Social media just might be the worst thing that ever happened to Colorado politics.
Yes, it can be good to connect with others digitally. Yes, you can learn about events and meet new people. Yes, you can ask questions and campaign for free. And yes, you can even track legislators 24-7, which can help to hold them more accountable.
You can also find yourself down a rabbit hole of misery.
The negative side effects of social media are well documented. Many studies reveal that social media use is heavily correlated with increased rates of loneliness, anxiety, depression and a range of other health and behavioral problems. Social media use also correlates with the rise of mainstream political extremism and belief in conspiracy theories.
These are not tools that allow a society and democracy to flourish. Building communities requires listening and empathy, traits that are largely discounted on social media platforms. When navigating choppy waters to find consensus, as is required in politics, our brains need more than online interactions can provide. This is particularly true as social media exchanges are frequently short and void of context, tone of voice, visual cues and even real names and faces that help our mirror neurons respond to one another with increased kindness and compassion.
Putting a keyboard between us in politics, especially local politics, makes it too easy to fall prey to the demands of social media algorithms. For years, users of these platforms have been unwittingly trained like Pavlov’s dogs with a specialized balance of rewards (i.e. likes, hearts, follows) and punishments (i.e. silence).
Over time, users have learned to change their behavior and master the game: Increased engagement is a win. Decreased engagement is a loss. This is extremely problematic, in part because most of us don’t realize how far we’ve fallen.
Consciously or otherwise, social media users have learned that the more pithy and brash we are, the more we are rewarded by the platforms. Regretfully, negative attention is still a win by these rules, so we poke, we prod, we lie and we fight, all in the name of making a splash and pushing our agenda. Digital fights with neighbors and colleagues? Well, that’s just a Tuesday afternoon. And with millions of users, we don’t see just one or two bad apples. We can see dozens or even hundreds on a daily basis.
Such antics have taken over Colorado politics. Minus the few who are wise enough to remain largely silent digitally speaking — most of whom you probably can’t even name because they aren’t outlandish enough — most of us engage in unhealthy communication daily. Whether it’s frustration, anger, lies, distraction, hate or something else, the result is a terrible mix of tribalism and division that is breaking us apart.
Online engagements over Proposition HH and the special session are yet another example. It has been relentless chaos, 24-7, from the state’s most vocal players. Collectively we lose hours attacking each other with one-liners to win by earning the most attention. But for what? It’s certainly not to work together to make the best policy, so why are we doing this to ourselves? Better yet, why are we doing this to each other?
I know we need to break free of this feeding frenzy, but I don’t know how we do it. Short of massive overhauls to regulations or the dissolving of companies, I don’t expect major changes to social media anytime soon. So how do we stop ourselves from perpetuating this self-inflicted harm? How can we stop encouraging political figures to act out for attention? How do we begin to once again reward listening and working together?
I get that leaving social media is hard when you feel everyone else is on it. Even though I loathe these platforms, I struggle to leave in full. Why? Because I’m a regular opinion columnist at a digital newspaper, and roughly 50% of Americans now get their news from social media. Taking myself out entirely is like choosing to sit on the bench during the playoffs. Although lately, I’ve been doing exactly that, mostly because I’m so much happier without it.
It feels great to be mostly removed, but it doesn’t work because too much of Colorado’s political scene is wrapped up in these interactions. In only a handful of months, my followers dropped and my reach in posts decreased. The platform is designed this way because I’m being “punished” for my lack of regular use. But every time I dabble in going back, I’m promptly reminded of why I left in the first place. Isn’t anyone else sick and tired of all the digital nastiness? And what is the mental health toll on journalists, activists and elected officials?
It’s not only political circles who feel compelled to partake. Many professionals are now getting locked into social media as a way to compete and enhance their personal brands, hoping to improve clientele, side money, book deals, media interviews, earn promotions and more.
This trend is becoming the norm in a surprising array of fields, including medicine and law, and at times can help to influence who wins prestigious awards and jobs, despite that the social rankings have little to do with actual expertise. It’s like high school all over again, except way worse and way more impactful. How long will it take to ruin those circles, too?
Mostly I can’t help but wonder how many fights under the Capitol dome could be avoided if Colorado officials knew they weren’t competing for viral attention. How many movements or campaigns would be changed if news didn’t feature the loudest, most antagonistic voices, but rather the quietest among us? How might the average person engage differently if elected leaders chose to set a good example, rather than stoking the flames? In short, what would Colorado politics look like today without the negative influences of social media? I strongly think it would be for the better.
But if choosing to opt out now leaves us with a bad case of FOMO at best and without a job at worst, how can individuals leave if the collective stays? Could we ever go back to a world where politics is truly local without social media?
I would love to log out, listen more and learn the answer.
Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado. Trish can be found on Twitter @trish_zornio