At exactly 11:28 p.m. ET on Election Night, I, after drinking too much bourbon and answering too many anguished texts from terrified friends having Jacob’s Ladder-esque Election Night 2016 flashbacks, sent out this Tweet.
I had no specific expertise to make this judgment. I had just seen former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs on MSNBC reacting to Fox News’ election analysts calling the state of Arizona for Joe Biden — a call that remains in dispute two days later, as it turns out — and that led me to playing around with the FiveThirtyEight Scenario Generator long enough that I realized Biden winning Arizona would gave him a very clear path as long as he hung on to Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. (Apparently the Trump campaign felt the same way.) Gibbs looked confident, and I was a little drunk, and I was on social media, and that combination led me to make my (heavily caveated, incredibly cautious) prediction.
People reacted to my Tweet as if they were starving in the desert — as if I knew anything at all. Because my prediction appears to be coming true, I had people thanking me all day on Wednesday for helping them get through Tuesday night, for providing them a little bit of hope when they were wallowing in despair. I wasn’t sure how to react. I’m just some idiot on Twitter like they are. I was probably just trying to make myself feel better, all told.
But that they were thankful anyway, so shaken by the constant herking and jerking of the evening and morning (and well into Thursday, and surely Friday) was a reminder that there really was no worse way to experience this election than by being on social media. Which is of course where we all are.
Imagine, if you will, that it is 1988. The only way you can find out who won the Presidential election is by watching Dan Rather, then your local news, and then you go to bed and read in your newspaper the next two days what happened. On Wednesday, you wake up to the news that the election was too close to call, that there are too many absentee ballots cast (perfectly reasonable, what with the global pandemic and all), that we’ll have to wait a couple days to count all the votes. Then you might see on your local news that night that the mail-in votes are turning the election toward Biden, and by Thursday morning, you have a more full accounting of everything that had happened. And it’s very possible that, by Friday, there is a big headline that says BIDEN WINS. The margin is slightly closer than you had expected, but only slightly, and it took a little longer than anyone wanted, but only a little, and you’re disappointed that the Senate didn’t go Biden’s way, though only possibly. But you would know just as much as you know right now.
And you could have skipped all the agita, all the pain, all the stress drinking, all the social media panic attacks. You’d just learn what happened. And you wouldn’t be thanking complete strangers on the internet, strangers who don’t know a damn thing, for helping you through one of the most difficult times of your life. You would have gone to sleep and been just fine.
Social media may still prove to be a public good. There is undeniable value in the way it elevates voices that had been silenced or ignored in the past, in its ability to shed light on atrocities and injustices that we would have missed otherwise, in its abundance of videos of grown men getting hit in the groin by blunt objects. It has clear public benefit.
But it can blur and obscure just as much. When you take a step back from it: This was a very normal election. The man who had been leading in the polls for nearly a full year won the election by perfectly reasonable (albeit much narrower) margins, despite it taking longer to count all the votes because of a public health crisis. (Nate Silver has been arguing, convincingly, that we’re going to end up having the polls be just slightly off rather than dramatically so.) A popular former Vice President defeated an unpopular incumbent President. It’s not that crazy. If you were to flash 72 hours ahead on Election Day afternoon and saw these results, you’d have said, “yep, sounds about right, or at least close to it.”
But because we all watched over social media, and all the constant plot twists and misinformation and confusion that comes with it … we put ourselves through the ringer and probably took collective years off our lives. When it comes to politics, and essentially every other aspect of American life, social media is making life more complicated, and more difficult, and more stressful … for very little public utility. We are doing this to ourselves.
Will Leitch writes multiple pieces a week for Medium. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family, and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel “How Lucky,” released by Harper next May. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.