Sharon McMahon Has No Use for Rage-Baiting

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Sharon McMahon Has No Use for Rage-Baiting
Sharon McMahon Has No Use for Rage-Baiting

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The Instagram influencer’s workshop on abortion was not meant to persuade anyone. But by the end of the 2,000-person, five-hour Zoom history lesson, at least a few attendees were thinking differently about one of the most fraught topics in American politics. “I personally believe in the sacredness of life,” Shelley Smith, a conservative participant from California, told me afterward. But “something that was important for me to learn was [that] my personal beliefs shouldn’t trump someone else’s body autonomy.”

Sharon McMahon, the 45-year-old Instagram star in question, regularly performs what amounts to a magic trick. Hearing information that challenges our beliefs does not usually feel good. Yet participants in McMahon’s abortion workshop did not seem to want the lesson to end. They listened as she described early case law and the right to privacy. They peppered her with questions about “personhood” and “viability”; they divulged personal stories, and shared their most closely held religious views. The Zoom chat filled up with reassurances whenever someone raised their hand: Thank you for bravely speaking up. One woman asked McMahon whether lawmakers should be allowed to use their religion to justify banning abortion. “That is the million-dollar question, Courtney!” McMahon replied. “All of society’s laws are based on a society’s morals. Where do people’s morals come from?”

How—and whether—to bridge the deep and growing ideological divide between Americans has become the ambient question in politics today. Some people seem to believe that the best way forward on issues like abortion, gun control, and COVID-19 is to shout and shame across the chasm. McMahon, who explains the news and unpacks political arguments on her Instagram page, Sharon Says So, has a different approach. And, remarkably, people seem to like it: As of this writing, McMahon has 900,000 followers—or “Governerds,” as her fans call themselves. The Sharon Says So podcast is among the top-ranked government podcasts on Apple, and thousands of people tune in live for McMahon’s monthly deep-dive workshops. The majority of McMahon’s followers are women—90 percent, she estimates—partly because most Instagram users are women. Someone in your life is probably a Governerd; a sister, maybe, or a co-worker. My high-school friends love her. So does my mom. McMahon lives in Duluth, Minnesota, but the Governerds live everywhere, in all 50 U.S. states, Canada, and a handful of other countries. White House staffers have called McMahon about her work; aides for Republican and Democratic lawmakers and candidates have emailed to ask about getting their bosses on the podcast.

Somehow, in an era when our politics have become so deeply entwined with our personal identity, and Americans with different ideologies seem unable to even tolerate one another, McMahon has built something valuable and rare: a place where people can talk kindly to one another, and occasionally even change their minds. How does she do it? I wondered when I came across her account earlier this year. And can it possibly last?

McMahon, who has bright-blond hair and exudes powerful golden-retriever energy, did not set out to become famous, on Instagram or anywhere else. For more than a decade, she taught high-school government and law in D.C. and the Bay Area while running a hand-yarn-dyeing company. After moving back to her hometown of Duluth, she opened a photography studio. Early posts on her Instagram feed are mostly high-res photos of newborn babies and beaming high-school graduates.

McMahon’s journey to Instagram stardom began with a small moment of frustration. It was September 2020, and McMahon had temporarily closed her photography studio because of the pandemic. She was scrolling through Facebook when she noticed that a stranger had responded to a friend’s post with an inaccurate comment. “When the Electoral College meets in D.C., they will look at all the evidence and decide they can’t certify the election,” he’d written. McMahon was instantly annoyed. The Electoral College doesn’t meet all together, and it doesn’t decertify anything. She decided to make a video using props from her photography studio—a ceramic bucket, a wooden box, a basket full of decorative pine cones—to explain how the Electoral College works. Her Instagram followers shared it, and some of their followers did too. McMahon already had a sizable audience thanks to her business—she estimates about 15,000 followers—but after the video, she watched that number spike. She made another video the next week, and a third after that. She described people’s reasons for voting for third parties and the constitutionality of mask mandates. She captioned each video “Completely factual and non-partisan.” She presented serious topics, with a lighthearted tone. She explained her last name as having “a silent ‘ho’ in the middle.”

By late October 2020, the presidential race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump was all-consuming. Emotions were high, and people were dreading what Election Day would bring. So McMahon added a new daily feature to her Stories: a question box asking, “How can I help?” Once her followers started sending in questions, they never stopped. “What if Trump refuses to leave?” people asked. “What happens if they can’t determine a winner?” McMahon’s followers were responding to the chaos in American politics by looking for answers, and she had clear, dispassionate, and often funny ones.

In the days after the election, while states were still counting votes and Trump and his allies were beginning to cry fraud, McMahon urged her followers to take a deep breath and practice empathy. She put up a few slides explaining what Trump voters liked about him, and why they so desperately wanted him to win. She shared a few more about Biden’s voters. The post was a hit; her fans reposted it thousands of times. So McMahon launched a new feature called “Listening to Understand”: About once a week, she would ask her followers to DM her their views on recent controversies, and she’d share screenshots of their responses. For a few minutes, a few times every month, McMahon began facilitating a political sharing session in which no one was trying to convince anyone else that they were wrong. In these segments, “I find I can empathize with others who don’t feel as I do,” Carolyn Kelleher, a 63-year-old from New Hampshire, told me via email. “Is this magic???”

