When we think about our divided country, social media seems to be a prime culprit: my column last week addressed the ongoing revelations about Facebook, and the use of social media data to micro-target divisive messages to the American electorate during the 2016 Presidential campaign. Experts and ordinary voters are still turning over the Rubik’s Cube of our national puzzle: how was Donald Trump was able to surmount so many barriers — character, elocution, intellect, sexual behavior — to his winning the presidency? Many theories are floating around out there, all of them probably wrong. But what nearly everyone agrees on is that this country is more ideologically divided than it ever has been, whether it is the gender war, racial division, class struggle, regional interests, or so-called native-born people activating resentment against immigrant newcomers. Most of us agree, however, that new media exploits these divisions for political gain.
But is social media the cause? Despite the power of algorithms to match like with like, I don’t think so. In fact, I would argue that social media does what all media has always done, only better and more quickly. No media creates division: it expresses differences. To paraphrase my colleague Robin Pacifici-Wagner, what media does is make dynamics that already exist visible, to the extent that a moment of change — rendered in media — becomes an event, interrupting our lives from far away. Such an event is a rupture in time, one that expresses our relationship to a particular moment in history. But does it do that at the expense of suppressing our consciousness about a longer past that made the event possible?
The death of Martin Luther King, Jr. was just such an event, a stain on American history that is simultaneously unique and, as we know from the history of lynching and contemporary gun violence against African-Americans, tragically commonplace. Today, on the fiftieth anniversary of King’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, it is worth reminding ourselves that this country could not have been more at war with itself in 1968. It was racially divided, and racially segregated. The United States was also an extremely violent place, and would only become more so in the next decade.
For the rest of this essay, originally published at Public Seminar on April 4, 2018, click here.