Social Media and Human Dignity Through the Lens of Politics

Informed by the thoughts of philosophers and politicians since ancient times, the concept of human dignity has evolved. Rather than having a uniform definition that demands any specific response, the perceived meaning of human dignity is now viewed instead as a source of moral guidance for the public on how best to recognize and respect the inherent value of other people. 

Within public policy circles, however, the exhortation to respect norms of decency and civility in engaging with others has largely lost its traction. Certainly, many of our nation’s leaders are not displaying the dignified behavior once expected of senior politicians, or they are intentionally breaking such norms to attract a particular political following. 

With the significant weakening of the social norms that arose from the values of universal, equal human dignity, many citizens now fear that the importance of human dignity will be disregarded in future policies. The rise of social media has further exacerbated this phenomenon, giving a platform to those who can provide the best sound bites rather than to the policymakers who want to advocate for the well-being of the nation. As citizens watch their leaders defame one another and stall the advancement of policies due to an unwillingness to compromise, the public image of respecting human dignity as a guiding principle continues to lose its importance. 

Does the concept of universal dignity as a cherished norm and the associated possibility of dignified politicians remain relevant? It is the public who determines – through social media and at the ballot box – what standards of virtue and values our leaders ought to be held to. Social media now provides starkly differing views, indicating a populace that sometimes claims to desire ethical politicians who exemplify dignity and decency, while simultaneously giving attention to those politicians and influencers who use social media for the crass vilification of others as they promote their own electability, status, image, and brand. 

Social media enables the rapid spread of information, allowing many to participate in our democratic electoral system. With the demise of print media as the only reliable news source, political participation became more accessible because literacy was not a barrier. However, social media’s rise has changed how we see this effect made manifest. Anyone now can post or share their opinion online, presenting their beliefs and assertions as facts, and clouding the truth to persuade less well-informed individuals. Coupled with the increase in non-fact checked and overtly politically biased news, it has become difficult or often impossible to differentiate between fact, fiction, or political posturing. As a result, individuals tend to choose news sources that confirm their existing opinions, rather than being challenged by a diversity of factually based viewpoints that would require them to evaluate their convictions and possibly form new ideas. 

News sources are now algorithmically labeled as “left” or “right,” widening the partisan divide and leaving moderate voters unsure of where to find trusted and valid sources. Consequently, the voters at the two extremes of the political spectrum become the most motivated and avid consumers of such skewed news sources. Furthermore, social media systems curate content for viewers based on their existing habits. Therefore, if an individual is solely consuming news about certain politicians of just one political party, their social media feeds will offer them a diet of news featuring the thinking of certain factions within that party. 

According to a Pew Research Center study in 2021, 73% of Americans in 2019 felt that Republicans and Democrats could not agree even on basic facts. Social media and biased news sources have enabled and worsened this divide and have allowed for the proliferation of inappropriate political behavior. Because many people are increasingly using social media as their primary news source, politicians are incentivized to act and speak in an eye-catching manner that will allow their messaging to go viral. In turn, improper political behavior is reinforced by attracting the most shares on social media. This effect was seen through Donald Trump’s behavior in the 2016 election. Trump unapologetically disrespected the dignity of marginalized communities such as immigrants, the LGBTQI+ community, and persons with disabilities by mocking them or by using them as scapegoats for the nation’s issues. His political followership eagerly discussed, criticized, and often celebrated his actions via social media. Other politicians noticed the public’s response to this new form of political positioning, and many began altering their own media behaviors to remain relevant to their intended base of support. In so doing, citizens now have come to pre-select who they give attention to, rather than judging all candidates through televised campaign events and related news stories that once gave equal time to the entire spectrum of candidates and their diverse platforms and proposed policies. 

Additionally, social media also provides very brief highlight video reels of politicians. One can easily feel that they have caught up on the political news by consuming one-minute-long clips from different news outlets and politicians. However, there is great harm in this because it allows prominent people to clip news to their advantage. For example, the day after a debate, a politician can post a compilation of their best points from the debate, drawing in support from constituents. However, if this is the only way people are watching debates, they are not getting the full story. The politicians can portray a narrative of success, when in reality they may have had the worst performance of the night.

Historically, politicians such as George Washington continually prioritized the interests of the public over their own personal desires. The precedent that he and other early political leaders and statesmen set for acceptable political behavior is now widely disregarded, so it would appear that the American public currently has little interest in or expectation of such civic norms among the political class.

That said, a Pew Research Center survey from 2023 did show a persuasive finding that the public does want to see the return of dignified politicians, and that 78% of Americans feel that important issues facing the country get too little attention since they are overshadowed by partisan fighting. However, the actions of some Americans via social media reflect a different narrative. One can remain anonymous on social media, so they do not have to reap the consequences of saying hateful words to a stranger. As this new era of increasingly divisive language and labeling of others becomes normalized, citizens begin internalizing the adversarial messages and polemics of their chosen politicians. 

Humans are meant to be rational thinkers and their ability to reason is what gives them dignity, but if the same misguided conclusions are repeatedly proposed to them by those whom they follow, they will begin to accept these assertions as the truth without benefit of careful rational consideration. This phenomenon in turn creates a populous that blames the opposing party for perceived failures in the quality of our governance, further allowing many politicians to escape responsibility. Social media provides a platform for individuals to air their grievances with the government, but the increase in attack tactics by politicians has caused individual citizens to attack each other. Hate speech has become so normalized that people don’t understand the weight of their comments and the moral implications that would normally dissuade them from making such comments don’t seem as clear or as important.

Clearly, American politics has changed vastly throughout our nation’s history. Beginning with the dignified exemplified by George Washington, one of the most well-respected individuals in American history, to Donald Trump, the likely 2024 presidential candidate for the Republican party, who was just ordered to pay $335M in fraudulent business charges. Despite these vast differences, the discussion of dignity in politics is still relevant in the modern context. If politicians are not acting with dignity, how can the public expect them to advocate for policies that recognize and respect their own dignity as citizens? Voters must assess what qualities they prioritize from the nation’s leaders and understand how the prominence of social media impacts that behavior. Social media’s rise as a primary news source has changed the behavior of politicians, as outrageous behavior is rewarded with reposts and Twitter threads. 

To create measurable and positive change, citizens must demand that politicians put their personal interests aside and reprioritize the advancement of the nation’s people, the pursuit of the common good, and the recognition and respect of universal, equal, inalienable human dignity.

Guest article by Ava Matino

(Matino is a Masters graduate from the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland)

Photo credit: franckreporter

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