Some Noodling About Nano-Bubbles

This is a noodley post, the kind I’d usually put up on a weekend. But it’s on my mind now, so here it is.

What’s got me interested is an old topic: how social media allows us all to hyperspecialize in what kind of news we consume. Earlier today, for example, I saw a tweet about how the women running for president are being treated differently than the men. That doesn’t seem right to me based on the sense I get from my Twitter feed, but someone else—also liberal, white, middle-class, etc.—with even a moderately different set of people they follow might come to a completely different conclusion. Neither one of us is “right.” Neither one of us could possibly consume enough different news sites to do a serious comparison. So I see a tweet like this…

History is repeating with Warren. She was everyone’s favourite “I’m not sexist, I’d vote for her” shield in 2016, but now nobody wants to actually vote for her.

…and I rub my eyes. Warren was never “everyone’s” favorite. Nor is it true that “nobody” wants to vote for her now. What is true—probably—is that this person follows a lot of progressives and got the impression from them that Warren was super popular, and is now surprised when it turns out that she’s polling in the middle of the pack and has been for quite a while:

It’s true that Warren is polling way behind big names like Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, both of whom happen to be men. But Biden spent eight years as vice president and Sanders is the guy who almost beat Hillary Clinton in 2016. It’s hardly any wonder that they’re at the top of the polls right now.

Here’s a longer version of this case, this time from Paul Waldman, who notes that Pete Buttigieg is getting a lot of attention for a small-town mayor:

I don’t mean this as a criticism of Buttigieg. He has a lot to commend. But Buttigieg is enjoying a hearing, including lots of positive media coverage, that no woman in his position could possibly be granted. In part, that’s because, as Jill Filipovic reminds us, we judge women by their accomplishments but men by their potential. Ambition in a man is considered admirable, while it’s considered threatening in a woman.

We’ve seen this time and again. Hillary Clinton’s popularity bounced up and down depending on whether she was seeking an office. Or take Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Back in 2016, many on the left held up Warren as everything they wanted in a presidential candidate. The key, though, was that Warren wasn’t running. Once she did run, many of those same people decided they weren’t so enamored of her after all. She used to be brilliant and charismatic; now people have decided she’s an inauthentic schoolmarm.

That case came up in a recent conversation I had with Kate Manne, a Cornell philosophy professor and author of “Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny.” As Manne points out, when each woman currently running entered the race, a fatal flaw was quickly identified: Warren’s Native American ancestry, Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s (D-Minn.) treatment of her staff, or Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) being, well, too ambitious….“The real fatal flaw is ambition,” Manne says, “and wanting to lead, and wanting to have a male-dominated authority position at the expense of men — and particularly white men — in the race. And that implicitly becomes the basis for suspicion and moral condemnation.”

Maybe this is right. But every four years there are always a few new faces like Buttigieg who suddenly command a surprising amount of attention. Remember the 2016 Republican primary, where Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina each spent a few weeks in the spotlight? And 2012, with Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich? As for Hillary Clinton, of course she got less popular when she was running for office. What else would you expect? (And in the end, she did get 65 million votes, after all.)

Then there are all those fatal flaws in the current crop of women running for president. That might be a sign of misogyny, but it might also just be what happens to every candidate who starts to poll strongly. It’s a sign that they’re being taken seriously, and it happens to men too. Right now Biden is performing an apology tour for his treatment of Anita Hill while Bernie Sanders is getting flak for not releasing his tax returns. Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke will get their turn in the barrel too, I’m sure.

So who’s right about this? It’s always been impossible to say for sure, but it seems even more impossible these days because so many of us form vague feelings about things based on what we scan through in our Twitter or Facebook or Instagram feeds every day. But those are hyperspecialized nano-bubbles. In the same way that liberals and conservatives sometimes seem to live in whole different worlds because of Fox News, people who agree about nearly everything can also end up with wildly different views thanks to the power of social media. Even if we all read, say, the New York Times and the Washington Post, our social media feeds have more power to shape our opinions because they’re populated by people we know and trust.

Of course, the same dynamic takes place outside of social media too. There’s a lot of wailing and gnashing these days about whether “the media” reported on the Trump-Russia scandal fairly over the past couple of years. My sense is that the coverage was generally OK, but it turns out that the criticism is mostly aimed at MSNBC, and specifically at Rachel Maddow. Did they blow it? Beats me. I haven’t watched any prime time cable shows for years. I have no idea what they’ve been saying. I consume almost exclusively print media.

So who’s right about this? Again, I don’t know. In one sense, I think it’s fair to say that not all that many people actually watch these cable shows: a few million total, and maybe half a million in the key 25-54 demographic. That’s about 1 percent of the voting-age population. On the other hand, those few million are political junkies who probably have influence out of proportion to their numbers. So maybe it’s fair to say that I’m missing the boat by not watching them and understanding what they’re up to. I wouldn’t dismiss the influence of Fox News, after all.

So what’s the conclusion here? I don’t have one. I warned you about that in my first sentence, didn’t I? Hell, I don’t even know if the nano-bubbles of social media are really any different than the ordinary nano-bubbles of friends and family. What do you think? Social media nano-bubbles seem more powerful and diverse to me, making it even harder than usual to build consensus, but then, that’s just a sense I’ve built up from my own nano-bubble. What do I know?

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