Posting About Politics Makes It Harder to Change Our Minds

Are you on the right side of history? Do you know what time it is? Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?

If you use social media and post about politics, some version of these questions has probably crossed your mind, because one of the curious effects of the internet as we know it is the public record it creates for the political history of ordinary people.

The internet is forever—or, at least, forever enough that the safest assumption is that anything you post will survive longer than you do. And maybe that just means your great-great-grandkids will giggle at your style and slang. Or maybe it means one of your tweets will end up in the standard eighth-grade history textbook 200 years hence, preserved immemorial as the epitome of early 21st century bigotry.

That’s an unsettling possibility, and it’s one the precision of social media’s recording of politics inevitably raises. This might not be a conscious thought for the average tweeter on the average day, but in those questions we ask each other—half joking, half not—there’s a clear sensibility toward the looming judgment of our progeny.

That judgment once would have applied only to kings and statesmen—those few literate and powerful enough to leave a substantial testimony to their views. Talk to baby boomers and older generations about the politics of decades past and they may not clearly recall who they supported even in contentious presidential elections. The passage of time and degradation of memory could expunge our old votes and values, leaving us simply to hope we weren’t unusually stupid in youth.

Decades of psychological research have found remarkable effects of ‘social influences on individual judgment,’ like how making public statements makes it more difficult for us to change our minds.

Now history’s eye can fall on anyone with an internet connection and the inexorable urge to post, and therefore its judgment can fall on us, too.

For the past decade and a half, we’ve cataloged our politics for the court. Exhibit A: thousands of tweets and Facebook posts. Exhibit B: the messages Snapchat doesn’t necessarily delete. Exhibit C: the black square you posted on Instagram after the murder of George Floyd, which was either a timely act of humble solidarity or lazy, self-aggrandizing allyship that silenced black voices.

History is watching, and history will decide. Future generations may prowl through your posts—or, worse, some half-degraded version of them, link rot stripping away the context, screenshots embalming your regrets, decades flattening your jokes into self-serious pronouncements and unprovoked cruelty—and render a mercilessly anachronistic verdict: Ahead of her time, if you’re lucky. A man of his time, if you’re not.

Anticipating that future surveillance and the judgment of our descendants can’t help but shape how we think and speak. Decades of psychological research have found remarkable effects of “social influences on individual judgment,” like how making public statements makes it more difficult for us to change our minds. The feeling that posterity is peeking over our shoulders can only compound those effects, feeding political obstinacy and anxiety in millions who once would’ve lived and died in the freedom of political obscurity.

This historical consciousness is sometimes subconscious, but the way we talk about time and future scrutiny betrays our expectations. It’s in the assumption, most often seen on the left, that history has a right side and a wrong one, and that we can divine those sides now and position ourselves accordingly. “Inclusivity + compassion is [sic] always the right side of history,” Sen.-elect John Fetterman (D-PA) tweeted this month, advising those who disagree to leave politics to others.

From the new right comes the exact same advice: “If you don’t know what time it is,” warns a Federalist headline, “get out of politics now.” Generally attributed to David Reaboi, a writer linked to the Claremont Institute (which published the much-debated “Flight 93” argument for electing Donald Trump in 2016), “what time it is” makes history a directional narrative, like a movie, and it makes you a character tasked with moving the plot toward its rightful end by whatever means necessary.

It’s the ”Great War” meme, though, which makes the look toward history’s judgment most explicit—and which comes closest to recognizing the absurdity of our unease over what the verdict will be. The template is a British propaganda poster from 1915 designed to pressure men into enlisting to fight the Kaiser’s Germany by invoking the judgment they’d incur if they stayed home. Yet the added text is deliberately trivial and self-deprecating, cognizant of how LARP-y our conflicts tend to be: What did you do during the pandemic, dad? I bought a lot of toilet paper. The Somme this is not.

Neither is our posting, which is not to say our inevitably timebound politics are unimportant. But posting often is, and it can be influenced as much by our deepest moral convictions as by a bad night’s sleep or some snap of sarcasm misunderstood.

That’s an argument for posting less, for letting that feeling of being watched push us away from performative politicking and toward a quieter prudence. But it’s also something we have reason to hope our progeny will understand. Maybe, worrying about their own future judgments, they’ll afford some grace for ours.

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