The failure of Europe to produce a Twitter or a Snapchat is close to my heart. I don’t think I’ve posted any post to Instagram or Facebook yet. I found the last of these companies creamy and megalomaniac when it was still linked to the rise of Barack Obama, not that of Donald Trump. The value of such outlets for the brutally ruled world stops me – correct – by wishing them their departure.
It is therefore without tenderness that I wince to hear an American president claim that he “kills people”. Taste matters: Half the goal of Joe Biden, who has used the expression twice, is to empty public life of its vitriol. The truth matters even more. The idea that social media is the source of vaccine avoidance evokes the hype caused by the bots-Brexit of yesteryear. It is not only difficult to stand up. It suggests a political class in gleeful possession of a villain for all seasons.
Without a doubt, great torrents of cant and quackery run through Facebook. But so are the facts about vaccine effectiveness and the locations of dispensers that might otherwise escape millions of users. To an almost unique degree on a matter of public policy, the site takes an unambiguous pro-vaccine line. The premise that the bad and the good resolve here in favor of the bad is quite a leap forward. A character less esteemed than the president could have been invited to uphold the complaint.
With strange if not absolute consistency, the least vaccinated states vote Republican. This is less true for users of social networks. Democrats are slightly more likely than Republicans to be on Facebook, according to the non-partisan Pew Research Center. On Twitter, Reddit, and WhatsApp, the tilt to the left is wider. Facebook is more popular among graduates than non-graduates, as is vaccines. By itself, none of this disproves Biden. But it raises the opposite claim: that usage rates could be worse without social media as a source of comfort for the Liberals.
The global context no longer helps the president’s case. Many middle-to-wealthy countries have woefully low vaccination rates for reasons that include entrenched mistrust of the government (Russia), recklessness born out of a mild pandemic (South Korea) and both (Hong Kong). Beside these fundamentals, social media seem less than decisive. New Zealand, whose leader received some sort of secular beatification last year, has only fully vaccinated 12% of its population. The United States, Facebook’s home market, managed almost half of it.
What remains is social media as a number for an issue more difficult to discuss. It is human credulity: the demand for nonsense, not the supply of it. Anyone who is inclined to be suspicious of a vaccine or election result will seek out or overstate corroborating news. If Facebook provides it, talk about it on radio, cable TV, and word of mouth as well. At some point, the instrument of disinformation becomes less disturbing than the receptivity underlying it.
A large minority of American voters are more or less limitless in their cynicism. Once a Democrat-led federal government hit the drum for vaccination, their dissent was assured. But because it is elitist to say it, the recourse is to blame a corrupting influence.
The result is this weird tic in which social media users are discussed as if they are passive victims of demonic possession. The implication that they would be model citizens without the apps is indisputable. The policy is impeccable. It is safer to challenge a business than the public. But if it comes to probing the problem, the escape becomes doomed.
Biden is more subject to it than most. His characteristic trait is a willingness to think well of his compatriots. There is the vibe of a Frank Capra movie in his appeals for common sense and the fundamental unity of America. As Republicans know, this protects him from radicalism or haughtiness slanders that demean other liberals. If only that didn’t block his view of awkward reality at times, too.
In 1994, the right swept through Congress with shouting new cadres who were both anti-government and partisan. Mark Zuckerberg was 10 years old. When Sarah Palin played the proto-Trump on a presidential ticket in 2008, Twitter was still budding. What academic Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style” of politics was about to slip away before social media gave it, at most, one last push.
The crusade against these apps is hardly groundless. But it has become a way to avoid the age and depth of civic rot, and not just in the United States. Facebook is easier to tackle than the prospect that mature democracies must live with a permanent mass of essentially inaccessible citizens. To curse social networks is to exonerate society.