Welcome to the post-literate age
image by Jason Howie on Flickr

The political system is reeling in disequilibrium created by social media. Whenever a new medium emerges, anti-establishment sentiment rises. However, each medium creates a unique space. Social media brought us into the post-literate age, which resembles the world before the written word existed. No more Facebook status updates, we now ‘speak’ with pictures and clips on Snapchat. Furthermore, while we worry about fake news, confirmation bias is not the culprit.


  • In The New Yorker, Harvard professor Jill Lepore argues that whenever a new medium emerges political communication accelerates, which is destructive to consent for establishment parties and boosts anti-establishment sentiment. During these periods, nearly all candidates react by running as ‘outsiders’.
  • In the 19th century, after Andrew Jackson came to power through the campaign biography, no campaign season was ever again without one. In the 1830s, new printing technology lowered the cost of a newspaper to a penny. In both instances, the rise of the medium accompanied the rise of a new party.
  • The telephone, the Linotype, and halftone printing allowed daily newspapers to carry political news faster and to more readers than ever before. William McKinley was elected as an ‘outsider’ in 1897.
  • In the 20th century, radio started reaching everyday Americans and NBC began broadcasting. Both parties rearranged themselves around the New Deal coalition. The second half of the 20th century was characterized by polls, political consulting firms and network broadcasting. The G.O.P. took a conservative turn, there was mayhem at the nominating conventions, and Southern whites abandoned the Democrats.
  • In the 21st century, the system is reeling in the disequilibrium created by social media. Again, most candidates have revolted against party leaders.


While the political effect of new media is similar, each medium opens up a unique space. Marshall McLuhan argued that the written word fundamentally changed human consciousness, a theme central to the 2016 sci-fi movie Arrival. However, social media have opened up a space which resembles the time before the written word existed: clear, memorable and repeatable ideas go ‘viral’. Indeed, on social media, nuanced thoughts do not play well, but a resonant one-liner has extraordinary influence. In the pre-literate age, expressions were ‘formulaic’: not “the soldier”, but “the brave soldier.” Similarly, “Crooked Hillary”, shared endlessly, became instantly memorable. Trump’s repetitive rhetoric also resembles the pre-literate age, in which overabundance was rewarded since forgotten information disappeared forever.

On social media, nuanced thoughts do not play well, but a resonant one-liner has extraordinary influence.

The logic of the spoken word has returned with social media. Facebook is worried about the decline of status updates which permanently remain on our wall. But these norms belong to the literate-age. In the post-literate age, we ‘speak’ with pictures and clips which automatically disappear on Snapchat: the logic of the written word has been dislodged. Evan Spiegel, CEO of Snap Inc, notes that a girl which takes 10,000 photos a day is not preserving images: “She is talking.”

Social media also boosts fake news, but there is a deeper explanation than confirmation bias. Confirmation bias does not explain why people fall for fake news on nonpartisan issues. Rather, ‘layered sources’ endanger news credibility. If your friend shares a politician’s tweet of a newspaper story on Facebook, there’s a chain of 5 sources. Research shows that readers are swayed by the source that directly delivered them the story: Facebook, or their trustworthy friend. Because new media add layers, this could explain why TV also became associated with ‘post-facts’. An Eisenhower TV ad from 1956 features a character who despairs: “I’ve listened to everyone on TV and radio. But I’m still confused. What are the facts?”