How do we find an answer from the left? I don’t know. A further bit of diagnosis may help us along the way, though.
Why do so many people believe such off-the-wall ideas? As Matt reports, false conspiracy theories and “secret scandal” stories spread faster on social media than truth because they are more emotive and more adhesive to “continuous partial attention”.
But why are they then believed enough to motivate people to storm the Capitol? Everyone knows that “I read it on Facebook” carries no more authority than “someone down the pub told me”. And you have to choose the far-right stories on social media, rather than hearing them regardless as you may do in a pub.
The US political scientist Eitan Hersh is a conservative Democrat who criticises most Democrats as too left-wing. But some of his observations are instructive.
Right-wing Republicans in the USA do more in-person politics, “in the gun clubs and the churches”, than the left broadly defined. Much of the rise of the Republican far-right, which has been working through since the late 1970s, happened before the explosion of social media, and through plebeian, grass-roots, in-person politics, or so Thomas Frank’s several books on it indicate.
Maybe since 2008 (the era since the great economic crash, also of explosive social-media expansion, also of smartphone-universalisation) it is still a matter of talk “in the gun clubs and the churches” taking people to social-media stories (which then help to consolidate them ideologically), more than of social media taking them to real-life far-rightism.
In the USA, at least, so Hersh argues, the slippage is more of the left (broadly defined), rather than the far right, relying on social media. And that doesn’t work well, says Hersh, because “online politics is all about provocation and signalling outrage. But changing people’s minds… requires empathy and face-to-face engagement”.
“We used to think more about grassroots organising focused on unions, for example”, adds Hersh, “but unions have collapsed while churches have gotten disproportionately Republican”.
Too many leftists, says Hersh, fool themselves that they’re politically effective when in fact they are “political hobbyists”, part of a froth of “consultant-driven activism”.
They may do a lot of “signing online petitions”, and “many of us think we’re politically active — but in fact, we’re doing little more than signalling who we are to other people” in a fairly small circle.
“It’s not harder to go to a community meeting once a week today than it was 30 years ago, but it feels harder relative to the alternative” (an alternative which now appears “politically active”, which staying home and chatting never did before).
If Hersh has even a bit of the truth, then a big part of the answer to the power of social media on the right may be less reliance on social media by the left.