When programs such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are used for political messaging, they bring flow along into the political process, even if the messages they carry are truthful and nonconspiratorial. That makes these media a threat to coherent political discourse from the age of print.
In the 1970s, the Hungarian American psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi adopted the word flow to describe a state of engagement that arises when people are completely focused on an activity, such as tennis or rock climbing. Around the same time, the sociologist Raymond Williams also used the term to describe the way American television’s rhythm of programs and advertising is calculated to keep viewers watching hour after hour. More recently, flow has become a term of art in video-game design. Unlike television, games require interactivity, and designers try to keep the player in the “flow channel,” where the play is neither too difficult and frustrating nor too easy and boring. Social media combine the flow of television and the flow of video games to keep the user scrolling through post after post. The motivation here is obvious: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram only earn money if you stick around to view more ads. All flow media engage people through repetition and association. Ideally, for the businesses that run them, that engagement would be endless.
Social media sometimes feel addictive. But as entertainment, flow doesn’t seem like it would threaten the fabric of society. The problem arises because social media have also become a major platform for political information and discussion. According to the Pew Research Center, 68 percent of Americans received at least some of their news from social media in 2018. Both mainstream politicians and extremist groups use Facebook and Twitter to spread information.
Applied to politics, flow buries discussion about civic action under endless streams of text, images, and videos.
Let’s consider one of the clearest manifestations of the politics of flow: online conspiracy thinking, such as the kind spread by the movement QAnon. It flourishes not only on Facebook and Twitter, but also in the videos and channels of YouTube, and now on Instagram as well.
Read: The reason conspiracy videos work so well on YouTube
It works like this: An anonymous figure known as Q emits a stream of “data dumps” on the imageboard 8chan. These oracular pronouncements are then analyzed and spread by the QAnon group to a larger audience of readers and viewers. The dumps cluster around a core idea: that Donald Trump and some loyal followers in the military and government are engaged in a clandestine, existential struggle against an international cabal of evildoers. Q claimed to have discovered, for example, that Hillary Clinton and other prominent Democrats were running an international child-sex-trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor in Washington. “Pizzagate” was only the first of a series of improbable claims Q manufactured: Robert Mueller is actually working with Trump to expose the Democrats; Angela Merkel is the granddaughter of Adolf Hitler; and the Queen of England is part of the cabal.