Tag Archives: media

Weaponizing Social Media

The already ample commentary directed at our “Tweeter-in-Chief” grew more copious–and pointed–in the wake of Trump’s “Morning Joe” attacks and the bizarre visual of him “body slamming” CNN.

John Cassidy’s essay in the New Yorker was consistent with the general tenor of those reactions, especially his conclusion:

Where America, until recently, had at its helm a Commander-in-Chief whom other countries acknowledged as a global leader and a figure of stature even if they didn’t like his policies, it now has something very different: an oafish Troll-in-Chief who sullies his office daily.

Most of the Cassidy piece focused on Trump’s addiction to–and childish use of–Twitter, and it is hard to disagree with his observation that the content of these messages is “just not normal behavior.” Thoughtful people, those not given to hyperbole or ad hominem attacks, are increasingly questioning Trump’s mental health.

The paragraph that struck me, however, was this one, because it raises an issue larger than the disaster in the White House:

Trump’s online presence isn’t something incidental to his Presidency: it is central to it, and always has been. If the media world were still dominated by the major broadcast networks and a handful of big newspapers, Trump would most likely still be hawking expensive apartments, building golf courses, and playing himself in a reality-television series. It was the rise of social media, together with the proliferation of alternative right-wing news sites, that enabled Trump to build a movement of angry, alienated voters and, ultimately, go from carnival barker to President.

Unpack, for a moment, the observation that social media and alternative “news” made Trump possible.

John Oliver recently aired a worrisome segment about Sinclair Broadcasting, a “beneath the radar” behemoth which is on the verge of a $3.9 billion merger with Tribune Media. That merger would significantly consolidate ownership of local television outlets, including one in Indianapolis. Oliver showed clips demonstrating Sinclair’s extreme right-wing bias–bias that, as Oliver pointed out– is in the same category as Fox News and Breitbart.

It’s damaging enough when radio talk shows, television networks and internet sites peddle falsehoods and conspiracy theories. What truly “weaponizes” disinformation and propaganda, however, is social media, where Facebook “friends” and twitter followers endlessly repeat even the most obvious fantasies; as research has shown, that repetition can make even people who are generally rational believe very irrational things.

When NASA has to issue an official denial that it is operating a child slave colony on Mars, we’re in unprecedented times.

I don’t have research to confirm or rebut my theory, but I believe that Americans’ loss of trust in our government–in our institutions and those elected and/or appointed to manage them–has made many people receptive to “alternative” explanations for decisions they may not like or understand. It couldn’t be that the people making that decision or crafting that legislation simply see the situation differently. It couldn’t be that public servant A is simply wrong; or that those making decision B had access to information we don’t have. No–they must be getting paid off. They must be working with other enemies of righteousness in a scheme to [fill in the blank].

No wonder it is so difficult to get good people to run for public office. In addition to good faith disagreements about their performance, they are likely to be accused of corrupt motives.

The other day, I struck up a discussion with a perfectly nice woman–a former schoolteacher. The talk turned to IPS, and she was complimentary about the schools with which she was familiar. She was less complimentary about the district’s charter schools–a position I understand. (It’s a mixed bag. Some are excellent, some aren’t, and they certainly aren’t a panacea for what ails education.)

All perfectly reasonable.

Then she confided to me that the Superintendent “gets a bonus” for every contract he signs with a Charter school. In other words, it’s all about the money. It couldn’t be that the school board and superintendent want the best for the children in the district and–right or wrong– simply see things differently.

Our daughter is on that school board, and I know for a fact that the Superintendent does NOT get bonuses for contracting with charter schools.  When I shared this exchange with our daughter, she regaled me with a number of other appalling, disheartening accusations that have grown and festered on social media.

I don’t have a remedy for our age of conspiracy. Censorship is clearly not an answer. (In the long run,  education can help.) But if we don’t devise a strategy for countering radio and television propaganda and the fever swamps of social media–the instruments that gave us Trump–we’ll be in an increasingly dangerous world of hurt.

 

The Big Lie Era

The expression “the big lie” was coined by Adolf Hitler; in Mein Kampf, he defined it as the use of a lie so “colossal” that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”

These days, Americans are so swamped with lies, big and small, that nothing surprises us. Our problem is that we are increasingly reluctant to accept anything as the truth.

