail. Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush spar over student debt on Twitter. Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham produce goofy YouTube videos."
Someone else reading this might just think, "hey, candidates are using new media to connect with voters," but for Carr, this is a sign of how things have changed for the worse. To Carr, social media has turned candidates into perpetual motion machines who have to constantly put out new bites of media in order to satisfy a world where things have been chopped into such little bits that it is impossible for a candidate to be a "coherent figure."
But it is Carr's points that are often rather incoherent. He complains about the effect that social media has on candidates, but he also criticizes Bush and Clinton at length for having "anodyne" social media campaigns. It's more than a little iffy to complain about how someone is doing something when you think it is kind of wrong that they're doing it in the first place. It's too much like the old "The food here is terrible! And such small portions!" joke to be taken seriously as a point. It could be easily dismissed, except for the fact that this passage illustrates just why sites like Politico are more damaging to political discourse than social media could ever be.
Politico is part and parcel of the problem of news organizations covering politics not as actual news, but as a process. It is easier and more profitable for the news to report on the superficial aspects of politics, who is "on the attack," who is "controlling the narrative," who "won the day," than it is to dig into actual policy that might effect actual people, so that is what news organizations now do. It is politics as perception rather than substance.
Long before even the rise of the internet, CNN created the insufferable 24-hour news cycle, requiring the hype of enough news to fill up a full day of empty airtime. Fox News and MSNBC were feeding their partisan audiences what they wanted to hear years before Facebook was invented. Take a look at the front page of Politico, and you will find an endless supply of stories covering the presidential horse-race, the personalities of candidates, the backroom strategizing, but little to nothing of what policies and choices politicians make that might actually effect people's day-to-day lives.
Carr has something of a point in that certain personalities fit well into certain media ages; how FDR's fireside chats were perfect for the age of radio, how JFK's affable handsomeness fit the TV age, how Donald Trump's incredible awfulness works in the unmediated age of social. But this only undercuts Carr's thesis. The advent of new media has been changing politics for decades. Blaming social media for changing electoral politics is a bit like getting mad about how the seasons are changing. It was going to happen no matter what.
The responsibility for the state of our politics in America is two-fold. Part of it is the audience. We, as the American political constituency, often choose what we agree with over what challenges us. That is a point Carr makes that I agree with, but it is also one of the easiest points to make. But this is also a two way street, and those in the media are not blameless. If we have candidates that lack substance, maybe it's because those covering the candidates should be more substantive.