Political debate on social media

Image: Tracy LeBlanc


Positions on the world can be manipulated if one has the proper knowledge of the ways in which people relate to the world

Certain cultural changes occur not exactly at the explicit level of language, but on the threshold of it, in what is not discussed or cannot be discussed, or what is difficult to see and makes the discussion heavy, boring, without purpose. Some of these changes are what we witness in recent political debates, for example around the elections. Because a political “debate” seems to carry something more today than it did in other times.

Let's see: someone comes on social networks with a meme full of fake news ready to defend certain candidates and to criticize, for example, Lula, accused of numerous pejorative terms, such as “nine-fingers”, “thief” and other things. In general, there are two responses to this: agree or remain silent.

But let's try a third option: answering the meme pointing out, with facts and reasons, that he is a liar. The possible reaction to this is threefold: the first is for the person to undertake a kind of inhibiting silence and remain silent, dissuading the continuation of the conversation. The second is for the person to end the conversation by appealing to an inhibiting respect, that is, to his right to maintain his own opinion even if it is wrong.

The third is to inhibit the other by going on the attack, in two ways: either with attacks ad hominem, or with the typical “internet scream”, the one that just resumes what was said before with words in capital letters, watchwords or stereotypes (it is as if, in the attack option, either the person pointed the finger in the face of the caller to divert attention, or cover your ear and start screaming).

The conversation then ends. And if it does not end, its continuity does not follow the current definition of a “conversation”. It is not important, here, to seek a common point between the interlocutors, to be convinced or to convince the other, to present facts, reasons and arguments. What matters is to speak last. And having spoken last will indicate not a consensus, but a victory.

All of the above show something very clear: there is no trade-off. Either there is pure and simple adhesion of the interlocutor to the theses I defend, or there is a rupture with the other under the modes of silence without acceptance or victory that either attaches the other to my ideas or annihilates him as an interlocutor. There are no reasons given or shared and any and all reasons are reduced to a simple opinion.

These attitudes already existed in general culture and in Brazilian culture in particular. But they did not predominately exist when one intended to cultivate some political-type debate. They already commonly existed in everyday civic spaces such as, for example, football or religion. In these spheres – to use these examples – there is no use of convincing, but of pure and simple adherence. And when adherence is not possible, what happens is a certain negation of the other, although provisional and in delimited and even recreational spaces (as in sports), without the figure of the other being exactly annihilated (except in extreme cases, such as that of the religious persecution or sports fanaticism).

This is because in sport there are rivals and in religion there are believers and non-believers, but such things are temporary and remain restricted in their proper spheres: presumably I accept the existence of the rival - for it is a rival only in sport - and also that of the other believer - who is different from me only in the sphere of religion.

But these artifices were transplanted into politics. And if sport aims at victory over rivals and religion aims at my belief over others, politics has become a field in which rivalries or beliefs no longer apply to delimited spaces, civic or recreational, but to the very existence of people and their lifestyle. Rivals must be silenced, cancelled, put out of the loop, and there can only be room for those who have a belief like mine (there is no longer, strictly speaking, even discussions about party proposals, because even having their own tenor of dogmatism, at least were discussions).

This operation has real costs. Transforming contact with the other into a space of adherence or annihilation in politics means putting an end to politics at its core, as there ends any pretense of a democratic debate or anything that resembles it. At the level of language itself and its everyday use, anything that resembles a democracy ceases to be democracy, that is, it ceases to contain the basic ingredients (even in theory) of isonomy and isegoria, of the free and equal use of speech and search for a common environment. Every principle of community is replaced by the particular, and it is not by chance that party politics have also given way in recent years to particularist lobbies such as those of the “Bala-Boi-Bíblia” (or, more recently, of gun owners).

But this passage of elements of belief and rivalry, encouraged by an existential particularism, does not occur by chance and is accompanied by computer technology, that is, the use of cell phones and social networks. And that means fast communication, the use of keyboards, the horror of reading argumentative texts and the exploration of the language of the meme. In social networks, contact with the other boils down to follows e likes, that is, once again to the simple adhesion and agreement of the other, or on the contrary, to the blocks, to the banishment and “cancellation” of the other as my interlocutor. Everything reduces the other and his information to “my” simple pleasure, with no possible negotiation. What is rational, argumentative, worthy of exposure and consideration loses its place on social networks, as their platforms are made for immediate exchanges.

However, in addition to rivalry and belief relations having been transferred to politics, and in addition to politics finding a very short space of expression in social networks, people have also changed their behavior towards social networks: they serve less and less as a complementary communication tool and increasingly as a paradigm of everyday communication (as WhatsApp says).

Ten or twenty years of social networks and the like have not only changed habits, but formed people, and people who express themselves in the world and vote, even if created on cellphone and tablet screens and under likes e follows. It is common ground in Psychology that this does not concern the simple use that human intelligence makes of certain instruments, since intelligence is also conditioned and formed by the instruments it uses.

It is under factors such as those described above that the political discussions of 2022 seem to carry something more than they always say. They are not just about choosing Bolosnaro or Lula, or about sweet and peaceful “uncles” who suddenly became rabid consumers of WhatsApp and from occasional robots to trial flasks in micro-segmentation strategies. There is a question of language and worldview that implies ways of relating to the other and, consequently, also political choices.

There is already abundant literature about this, and I quote only the book The Chaos Engineers, by Giuliano Da Empoli, when he demonstrates that there are very successful campaigns on social networks to guide public opinion. A striking example contained in the book is the micro-targeting strategies employed to get people both pro- and anti-hunting to vote in favor of hunting. Brexit. Having in hand databases of millions of behaviors in social networks, it was possible for the marketers of Cambridge Analytica advise pro-hunting people to vote for the Brexit due to the existence of European Union countries opposed to hunting. As for those opposed to hunting, marketers only employed the opposite strategy, showing advertising and content linked to countries favorable to hunting. What does this example show? What positions on the world can be manipulated if you have the proper knowledge of the ways in which people relate to the world, sometimes regardless of the actual content of their beliefs or the facts themselves.

Here is the crux: we no longer behave politically as we did a few years ago. We are even more particularistic and sectarian, and more capable of maintaining relations of simple adherence or rivalry with others, rejecting everything that concerns disagreement and difference. Terms like “cancel someone” are everyday and color not only memes and watchwords, but also effective relationships. Verbal violence on social networks is increasingly translated into physical violence, since words are actions like any other. We distance ourselves more and more from others and from a common sphere, not only in terms of the contents of what we talk about, but in terms of the very ways of saying it.

The politician who knows how to use our new – let's say – “pre-dispositions”, making them the object of micro-segmentation strategies based on social networks, will always have an advantage – in this case, an advantage that always undermines the very principles of democracy.

*Marcio Luiz Miotto Professor of Psychology at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF).


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