Criticism has changed from an almost elitist field to something that everyone can partake in within a matter of seconds on Twitter or another social media site. This has taken a foothold in politics, especially in the age of Donald Trump.
For four years, the American people were led by a Twitter president. Trump’s constant tweeting gave the masses the license to share their thoughts to the world on any event, issue or policy. The vast majority of the time, these thoughts are shared with little research or analysis behind them. In turn, this causes a growing digital pit of fake news and misinformation, which has led to conspiracy theories such as QAnon.
This process can start with someone on the internet calling President Joe Biden “soft” for wearing a mask. Then, people start viewing him as a prop for the “deep state.” Later, people on Facebook begin critiquing the United States’ electoral process as a rigged system, #stopthesteal starts trending on Twitter and eventually there is a riot protesting the backbone of democracy in the U.S. Capitol building.
Thousands, even millions of pieces of online criticism snowballed into this catastrophe, and in a field where free speech is sacred, this poses the question of whether mass criticism or criticism at all is appropriate in politics.
On the surface, it seems quite American that anyone can express their beliefs to the entire world on any subject in the digital age. Unfortunately, the power social media provides to users to quickly post and share comments without critical thought has caused massive amounts of misinformation.
A supporter of Twitter discourse may say that it is beneficial to have a plethora of opinions and then use judgment and knowledge to sort through them. However, there are severely detrimental, real-world effects to this sort of unrefined, hasty discourse. Recent examples include the aforementioned insurrection in the U.S. Capitol, a plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan and widespread protests of mask wearing and the coronavirus vaccine.
Despite this, there is still an important role for responsible criticism in politics. In the free world, criticism from the press serves as a key check on the power of elected officials. The media can critique policy decisions as well as restrain politicians from free reign on power. Recently, Trump pressured his preferred media outlet, Fox News, to overturn their decision in the Arizona race in order to give him a wider potential path to victory. Fox News refused to back down and served as a check on the president’s power and a protector of American democracy.
A prime example of a check on policy by the press is The Washington Post’s 2013 critique of the National Security Agency’s widespread surveillance of U.S. citizens, which was highly invasive and infringed upon civil liberties. In this case, the criticism from The Post led to sweeping changes within the agency and helped to strengthen U.S. democracy by limiting government power.
Criticism, especially in the realm of politics, has both positives and negatives that must be weighed against each other. Mass criticism can lead to the spread and dissemination of fake news but targeted, expert criticism serves to keep power in check and improve our society and is a necessary element of democracy. In fact, criticism may be the crux of democracy, due to its ability to check power as described above.
Politics is a field of discourse, which has an inherent need for and interdependence with criticism, and effective politics simply cannot live without it. However, the very thing that upholds a strong democracy can also threaten it — as seen with the ramifications of widespread, baseless social media criticism. There is ultimately a need to narrow and refine criticism in all fields to ensure it is constructive, informative and perceptive.
This will certainly be a difficult path to navigate due to concerns of inadvertently limiting free speech. Unfortunately, as conspiracy theories and false news continue to grow and spread, either the government or private companies will have to (as Twitter and Facebook have begun to) make significant efforts to limit or block these asinine forms of content. A potential way around needing such restrictions is to promote a more educated, more intelligent populace. Stronger civic education curriculum in schools or encouragement of using self-judgment and analytical skills from a young age may help sharpen society’s brand of criticism and steer it away from the mindless, hasty parasitical criticism that has grown root.