Monday, November 14, 2016

Can Democracy Survive Social Media?

That's the question that Wired reporter Issie Lapowsky raises in a Nov. 12 piece entitled "Facebook Alone Didn't Create Trump—The Click Economy Did."  Like many in the media, Lapowsky wasn't expecting Trump to win.  But she got a hint of what might happen when she spoke in October with a 75-year-old Trump supporter in Ohio who told her a string of crazy stories about the various depravities of Hillary and Bill Clinton.  The source of all these patently false but juicy tales?  Facebook. 

It wasn't just negative rumors that helped Trump win, says Lapowsky, but the way Trump conveyed his anger and outrage through tweets that were picked up by the media so that even non-tweeters like yours truly read about them.  It turns out that certain emotions play better over social media than others, and anger is near the top of the list. 

Once a surprising and unexpected thing happens, it's not hard to find reasons why it happened.  Whatever your political sympathies may be, the outcome of last Tuesday's presidential race shows us that social media are playing an increasing role in the way politics works in democracies such as the U. S.  And the social and ethical implications of that shift are just now beginning to be understood.

Probably the single most important difference between the way social media convey political messages today and the way the old mass media used to do it, is the fact that people now can choose media that agree with their politics.  This includes friends on Facebook, twitter feeds, websites, and even cable TV channels.  Liberals tend to listen to and read other liberals, and ditto for conservatives.  The ability to self-select one's news sources leads most people to shield themselves in comfortable bubbles or echo chambers in which people hear only the kinds of talk they want to hear.

There's nothing new about this, of course.  But for a period of about sixty years—from around 1920 to 1980—most U. S. citizens received their news from sources that were designed to appeal to the widest range of readers and listeners—and viewers, when TV came along.  John Durham Peters is a professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa, and he points out that what he calls the "old mass media" used capital-intensive plant and equipment—printing presses, news organizations such as the Associated Press, and radio and TV networks—and therefore had to make money by appealing to the largest number of people.  They did this by developing so-called "objective journalism" that strenuously avoided partisanship and tried to present an even-handed view of political and social events.  The fact that nearly everyone in the U. S. received their news from only a few news networks, which often sounded alike, imposed a uniformity of viewpoint that was not always good—minority and dissident views were often suppressed—but tended to give everyone the same starting point in political discussions.  It's hard to tell, but we may owe a good deal of the comparative unity and domestic peace within the U. S. for that period to the homogenizing influence of mass media.

The funny thing is that the objective journalism of the twentieth-century mass media was itself something of an anomaly historically.  Before newspapers got big enough to organize and use the Associated Press and similar wire-news organizations for most of their news content, most papers were highly partisan.  Even in small towns, Republicans subscribed to the Republican paper and Democrats to the Democratic paper.  Editors took radical stands and learned to deal with the consequences.  In 1869, Mark Twain penned a humorous but only slightly exaggerated view of life at a nineteenth-century newspaper in a satirical piece called "Journalism in Tennessee."  A substitute editor of a small-town paper starts his first day on the job and gets shot at, bombed, thrown out the window, and subjected to a general riot and insurrection that wrecks the office.  When the chief editor returns from vacation, he hears of these disasters and says nothing more than, "You'll like this place when you get used to it." 

Maybe Facebook and Twitter aren't as physically violent as Tennessee journalism was in 1869, but the verbal equivalent of bullets and bombs fly around social media every day, and the effects are often similar.  In 1960, no responsible newspaper would have knowingly printed false stories that one of the Presidential nominees was getting secret messages in an earpiece from a billionaire during debates and was married to a man who had an illegitimate half-black son.  But that's the kind of thing the Wired reporter heard from the Trump supporter, and the stories came from Facebook. 

Every new communications medium, going all the way back to the electromagnetic telegraph, has been hailed at first as a promising means of unifying people, parties, and nations.  And if people were angels, all these glowing predictions would come true.  But angels don't need to send telegrams or tweets, and the fallible, sinful humans who do use communications media often put them to the worst conceivable purposes. 

This is not a call for censorship or any third-party control of the way people communicate with each other.  We need only to recall how social media have played helpful and positive roles in the overthrow of repressive regimes to realize that authoritarian measures to suppress free speech are harmful to democracy.

But in the wake of last week's election, it wouldn't surprise me to see renewed calls for such restraints, although the political climate will soon change to the point that such calls may fall on deaf ears.  What should concern us more is the bad habit many have of isolating themselves by means of social media to the point that so-called discussions amount to nothing more than a group of like-minded people massaging each others' prejudices.  Politics is the art of compromise, but if you spend all your time talking with people who think just like you, you'll lose the ability to compromise.  And no one else is going to make us get out of our self-created shells.  We have to do that on our own.

Sources:  Issie Lapowsky's article " Facebook Alone Didn't Create Trump—The Click Economy Did" appeared in Wired on Nov. 12, 2016 at  John Durham Peters spoke on the old mass media in an interview with Mars Hill Audio's Ken Myers in Vol. 131 of that online audio journal, available at  And Mark Twain's satirical piece "Journalism in Tennessee" can be found in The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain (ed. Charles Neider), published by Bantam in 1971.

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