Fake news. “Post-fact” analyses of issues. An unremitting war on science and evidence. “Alternative facts.” Self-serving lies by politicians to obscure the reality that they are carrying water for donors and special interests. Big business enterprises peddling confusion and dangerous disinformation (as the tobacco companies famously admitted, “doubt is our product”) to protect their bottom lines.

The debates over Obamacare provide recent examples. Aetna made big news when it announced that it was pulling out of all but four of the 15 states where it was participating  in the Obamacare exchanges because it was losing too much money. A federal judge ruled that was a blatant falsehood— Aetna made its decision primarily in response to a federal antitrust lawsuit blocking its proposed $37-billion merger with Humana. Aetna had threatened federal officials with the pullout before the lawsuit was filed.

Obamacare has its flaws, but rather than fixing them–rather than providing the tweaks that all new programs require as implementation discloses problems–our lawmakers also chose to lie, in order to escape blame for denying twenty million Americans continued access to healthcare.

The Trumpists have indeed scrubbed the White House’s page detailing the accomplishments of the Affordable Care Act. The previous White House, knowing this was coming, took the precaution of archiving it and saving it for posterity, and for everyone who knows better to have it to point to.

But make no mistake, the theme from the Trump lie machine is going to be that Obamacare was doomed to fail, as Charles Gaba points out. Republicans started this back in December, figuring out how to make the disaster they create when they repeal the law without a replacement all Obama’s fault. And they’re moving forward with that plan.

Today, peddling “big lies”–about Obamacare, about global climate change, about “terrorist threats” or American “greatness”–is much easier than it was in Hitler’s day, because we not only have “alternative facts,” we have “alternative” news sources. A friend who decided to sample news coverage of the massive, spontaneous airport protests following Trump’s horrific Executive Order discovered that Fox News simply didn’t cover them. People who get their (mis)information exclusively from Fox wouldn’t even be aware that the protests occurred.

Steve Bannon, who is effectively running the country while the delusional “President” watches movies and tweets compulsively, ran a propaganda “news” organization prior to his fortuitous (for him) elevation to power. He clearly understands–and embraces– the power of the Big Lie.

Unfortunately, that isn’t his only area of agreement with Hitler.

There has never been a time when real journalism–and the ability of ordinary citizens to distinguish between truth and lies, propaganda and reality–has been more important.

About Those Democratic Norms…

This morning’s New York Times contains a disquieting submission from two Harvard government professors. They began

Donald J. Trump’s election has raised a question that few Americans ever imagined asking: Is our democracy in danger? With the possible exception of the Civil War, American democracy has never collapsed; indeed, no democracy as rich or as established as America’s ever has. Yet past stability is no guarantee of democracy’s future survival.

We have spent two decades studying the emergence and breakdown of democracy in Europe and Latin America. Our research points to several warning signs.

Pre-eminent among those warning signs is the emergence and electoral success of what the authors call “anti-democratic” politicians, who can be recognized by their failure–or refusal– to reject violence, willingness to curtail civil liberties, and their attacks on the legitimacy of elected governments. As they illustrate, Trump fits the bill.

Another warning sign is the weakening of democratic institutions and norms.

Among the unwritten rules that have sustained American democracy are partisan self-restraint and fair play. For much of our history, leaders of both parties resisted the temptation to use their temporary control of institutions to maximum partisan advantage, effectively underutilizing the power conferred by those institutions. There existed a shared understanding, for example, that anti-majoritarian practices like the Senate filibuster would be used sparingly, that the Senate would defer (within reason) to the president in nominating Supreme Court justices, and that votes of extraordinary importance — like impeachment — required a bipartisan consensus. Such practices helped to avoid a descent into the kind of partisan fight to the death that destroyed many European democracies in the 1930s.

As the authors note, “partisan restraint” and other norms of democratic behavior have significantly eroded, replaced by naked power struggles.

