Two huge universes full of people who would like to punch each other in the face

(February, 2016)

Since everyone so long ago unfriended everyone whose politics differs from their own, right now you have millions of passionate Trump devotees–the kind who would not object, he says, if he shot someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue–and millions of passionate supporters of Bernie Sanders, and yet each could scarcely name a handful of people they know personally, I bet, who are supporters of each others candidate. Maybe in real life they could, guys at work, or family members they never agreed with anyway, but on Facebook they see none of each other’s posts, memes, blog articles, and puff pieces. Two huge universes full of people who would like to punch each other in the face if they ever met on Facebook, but they don’t. Instead both are surrounded overwhelmingly by people who feel exactly like they do, who all like the same memes, agree with the same bloggers, believe the same conspiracies. And each side, the Trump people and the Bernie people, is convinced that most people in America, the good people of America, think like they do, and support their candidate. Each sees itself in a revolution, an overwhelming tide of history that will sweep their enemies before them. And each sees a vast media conspiracy to deride their candidate and spread lies because the media is in the hands of the establishment.

As I watch the coverage of the nomination races so far I keep thinking to myself that what the reporters and talking heads are missing is just how much this election has been shaped by Facebook. The media wouldn’t because they don’t spend so much time on Facebook. The read Twitter and news blogs and each other’s writing, they get their information from Nate Silver and a thousand wannabe Nate Silvers. They don’t get it from memes and tendentious blog posts and the first couple sentences from a story on CNN. But that is how most people on Facebook get their news, in bits, blurbs and soundbites. There isn’t time, in the rush of Facebook posts on their iPhone in the elevator, for reading a whole article. They’ll just assume that the friend that posted the link read the article. And I think that is how candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, both populist in their way, both running against “the establishment” and both promising the moon, have taken off like they have this election year. No one has the time to see if the moon is actually promise-able. You just have to take the guy’s word for it. Both Trump and Sanders have been carried aloft by Facebook this way. True, Trump has dominated the media in ways that Sanders can only dream about, but I suspect it is in the social media that the obsessive media focus (MSNBC, CNN and Fox all showing 15 minutes of Trump’s personal jet landing at the Des Moines airport) has been distilled into political allegiance. After all, at first the response to Trump’s boorish speeches and bullshit claims was skepticism and even outright revulsion. Yet after a couple months of his speeches turning into memes, his popularity among Republicans rises. Conservative voters became tolerant of Trumps obnoxious public displays and then, by degrees, have become to enjoy them. Even agree with them. Bernie has had no need of the media, not to Trump’s degree, his movement was pure Internet from its inception. Bernie’s rallies were progressive selfie machines. For every actual media photo of a Bernie event on Facebook there’d be an avalanche of pictures of your Facebook friends looking like kids at a Beatles concert. Bernie’s young followers live their lives online with little time for CNN or MSNBC anyway, and none at all for newspapers. The media was not especially important for Bernie Sanders as it turned out, he carefully managed his contact with them, and his campaign photographers always found a black or Latino or two in the crowd. Bernie’s followers remain convinced the media is out to get him. Every story questioning his platform is obviously a hit piece by the corporate media out to destroy him.

Still, neither candidate, despite the impression their devotees have on Facebook, where everyone’s Facebook friends think politically much the same, is the favorite of the majority of Americans. Trump will sweep inevitably to the nomination, as all his opponents trip clownishly over each other rather than bringing him down, but afterward he will find that most voters in American cannot stand him. And Sanders will not even get the nomination, because he’ll find out that most people voting in the Democratic primaries, even if they like him, don’t want him to be president. Reality will hit the Sanders people first, when Bernie can’t get the delegates he needs and his supporters–young, white and mostly male–will go through all the feelings of betrayal and defeat and failure. It won’t be pretty, but unless you are in that Facebook world, privy to the Bernie people’s dreams, aspirations and occasional paranoia, you’ll scarcely know about it. Facebook is very insular that way. Trump’s people will begin to feel the hopelessness by next October, though perhaps, inside their Facebook echo chamber they will remain convinced, despite the polls and prognostications, that most Americans want Trump. Wednesday, November 9, will be full of betrayal and recrimination, conspiracies and weird threats. Though those of us not inside that Facebook world will get only a glimmer of it, in quotes lifted from somebody’s posts, or in the Donald’s own bitter tweets. It’ll sound like a fight in the apartment next door, or a distant thunder storm, full of violence and anger, sturm and drang, and yet it’ll seem far away, a part of Facebook we’ve not been friended into. Eventually the Christmas season will wash it all away in booze and shopping. A rock star will die, the Facebook grief machine will spark, and suddenly the election will seem far, far away.

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