Commentators have identified the campaign leading up to today’s presidential election as unlike any that have come before, asking questions like — has this election been shaped by debates about personality rather than political content? Has it been more about moral scandals than past campaigns? Are labels such as “abuser,” “criminal,” “hater,” and “devil” part of a rational discourse between professional politicians?
But there’s something else novel about this campaign: digital media such as Twitter and Facebook have never played such an important role for the candidates as they do today.
Tweets used to comment on political issues; now, political debates have to comment on tweets. Blog posts are an increasingly dominant media form in public discourse on politics, not only by their sheer number, but also by how the blog format affects political discourse. In this respect, digitalization has paradoxical effects: on the one hand, political information is distributed more widely allowing for more political participation; but, since “the medium is the message” (Marshall McLuhan), the brevity of web content on the other hand reduces the depth and quality of political content.
Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump tweeting performance between April 2015 and July 2016
But while the public discourse is abbreviated and simplified, it is also put into a moral perspective. More than ever before we hear that the candidate is a “bad person,” a “liar,” a “witch,” an “angry baby,” a “nasty woman,” a “puppet,” a “chicken,” and even “Lucifer.” The sociologist Niklas Luhmann explains this by the complexity of today’s politics: the less we oversee a complex field of communication, the more we tend to simplify it by moral terminology. Moral distinctions between “good” and “evil”, a “good person” and a “bad person” are much easier than trying to comprehend the difficulties of global politics.
Both communicative effects coming together might thus explain the current debates, namely how the digital and the moral codes are simplifying the political content. As for consequence, while there is more discourse about politicians, it deals less with politics. Does this process eventually undermine rational discourse and democratic participation? Is it true what Adorno and Horkheimer said in their Dialectics of Enlightenment that technological progress might eventually turn dialectically against the very ideals of freedom and democracy? Is the digitalization of politics a danger for democracies?
Only the future will tell. But changes in the communicative modes are undeniable. And this election shows all the more how important it is to acquire skills in reading digital media so that we can distinguish between political surface and depth, between political content and moral polemics.