Eric Sapp’s work with Bread for the World during the 2016 elections taught me about the power of digital technology in the politics of poverty. In this week’s webcast, he talks about that experience and other work he has done - to repair the divide between the Democratic Party and faith-based voters, to communicate with vaccine-hesitant people, and to counter digital propaganda. In each case, Eric has grounded his digital communication in careful listening to people - often to people who feel their views are not usually heard.
I’ve learned a lot about technology over the past year. Retirement from the leadership of Bread and the pandemic have made me learn how to use different equipment and programs. In the process, I have come to understand that digital technology is a new form of literacy. It takes effort, but allows us to think and communicate in powerful new ways. We all benefit tremendously from digital technology.
But I have also gained understanding of some of its negative effects. Social media disseminate misinformation, including sophisticated disinformation campaigns. Social media also aggravate the divisions in society. They help us connect with like-minded people and craft jabs at the people we love to hate. These activities are satisfying - almost addictive. They keep us on-line, where the technology companies can gather information about us that they sell to advertisers.
I think electronic media, especially social media, have strengthened the voice of low-income, less-educated Americans in politics. More people feel informed, and social media give them an easy way to make themselves heard. Both the Trump and Sanders presidential campaigns benefited from a surge of voting among many people who hadn’t voted before, and both sides in the Trump-Biden election were powered by record voter participation. If social media have indeed increased political participation among low-income, less-educated voters, this is a historic change for the better. As documented by Henry Brady (featured in last week’s webcast), the political participation of these groups has been unchangingly low for many decades.
On the other hand, our politics are now crippled by disinformation and division. U.S. religious life has also been corrupted. Most white Christians voted for Trump again in 2020, partly because Fox News and social media influence them more than the hour they spend in church on some Sunday mornings.
As large numbers of Americans become more critical consumers of social media, some companies will develop innovative ways to meet a growing demand for social media that are less manipulative and more consistently socially responsible. My son Andrew works for a fast-growing technology company (Hopin) that helps groups hold diverse and engaging conferences - a big step up from Zoom calls. But Andrew has cut way back on his personal involvement in social media. At his suggestion, he and I together watched The Great Hack, a Netflix documentary that convinced me that our government needs to develop regulations to address the problems digital communications are causing. We regulate radio, television, and the press. An update of the regulations on digital companies, especially digital monopolies, will be hard to design and negotiate but is much needed.
Eric Sapp is exploring ways to use social media to listen to people and build empathy among different groups. Savvy regulation could encourage such activities on a much larger scale.
Eric gave us too much good material to keep his webcast as short as some of the others, but I hope you will watch it. You might also want to watch The Great Hack.