At Vox, Timothy B. Lee (I sometimes wonder if he only keeps the “B.” so that people think he invented the internet) has a theory for why Trump and Sanders are so successful: cable news and social media. The article is titled “How the Internet is Disrupting Politics” and I think it’s quite good.
That said, I find the idea that the internet is to blame for Trump somewhat of a stretch, since I doubt that Trump voters are the most tech savvy lot. Nevertheless, Lee makes the good point that decreased reliance on establishment gatekeepers and increasing content “filter bubbles” seem to have a lot to do with Trump’s rise. And both of those are very intimately related with the internet.
There’s also another way the internet makes people support extreme candidates that I think is underappreciated. And that is by making people think that everything is terrible.
It’s a well-established piece of polling trivia that hate congress but like their representative. Similarly, Americans feel much better about how they’re doing than how the nation is doing. We generally think things are terrible somewhere else. I think this kind of thing is made worse by the internet because we constantly see how bad things can be in some cases, and it reinforces our view of everything being awful.
Noah Smith brings this up in talking about what he calls “the Haan theory of history.” He says that a friend’s counterargument to the world getting better is murders caused by trans panic. I think Smith is correct in noting that this is terrible, but not widespread, and it’s probably only because there isn’t a giant amount of other terrible things that we even hear about it at all.
By increasing the scope of negative news we receive, the internet can work us into a panic where it seems everything is terrible, even if our own lives do not indicate it at all. This is part of the reason the internet is “making us less happy.”
I don’t want to act like I can see through this tendency. I remember when I was in India, I took a newspaper, and was amazed: an armed insurgency here, dozens committing ritual suicide due to the death of a popular politician there, a whole elementary school class accidentally killed by eating poisoned laddoo, an old couple beaten up by vigilantes for going for a walk holding hands. And reading that, doesn’t it seem like India is uniquely awful? But maybe it isn’t, and it’s just huge. There’s just a lot of people, about whom we can now easily learn if something bad happens.