Soon, McMahon fell into a rhythm. Every morning, she would pore over the front-page stories in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. She’d scan a range of sites and channels, including Newsmax and MSNBC, to learn how they were covering the day’s events. She would choose a few news items—the ones she thought were most important or relevant to her audience—and record herself explaining them in her Instagram Stories. Along the way, she’d sprinkle in goofy animal TikToks, intricate makeup tutorials, and self-deprecating clothing try-ons. The result was a slightly disjointed stream of infotainment: One minute, you’d be listening to Sharon explain the difference between media bias and disinformation; the next, you’d watch as baby alpacas leapt over a mud puddle. McMahon’s followers often feel anxious watching or reading the news. They liked her because she wasn’t trying to scare them.

By the spring of 2021, McMahon’s followers were asking more questions and demanding deeper explanations. So she started scheduling paid Zoom workshops—starting at $2.99 a pop—to delve into the history of various topics. Some were light: Surprise First Ladies, The Treasonous Aaron Burr. Some were more serious: Abortion, Gun Laws in the United States. The rules for these virtual sessions were simple: Raise your hand to speak. Be kind to others. After that, McMahon expanded the Sharon Says So universe, launching the podcast, as well as a subscription-only book club and private discussion group ($63 a semester). Last semester, that private group had roughly 10,000 members.

The winding roads of Instagram have led liberals, conservatives, and independents to Sharon Says So. But most of McMahon’s followers—between 60 and 70 percent, she estimates—consider themselves politically homeless. The account tends to attract people who aren’t happy with the current system, McMahon told me in one of several interviews this spring. “It tends to be people who feel like, None of this represents what I want or what I want America to be,” she said. Many Governerds are Republicans who don’t like the direction of the GOP; the women who first introduced me to McMahon were former Republicans and members of the LDS Church who voted for Biden in 2020. One of the largest concentrations of Sharon Says So followers is in Utah, according to McMahon, which makes sense: Many Utah voters are moderates—the kind of people sought after by both political parties. This coming week, McMahon plans to release a podcast interview with Senator Mitt Romney of Utah. Many other senators and House members, hoping to reach a broader, persuadable audience, have asked to come on, McMahon told me. She’s said no to most of them.

Her followers trust her. She represents “sanity, reason, truthiness, facts, in just a sea of yelling and screaming and anger,” Grace Seidel, a 62-year-old Democrat from Washington State, told me. That McMahon’s Instagram Stories sit right at the top of her followers’ feeds, nestled between videos of their brother’s new baby or their college friend’s wedding, creates a sense of intimacy, as though McMahon is one of their real-life friends. She has “a very strong parasocial relationship with her audience,” Claire Wardle, a co-founder of the nonprofit First Draft News, which fights mis- and disinformation, told me. “She’s filling in where people feel lacking in community.”

The Governerd community has grown so much that in January 2021, McMahon decided not to reopen her studio, and made Sharon Says So her full-time job. Even now, on a typical day, McMahon receives about 10,000 questions in her DMs—Why is there so much talk about critical race theory? What are the chances of nuclear war with Russia?—and she’ll answer as many as she can before she goes to bed. The staggering number of queries she gets isn’t disheartening, she told me. It shows that “people don’t want to believe things that are wrong. They want to know things that are real, that are based on facts.”

McMahon now employs five people, most of whom work on the podcast, and she’s writing a memoir, set to come out in the fall of 2023. She wouldn’t share how much money she’s making through Sharon Says So, except to say that it’s more than her old teacher’s salary. But McMahon would like to spread that wealth around: To date, she said, she and the Governerds have raised $4.8 million for charitable causes, including medical-debt relief and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.

Photograph by Ethan Aaro Jones for The Atlantic

McMahon has never told the Governerds how she votes, and she wouldn’t tell me either. She’s attracted a huge following by keeping that mystery alive. In fact, the future of her entire project seems to rely on maintaining it. Over and over, her fans told me that they would hate to learn anything about McMahon’s politics—for that illusion of perfect objectivity to be shattered. As a reporter whose job is to be skeptical about people’s motives, and to call out hucksters when I see them, I found McMahon’s secrecy unsettling. We aren’t used to people with such large platforms being so tight-lipped about their politics; virtue-signaling on Instagram is all the rage. I’m being hoodwinked, tricked! I occasionally thought while I watched McMahon break down pivotal Supreme Court cases with an air of detachment. I Googled her obsessively; I scrounged for her voting records but was able to find only that she was registered to vote in Minnesota; I scrolled all the way to her earliest social-media posts, trying to uncover evidence that she was a secret liberal activist or a closeted Trump donor. I never did.

