Story Versus the Internet

The first time I voted, I researched candidates, trying to get down to the nitty gritty. Soaking in the issues and what was at stake. Reaffirming or discarding suppositions of the world. That kind of stuff. You know, democracy stuff.

I very much remember that getting past the public relations simplification aspect of policy was really tough. (It’s still pretty tough, actually. I want political debates with schematics and charts and graphs and all that. Now, debates seem more like PR games than anything, not the elevated philosophical and orderly point-by-point it should be.) My total research gave me some pretty good notes on the issues and the candidates at stake. So I brought these notes with me to vote and, standing at the end of the line, began to worry about whether taking my notes to the voting booth was allowed, like if this was somehow akin to cheating on a test. Voting booths were all so official-looking to me. Foolishly, I didn’t do the sensible thing and just ask. I was a grown adult. I couldn’t take the perceived loss of dignity by asking, even though that would have been the responsible thing to do. So, while in line, I memorized my votes.

When I got to the ballot, I marked my choices. Simple. But the problem was this: there were more categories of candidates on the ballot that I hadn’t anticipated. I was ill-prepared. My self-lauded savviness in researching from president all the way down to my local board of education dissipated. Judges? Clerk of courts? How was I to know who to choose there? Did I miss a meeting? A sign? A pamphlet? What do I do now, here, in this voting booth, staring at a half-filled ballot?

It’s one of those moments where you realize the power of political parties. You have to make the choice: vote for party instead of the candidate or leave things blank. And all those positions without party affiliation, how do you vote for those positions?

I have a non-data derived feeling that I’m not alone in my un-preparedness for the whole of voting. And also for my lack of local knowledge. And this is kind of terrifying in a way. It is what critics of democracy no doubt decry: uninformed voting. And mine was well-intended uninformed voting.

Not being aware of all the positions you are going to vote for is not the only sort of uninformed voting. There is the tribalism of political parties; the allegiance to a team no matter what. There are issue voters who narrow their focus unfairly, leaving their capable minds off other issues that may be important to their fellow constituents. And then there are those who blatantly don’t know anything about politics but vote anyway.

But the most dangerous part of our democracy is the anecdote voter. And this is pervasive. It’s everywhere. It’s the most popular voter. There is no voter who has not been moved by a story. And as I stood there in that voting line for the first time, frantically memorizing well-researched notes, I was no doubt an anecdote voter as well.

We’ve all heard political anecdotes, in presidential debates and family political arguments. A story from the news or a story from a friend of a friend is recounted. This person lost their job or was affected by taxes in this way or didn’t have this opportunity. Or maybe an observation at a place of work is related, a failure or a success. Or, a story is related from that weird sanctity between human and screen and internet: a story with so much mythical power that its obvious falseness is overlooked for the sake of its narrative from which it is too seductive to not perpetuate, to not share with others.

Really, the anecdote voter displays the power of story. As an English teacher, this does make me feel a little proud, that a decried or often sarcastically diminished part of my subject area, stories (fiction or nonfiction), has such an effect on humanity, even in its elected leaders in a democratic free world. But that’s where the pride stops.

Basically, in my trajectory to become an English teacher, I’d never thought I’d have to warn people of finding the right story, the true story. And how the right story might not be a story at all.

We can perhaps go back in time to earlier bits of human civilization and hear the anecdotes that would save the lives of children and also bring a people together to defend themselves from an external violent and encroaching civilization. And we can cringe at the stereotypes involved in such stories but also find stories of such nobility that they still pepper our allusions.

And to talk of story and politics today, we must hone in on the internet, the place where we, more and more, put all our stuff. It’s convenient. It’s right there. Or, right here, if you are reading this. Just a tab or a URL bar or a swipe away. It’s in our pockets and purses where we keep our most valuable things. We should have known that the internet would become story as everything does. We were happy that it would: a computer with its beeps and bops, such glorious simplicity of binary code, tasked to make the world smaller and our knowledge larger. Story is the way to do this most efficiently. Of course, the internet doesn’t look much like the romantic campfire storytelling traditions of long past. Instead of one campfire and a limited number of storytellers, we have an almost infinite amount of story choice. And because of the vastness of story there, we necessarily curate, finding the stories that have some semblance of “us-ness” and, beneath or cognitive radar, sometimes neglect facts and truth. We are even more inclined to trust our storytellers on the internet by the stories they tell and not by who they actually are and what credibility they have. Ethos and pathos will forever be the problem of the internet, despite its wonderful setup to be a prime logos purveyor.

Time plays a factor here too. The internet is—I think we have all decided—a place for short takes. Ironically, its evolved feeds and infinite scroll and frenetic comment sections and smartphone-ified nature has had an effect on content. We don’t go to the internet largely for in-depth things. We go there for short snippets. Comments of other people or hot takes or an article hastily read. A taste of something, even if we have multiple tabs open in a frantic supposed deep dive. We skim and open more, overwhelming our focus and our attention upon the thing we are supposed to be attending to. We fill in our assumptions in these breaks of focus. We are telling stories of the internet’s content while it tells it to us. Co-storytelling.

I need not provide examples to the internet savvy user. They are known.

But it doesn’t stop us from discussing politics with stories of the people around us, or once removed from us, or gossip-like politician faux pas. All heedless of the hard data and policy facts that are needed in such a debate. Stories are just easier that way, which makes them powerful indeed.

The internet may never provide such a tool to see past the power of anecdote and political obfuscation. But we must remember we still live in the same world as we did before the internet. There is still spin, scandals, and tribalism. The way its delivered to us all has changed drastically. We put story into everything, and we must always know where it is. The next step is becoming curators that value objectively credible things, to be constant learners and war against our nature to be socially accepted or whatever image of ourselves we like to inhabit. And also to know that stories that are close to us may not be statistically significant.

I’d like to see some good credible numbers on the amount of voters who know every single thing about every candidate and issue they are voting for. I venture that this person works in politics themselves or has a lot of time on their hands. The rest of us will do what humans do when it’s all just overwhelming. Our votes will be imperfect, but we can at least understand what we can control. And if we are to live in story, as humans do, we must be able to deftly analyze them. We shouldn’t use a powerful tool if we can’t understand what it does. And that powerful tool is story, not the internet.