From the minute details recounted on our Facebook pages to our Instagram “stories,” 240-character laments, and Pinterest-inspired DIY needlepoints, for younger generations, the digital narrative has existed for much of our lifetime.
Social media is woven into the social fabric of our lives. We created it, grew it, and [in]advertently developed a culture around it. And, as it has grown and morphed into a daily fixation, we have also adapted it to fit our needs, sharing mundane, thrilling, and sometimes profoundly personal experiences in a much more public way than the generations before us.
The accessibility of these digital megaphones has allowed for grass-roots campaigns to soar, for younger generations to take an interest in the political system and become more informed, and for movements like the Women’s March and #metoo to become a household conversation, thereby galvanizing vast contingents of the country [and the world], who have historically had neither a voice or a platform.
When we talk about the partisan division and rhetoric that has been building to a zenith in the United States (and abroad), I cannot wholly blame our inflammatory president, a seemingly inflexible Republican party, or the out of touch Democrats who can’t seem to find party unity; I cannot completely fault the ambulance-chasing talking heads that populate our 24-hour news media, or an aging electorate, many of whom seem willfully opposed to progressive values. Rather, this maelstrom of political partition is as much a product of the platforms we use to share the photos from our friends’ weddings and the foamy tulips embellishing our morning cappuccinos as the conversations they inspire.
We have been told with near unrelenting regularity that our social media is an echo chamber, propped up and reaffirmed by friends and followers with like-minded ideas. But what this assertion, in isolation, fails to consider is the viral structure of social media. How many times have you read a post shared and re-shared by many of your friends, despite having zero connection to the person who wrote it?
Our narratives certainly reaffirm what we already believe or think we know, but with enough traction among our followers and their followers and their followers, they also have the potential to reach people with whom we do not connect or agree. And the impact of this connection cannot be overlooked.
This is how Donald Trump won the presidency — well, that and a deeply disenfranchised electorate. Sure, the media covered Trump even from the beginning, casting him as a buffoon in a sea of traditional, mostly qualified contenders, but it was really his lengthy Twitter tirades where the man found his voice and his base, and regardless of how the media framed him or how his rivals talked about him, eventually Trump — largely through social media — stole the narrative and made it what he wanted, what he needed his base to believe.
Social media’s ability to promote our voices is acutely important, both to the time we live in and our future as a country. According to an August 2018 Pew Research poll, nearly 30 percent of men and just less than 20 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 29 changed their views on an issue because of social media.
Though this influence tends to diminish with age, what this means in practice is we have the ability to reshape our country through the direct, unmitigated stories of real people — beyond the filter of politicians, or movie stars, or media.
Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to Congress was a powerful and pivotal moment in American politics, but it happened in large part because of the conversations we, the public, prompted.
After I first read Roxane Gay’s account of how she was raped as a child, I felt compelled to write about my own trauma. Even still, I did not dare share it. Writing about that experience was painful and cathartic, but it was not until #metoo swept through my Facebook feed, until I started reading posts from people I knew, writing about their own experiences, that I felt emboldened to acknowledge my assault publicly.
As a largely private person, this was a powerful shift for me. And I’m not alone. This is why the #metoo movement has been so successful: We need ordinary people, front and center, talking about the moments that have changed their lives indelibly.
We need people who feel real to us — our friends, our family members, the girl who sat next to us in third period Biology —in order to create a moral shift. Trump won the 2016 election because for many, he feels authentic. His opinions are his own (for better or worse), and his story, if not necessarily one that many of us can relate to, feels compelling and believable to a large bloc of American voters who saw Hillary Clinton as a sham.
But we are an entire generation, each with our own — often multi-platform — megaphones. And if this previous election cycle is any indication, we are as energized to tell our stories as we have ever been. So keeping sharing. Tell anyone who will listen, repost, or feel inspired to share their own truths. We are all, each of us, listening, and we can change the conversation one click, one post, one impassioned voter at a time.