“The earth is not dying, it is being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses.” – Utah Phillips
Of all that the so-called Facebook Papers revealed, most interesting, I think, is the fact that on social media, anger, like sex, sells. In 2017, for instance, Facebook tweaked its algorithm to treat “emoji reactions as five times more valuable than ‘likes'” in order to “keep users more engaged.” What happened? Engagement and profit went up, and posts that “sparked angry reaction emoji were disproportionately likely to include misinformation, toxicity and low-quality news.”
We are awash in anger, not only because there is so much to be angry about, but also because the social media platforms through which we now primarily receive the news reward, amplify, and spread the outlandish and the controversial. As a result, propagandists both foreign (Russia, China) and domestic (e.g., Trump, Bannon, Cruz) are able to sow tremendous discord at low cost, simply by understanding how the algorithms work.
It isn’t that human nature has changed; it’s just that the tools of influence are so powerful and so easy to manipulate, the worst among us are empowered to bring out the worst in us. Elections are now about Critical Race Theory and Big Bird, not the death penalty, climate change, or the tax code. And the more extreme the position–several House Republicans are arguing over which will get to hire Kyle Rittenhouse, the recently acquitted vigilante murderer, as an intern–the better for engagement, for fundraising, for attention (Rittenhouse himself raised millions of dollars for his defense fund).
This is not going to be an homage to reasoned debate or moderation, however. I, too, am furious: at the fossil fuel industry for jeopardizing our future; at right-wingers for enabling, condoning, and white-washing an attempted coup on January 6; at those who refuse to get vaccinated, prolonging the pandemic; and at moderate Democrats for not eliminating the filibuster, adding DC as a state, protecting our right to vote, expanding the Supreme Court, and more.
I want to simply note that I’m tired. Of all the anger. Of the news cycle pulling me this way and that as though as I were a piece of driftwood in a typhoon. And, most importantly, of the fact that the constant outrage has begun to harden my heart and fill it with cynicism.
This past weekend I read a rather pollyannaish book, The Future Earth, by Eric Holthaus. In it, Holthaus, a meteorologist, lays out a bold vision for how we can respond to the climate crisis in a way that reorders human society and aligns it with the ideals of democracy and true justice and equality. And while much of what he predicts–such as fossil fuel extraction being banned in the next few years–is unlikely to unfold as he outlines it, his broader point makes sense: if we do not hold in our hearts and minds a dream of a beautiful future, how are we to build a world worthy of our children?
I neither want to turn away from what inspires my rage, nor allow evildoers to corrupt my heart. How much longer are our lives going to be driven by the latest scandal, the latest outrage? During the Trump presidency, I justified it by saying that I had to stay informed, but that’s bullshit. The reason we saved democracy, at least for a few more years, is that millions of people did the hard work of saving it: registering voters, organizing, knocking on doors, volunteering at the polls, and so on. How much good came of all the cursing and sharing of memes on Twitter?
Yet these platforms exist, and they are powerful. The question I don’t know the answer to is this: how do good people spread hope, joy, and love via the tools that facilitate their opposite? One interesting model is Reasons to be Cheerful, a newsletter that, “Through stories of hope, rooted in evidence…aims to inspire us all to be curious about how the world can be better, and to ask ourselves how we can be part of that change.” Another is the Solutions Journalism Network, which works to “rebalance the news, so that every day people are exposed to stories that help them understand problems and challenges, and stories that show potential ways to respond.”
These resources, and others like them–poetry, the accounts of activists and organizers and social entrepreneurs–are what good people need to amplify on social media and elsewhere. We have to refill our coffers with love, with meaning, or else we succumb to cynicism–which is perhaps the worst kind of defeat hatred can inflict on people of goodwill.
This is not to say that we should love the January 6th insurrectionists, or forgive the administration that put immigrant children in cages. No. Never. I hate those people and always will. But we have to be strategic with our limited reserves of emotions. Reading The Future Earth gave me the energy to contemplate new ideas for how Capital Good Fund can advance a radically better America, oriented around racial and environmental justice. That’s a gift that I deny myself when I choose–and it is a choice–to doomscroll on Twitter for an hour, growing increasingly furious, heart racing, fingers ready to respond with the perfect insult.
Let us try to banish cynicism from our beings and channel anger into those activities that right wrongs. Right now, Democrats are on the verge of passing historic legislation that will improve the lives of tens of millions of Americans: investing in clean energy, universal pre-k, lowering the cost of healthcare, and more. The Right knows how to ensure that voters don’t hear about it. Already, Ted Cruz has people talking about Big Bird’s supposed communism, and on the night that the House was going to vote on the Build Back Better Act, Kevin McCarthy stole the show with an eight-hour speech that was as notable for its derangement as it was for its length.
Let us not take the bait. Let us become ethical propagandists, telling the truth, boldly, shamelessly, ruthlessly. Let us find ways to defeat those who would destroy our futures using the same tools, but do so with integrity and good intent. Let us not confuse hope and love with meekness and submission, for we are in a struggle for our survival as a democracy and as a species: we cannot afford to lose. But neither can we countenance a victory that makes us ugly. There is too much ugliness in the world, as it is. Let us choose beauty when we can, so long as we can.