McMahon does occasionally share her opinion. No love is lost, for example, between her and Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom she calls a “murdering dictator” and likes to mock. She’s been clear that the 2020 election was not stolen, and has condemned the January 6 riot at the Capitol as an attack on democracy, putting her fundamentally at odds with former President Trump. When 19 children and two adults were killed in the recent mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, McMahon encouraged her followers to call their senators and ask them to support background-check legislation, and she said she opposed arming teachers. “Some things are just so important that there is not a justifiable flip side,” she said in an Instagram Story. She thinks carefully about whom she invites on her podcast to avoid platforming “people who operated in bad faith,” she told me. And McMahon’s haven for facts isn’t entirely safe from partisan brawling. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, she posted a video reminding people that “the only thing you can compare to a genocide is another genocide.” A fight broke out among her followers in the comments section about mask mandates, vaccine requirements, and Adolf Hitler. “I admit I was one of them,” Seidel, the Democrat from Washington, told me. She regrets it now. “This is exactly what Sharon tries to [avoid].”

You could argue, though, that McMahon doesn’t go far enough. Understanding the news and agreeing on basic facts is the bare-minimum standard for a thriving democracy. What comes next—forming an opinion on those facts and advocating for political change—is much harder. McMahon doesn’t offer much in that department. She “makes you feel smart and safe and involved,” Laney Hawes, a 40-year-old from Texas, told me. “But I think, especially for me as a white woman, it’s time for me to take the next step and be uncomfortable.” One of McMahon’s followers wrote about her concerns in a question box last summer: “I struggle with your philosophy,” she said, “when one party’s political agenda is focused on things that are false.”

McMahon’s response to this line of criticism is to point out that people cannot be defined by the leaders they elect to represent them. “I’m suggesting that we stop believing that all Democrats align themselves wholeheartedly with Joe Biden and all Republicans align themselves wholeheartedly with Donald Trump,” she says in one video. When I asked McMahon about her political neutrality in March, she nodded, like she’d been waiting for the question. “Now, more than any other time, people view your political viewpoints through the lens of morality,” she said. “And if you are on the wrong side, then you are an immoral person, and you might as well be friends with somebody who, like, kills puppies.” Her goal on Instagram, she said, is to create a space to debate ideas and policies, not people. “If we want a country that is less divisive, we need to be less divisive ourselves.”

McMahon spends a lot of time thinking about how to communicate information to people who are resistant to it. She gets a lot of questions from her followers about “deep state” sex cabals, Satan worship, and other QAnon beliefs. During the Ghislaine Maxwell trial, some of McMahon’s fans asked whether a ring of government pedophiles was about to get arrested. Her answers to questions like these are always firm, but kind. “Shame,” she told me, “is not a good changer of behavior.” Her theory is that American politics would work better if more people extended more empathy to others. Many people “fundamentally misunderstand the motivations of the other side,” she said, but when you let go of your assumptions, you can see the humanity in the other person. “It’s hard,” she added, “to hate people up close.”

Some people might find all of this positivity cringeworthy. I did, at first. Frankly, I found the whole thing a bit kumbaya, and even a little reductive. Why do people need cute animal videos mixed in with their news? I wondered. Why are people relying on an Instagram influencer to answer their questions, when they could just use Google? But the more Sharon Says So Stories I watched, the more I had to admit: It felt nice, seeing people engage with one another so kindly, and hearing McMahon answer the most basic questions about American politics so patiently. Her videos were a delightful break from the toxic interactions that I normally write about. “She’s teaching high-school history classes to 40-year-old moms!” as one fan put it to me earlier this year.

But McMahon’s project seems bigger than that. Her focus on listening to understand is, in fact, how persuasion functions—whether you’re urging someone to hear new information or convincing them of an opposing argument. “If you can get people to listen—you get them to watch the video or read the article or sit through the conversation—persuasion works,” Alex Coppock, a professor at Yale who studies political persuasion, told me. McMahon’s community, with its silly TikToks and welcoming chat messages, could serve to “sweeten the experience and offset the negative effects of learning you were wrong,” Coppock said.

Then again, maybe the community that McMahon has built is special because the Governerds are special. The type of person attracted to Sharon Says So tends, by McMahon’s own description, to be predisposed to investigating his or her own opinions. In other words, a key constraint on McMahon’s more widespread success could be that only a certain segment of Americans would opt in to consuming her videos and Stories. Before following Sharon Says So, Shelley Smith, the woman who changed her mind on abortion, had never been part of a community of people with so many different perspectives. “I truly have not educated myself very well,” she said. “I’ve just kind of gone through [life] like, okay, this is my party, this is how I’m voting.” Now, because of McMahon, Smith says, she listens more, asks more questions, and makes time to hear opinions that she disagrees with, she told me. I asked Smith if that might be giving one woman and her Instagram page too much credit. She didn’t think so. “I think people are craving goodness,” Smith said. “We’ve created a climate where controversy and hate and contention make money. Sharon created the complete opposite—and it’s working.”

I’ve continued to follow Sharon Says So even after I finished reporting this story. I like to click through her Stories on Fridays, when she urges her readers, “Tell me something good!” I like hearing the mechanics-of-government questions that her followers have; sometimes I have the same ones. But mostly, I like being exposed to other Americans’ thinking—smart ideas and surprising arguments from people outside my own social bubble. Maybe it will turn out that McMahon is a big-time fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee, or the administrator of a Minnesotans for Trump Facebook page. I really hope not.

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