The filibuster, once a rarity, has become a routine tool of legislative obstruction. As the political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have shown, the decline of partisan restraint has rendered our democratic institutions increasingly dysfunctional. Republicans’ 2011 refusal to raise the debt ceiling, which put America’s credit rating at risk for partisan gain, and the Senate’s refusal this year to consider President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee — in essence, allowing the Republicans to steal a Supreme Court seat — offer an alarming glimpse at political life in the absence of partisan restraint.

The erosion of these governing norms did not happen all at once; the signs of growing dysfunction have been visible–especially at the federal level–for decades. Although Trump did not cause the weakening of these safeguards, he was a clear beneficiary.

In the wake of November 8, pundits have scrambled to “explain” the election results. As James Fallows writes in “Despair and Hope in the Age of Trump,” most of those explanations are wrongheaded.

Fallows, too, underscores the importance of democratic norms, and the implications of Trump’s contempt for rules of any kind.

The American republic is based on rules but has always depended for its survival on norms—standards of behavior, conduct toward fellow citizens and especially critics and opponents that is decent beyond what the letter of the law dictates. Trump disdains them all. The American leaders I revere are sure enough of themselves to be modest, strong enough to entertain self-doubt. When I think of Republican Party civic virtues, I think of Eisenhower. But voters, or enough of them, have chosen Trump.

Fallows dismisses two popular explanations of that choice: the belief that this was a sweeping “change” election, and the theory that the vote reflected the “desperation and fury” of citizens living away from the liberal coasts. Change elections drive waves of incumbents out of office; as he notes, that didn’t happen. The “rage” theory is similarly wanting. As Fallows says, that theory misses

the optimism and determination that are intertwined with desolation and decay in the real “out there.” I can say that because I have been out there, reporting with my wife, Deb, in smaller-town America for much of the past four years….

A Pew study in 2014 found that only 25 percent of respondents were satisfied with the direction of national policy, but 60 percent were satisfied with events in their own communities. According to a Heartland Monitor report in 2016, two in three Americans said that good ideas for dealing with national social and economic challenges were coming from their towns. Fewer than one in three felt that good ideas were coming from national institutions. These results also underscore the sense my wife and I took unmistakably from our visits: that city by city, and at the level of politics where people’s judgments are based on direct observation rather than media-fueled fear, Americans still trust democratic processes and observe long-respected norms.

It really is the media.

Count me among those who have become convinced that the decline of responsible journalism, the proliferation of “fake news” sites and the increasing sophistication of propaganda (Russian or homegrown)–abetted by a dangerous lack of civic literacy– are largely to blame for the disconnect between citizens and their national government, and for the erosion of those all-important democratic norms.

Fallows’ concluding paragraph is  profound.

Nearly a century ago, Walter Lippmann wrote that the challenge for democracies is that citizens necessarily base decisions on the “pictures in our heads,” the images of reality we construct for ourselves. The American public has just made a decision of the gravest consequence, largely based on distorted, frightening, and bigoted caricatures of reality that we all would recognize as caricature if applied to our own communities. Given the atrophy of old-line media with their quaint regard for truth, the addictive strength of social media and their unprecedented capacity to spread lies, and the cynicism of modern politics, will we ever be able to accurately match image with reality? The answer to that question will determine the answer to another: whether this election will be a dire but survivable challenge to American institutions or an irreversible step toward something else.

Journalism and the 2016 Election

Wednesday evening, the ACLU of Indiana hosted one of its “First Wednesday” programs. These are brief, hour and a half presentations focused on current civil liberties issues. This one was titled “Election 2016 and the Media: Free Press or Free for All?”

John Ketzenberger moderated the panel, which consisted of two television reporters, Russ McQuaid and Marc Mullins, the opinion editor of the Indianapolis Star, Tim Swarens, and Mary Beth Schneider, who recently left her job at the Star, where she had been their long-time statehouse reporter.

Rather than focusing on the coverage of the 2016 election, as the title had suggested, the panel mostly bemoaned the challenges of today’s media environment, particularly the impact of digital media on longstanding business models. In response to an audience question (posed by my husband), they did agree that Trump had “played” the press to his advantage for much of the election cycle.

