As soon as a political crisis emerges, a flurry of pastel-coloured graphics follows
If Instagram could speak its algorithms would say: ‘you are important, and you could — yes, you! — solve the crisis in the Middle East’. Of course, it might seem a little dangerous to jump into these debates head-first — you don’t want to accidentally side yourself with the wrong people. Well, not to worry, whispers the algorithm. You have a myriad of ready-made hot takes to select from at your leisure.
If you’ve maintained any kind of social media presence over the last few years, you’ve probably come across an ‘infographic’. These perfectly-sharable little images are jam-packed with dubiously sourced factoids addressing the hot-button issues of the current moment.
Often presented in soothing pastel colours, these infographics are extremely easy to make — and extremely popular. The demand for Instagram infographics is enormous, with major accounts sporting millennial-friendly handles like ‘shityoushouldcareabout’ (2.9m followers) and ‘intersectionalenvironmentalist’ (345,000 followers). Often accompanied with a ‘what you can do to help’ header, these posts implore the viewer to boost the message further by re-sharing.
This is not necessarily a case of ‘slacktivism’. The boundaries between the online world and ‘real life’ are becoming increasingly blurred, and even traditional political parties place an enormous amount of stock in their online image and messaging. For many younger people, online political activism forms an enormous part of their identities. The reliance on templates of conversations — with argument being conducted by quippy cartoon strawmen on pastel backgrounds — mirrors the difficulty people have with maintaining attention to complex issues.
For a generation that is increasingly sheltered from dissenting opinion thanks to echo chambers created by big-tech algorithms, infographics provide ready-made takes, ensuring you are on the ‘right’ side of the discourse without actually having to engage in a discussion.
It’s comforting to have the answers to difficult questions already neatly laid out for you. People — particularly teenagers — will always look towards simpler, more straightforward explanations in order to understand very complex events. This is not a new behaviour. When you cannot trust the mainstream media to reliably inform you of the ‘truth’, social media activism becomes a far greater problem. Rather than first-hand, on-the-ground journalistic coverage setting the agenda for political debate, legacy media institutions now often find themselves playing catch-up with dubious narratives already formed on social media.
The late social critic and historian Christopher Lasch articulated the tensions of this arrangement all the way back in 1996:
The revolutionary impact of social media and the waves upon waves of new content to be viewed by a constantly expanding audience of consumers is perhaps beyond our current comprehension.
The constant calls for more ‘education’, whether achieved via big-tech mandated censorship or legacy media ‘fact-checking’ fundamentally misunderstand the most central issue of online discourse. The solution to the non-stop bombardment of content is unlikely to come in the form of even more information.
Lasch had his own solution to this problem, suggesting that “what democracy requires is public debate, not information”. It stands to reason that current solutions to online misinformation are wrongheaded. Rather than thinking about information as being a necessary precursor to debate, we should instead consider the possibility that it is the by-product of it.