Political scientist David Polansky said recently that our society is “simultaneously characterized by wildly disproportionate accountability for trivial transgressions and zero accountability for profound institutional failure.”
How can such extremes of accountability coexist in the same moment? My sense is that the factors contributing to this inconsistency are numerous, but that social media is the stage upon which we’re witnessing both the death of nuance and the control of attention. How we show up and perform on social media is shaped by how we anticipate other people will respond, either with adulation or condemnation.
Our own behavior is as much a way to police the spaces we occupy as it is a way to avoid being canceled ourselves (social psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls policing on social media “distributed totalitarianism”). But in the process of tearing down individuals for trivial transgressions, social media shifts the spotlight of our attention away from institutional failure. Algorithms are designed to addict and entertain, and it is far more entertaining to watch the canceling of a person for their unsavory beliefs than it is to uncover the provenance and nuanced emergence of institutional decay.
If social media is democracy’s “new public square,” then both its leaders and users have a responsibility to interrogate the ways it directs our attention and our accountability.