Despite the focus on the challenges posed by the Internet, most of the conversation avoided recognition of the actual state of traditional media. At one point, one of the broadcast representatives did note that media companies had become too dependent upon young reporters with little experience in lieu of (more expensive) seasoned journalists. But there was absolutely no discussion of the constant, punishing newsroom layoffs by Gannett, the loss of reporters like Mary Beth whose work was informed by institutional memory and deep knowledge, and the utter lack of print coverage of state and local government.

At times, Tim Swarens seemed almost delusional. He made the point that newspapers can gain/keep readership if they provide consistent, high-quality journalism (no argument there), then repeatedly and proudly claimed that the current iteration of the Star produces such journalism. There was no acknowledgment of the evisceration of the paper’s news staff, the dwindling ratio of actual news to sports and entertainment coverage, the virtual absence of reporting that used to be routine–stories about school board meetings, City-County Council committee deliberations, agency decisions and the like. (On the rare occasion that there are such reports, they tend to lack the context and background necessary to understand their significance.)

Our local business paper, the Indianapolis Business Journal, actually does a much better job on that front, recognizing that area businesses need to know what their government is doing.

The panel did recognize that the frantic competition for “clicks” and eyeballs too often drives coverage, posing a danger to the accuracy and completeness of stories.

I certainly don’t have a remedy for the very real problems journalism faces in an era of rampant on-line news and propaganda, declining revenues and outmoded business models. But I do know two things: 1) Americans need reputable news sources that tell us not just what we want to know, but what we need to know; and 2) you can’t fix a problem if you refuse to admit you have it.

Media Matters

If there is one observation about American politics that everyone agrees on–whether they are left, right or center–  it’s that the electorate is deeply polarized.

There are a number of theories about why political actors are unable to agree on even the most pedestrian and formerly uncontroversial issues. A recent study suggests that our fragmented media environment has a lot to do with it.

In “Income Inequality, Media Fragmentation, and Increased Political Polarization,” published in Contemporary Economic Policy, August 2016, two economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas looked for evidence that media fragmentation plays a bigger role in polarization than income inequality. They looked at variables across six decades: indexes of polarization in the U.S. House and in the Senate, family income data from the Census Bureau and the percentage of Americans with cable or satellite television. The data confirmed that polarization has increased rapidly since the 1980s, but did not point to a cause.

Two of their findings:

  • The growing plurality of news sources as well as the increasing access to cable television made the greatest contribution to political polarization. Two phenomena, or a combination of the two, are responsible: Individuals seek out “self-reinforcing viewpoints rather than be exposed to a common ‘nightly news’ broadcast” — this is sometimes called siloing. Also, individuals are jettisoning news programming for entertainment, “thereby reducing incidental or by-product learning about politics.”
  • The decreasing exposure to alternative views and the increasing buttressing of one’s own views has combined to create less sympathy for others’ views and less of an ability to understand others’ views. “This may be reinforced by a tendency for political differences to be decreasingly addressed through genuine debate and increasingly replaced with media coverage of political vilification or grandstanding.”

Other research has reached similar conclusions.The Pew Research Center published an extensive investigation into political polarization and media habits in 2014, including five key takeaways. In 2016, Pew also looked at ideological gaps between people with different education backgrounds.

As the Journalists’ Resource notes,

Harvard University Professor Thomas Patterson’s book, Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism (Vintage 2013), describes, among other things, how in 1987 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rescinded the Fairness Doctrine, giving rise to extremely slanted radio and then cable news talk shows. The Fairness Doctrine, Patterson writes, “had discouraged the airing of partisan talk shows by requiring stations that did so to offer a balanced lineup of liberal and conservative programs. Once the requirement was eliminated, hundreds of stations launched talk shows of their choosing, the most successful of which had a conservative slant.”

People who consume sharply partisan news coverage are less likely to believe the truth even when they are presented with clear evidence they are wrong, according to research published in 2016 in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication and flagged by the Poynter Institute.

When America is going through a particularly nasty period, it’s often comforting to remind ourselves that “we’ve been here before.” (Think civil war, the 60s, etc.) But we haven’t had social media and the internet during previous rough patches. We haven’t been able to choose our realities, insulate ourselves in our preferred “bubbles” and shut out inconvenient facts.

I hope I’m wrong, but I think that makes a big difference….