MARCH 27, 2018
PRESIDENT TRUMP’S TWITTER STREAM may be without precedent, but the controversy surrounding social media’s political impact has a history stretching back nearly a century. During the 1930s, the spread of mass media was accompanied by the rise of fascism. To many observers at the time, the former helped explain the latter. By consolidating control over news and other information, radio networks, movie studios, and publishing houses enabled a single voice to address and even command the multitudes. The very structure of mass media seemed to reflect and reinforce the political structure of the authoritarian state.
But even as the centralization of broadcasting and publishing raised the specter of a media-sculpted “authoritarian personality,” it also inspired a contrasting ideal, as Stanford professor Fred Turner explains in an essay collected in Trump and the Media. Sociologists and psychologists began to imagine a decentralized, multimedia communication network that would encourage the development of a “democratic personality,” providing a bulwark against fascist movements and their charismatic leaders. By exposing citizens to a multiplicity of perspectives and empowering them to express their own opinions, such a system would give rise, the scholars believed, to “a psychologically whole individual, able to freely choose what to believe, with whom to associate, and where to turn their attention.”
The ideal of a radically “democratized” media, decentralized, participative, and personally emancipating, was enticing, and it continued to cast a spell long after the defeat of the fascist powers in World War II. The ideal infused the counterculture of the 1960s. Beatniks and hippies staged kaleidoscopic multimedia “happenings” as a way to free their minds, find their true selves, and subvert consumerist conventionality. By the end of the 1970s, the ideal had been embraced by Steve Jobs and other technologists, who celebrated the personal computer as an anti-authoritarian tool of self-actualization. In the early years of this century, as the internet subsumed traditional media, the ideal became a pillar of Silicon Valley ideology. The founders of companies like Google and Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, promoted their networks as tools for overthrowing mass-media “gatekeepers” and giving individuals control over the exchange of information. They promised, as Turner writes, that social media would “allow us to present our authentic selves to one another” and connect those diverse selves into a more harmonious, pluralistic, and democratic society.
Then came the 2016 US presidential campaign. The ideal’s fruition proved its undoing.
The democratization of media produced not harmony and pluralism but fractiousness and propaganda, and the political energies it unleashed felt more autocratic than democratic. Silicon Valley ideology was revealed as naïve and self-serving, and the leaders of the major social media platforms, taken by surprise, stumbled from cluelessness to denial to befuddlement. Turner is blunt in his own assessment:
the faith of a generation of 20th-century liberal theorists — as well as their digital descendants — was misplaced: decentralization does not necessarily increase democracy in the public sphere or in the state. On the contrary, the technologies of decentralized communication can be coupled very tightly to the charismatic, personality-centered modes of authoritarianism long associated with mass media and mass society.
Around the wreckage of techno-progressive orthodoxy orbit the 27 articles in Trump and the Media. The writers, mainly communication and journalism scholars from American and British universities, are homogeneous in their politics — none is in danger of being mistaken for a Trump voter — but heterogeneous in their views on the state and fate of journalism. Their takes on “what happened” (to quote Hillary Clinton) clash in illuminating ways.
One contentious question is whether social media in general and Twitter in particular actually changed the outcome of the vote. Keith N. Hampton, of Michigan State University, finds “no evidence” that any of the widely acknowledged malignancies of social media, from fake news to filter bubbles, “worked in favor of a particular presidential candidate.” Drawing on exit polls, he shows that most demographic groups voted pretty much the same in 2016 as they had in the Obama-Romney race of 2012. The one group that exhibited a large and possibly decisive shift from the Democratic to the Republican candidate were white voters without college degrees. Yet these voters, surveys reveal, are also the least likely to spend a lot of time online or to be active on social media. It’s unfair to blame Twitter or Facebook for Trump’s victory, Hampton suggests, if the swing voters weren’t on Twitter or Facebook.
What Hampton overlooks are the indirect effects of social media, particularly its influence on press coverage and public attention. As the University of Oxford’s Josh Cowls and Ralph Schroeder write, Trump’s Twitter account may have been monitored by only a small portion of the public, but it was followed, religiously, by journalists, pundits, and policymakers. The novelty and frequent abrasiveness of the tweets — they broke all the rules of decorum for presidential campaigns — mesmerized the chattering class throughout the primaries and the general election campaign, fueling a frenzy of retweets, replies, and hashtags. Social media’s biggest echo chamber turned out to be the traditional media elite.
An analysis of Twitter mentions and news stories, Cowls and Schroeder report, reveals a clear correlation: “Trump is mentioned in tweets far more than any other candidate in both parties, often more than all other candidates combined, and the volume of tweets closely tracks his outsize coverage in the dominant mainstream media.” Through his use of Twitter, Trump didn’t so much bypass the established media as bend its coverage to his own ends, keeping himself at the center of TV and radio reports and on the front pages of newspapers while amplifying the anger, outrage, and enmity his posts were intended to sow.
The result, several of the contributors to Trump and the Media posit, was to push voters of all persuasions away from reasoned judgments and toward emotional reactions — a shift that further served Trump’s interests. Zizi Papacharissi, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago (and, along with Northwestern’s Pablo J. Boczkowski, an editor of the volume), argues that the emotionalism of press coverage during the campaign was in keeping with a general trend in American journalism away from factual reporting and toward “affective news” — stories and snippets that encourage readers and viewers to feel rather than reason their way toward judgments and beliefs. Overheated headlines, constant “breaking news” bulletins, and partisan rants merged into people’s social-media feeds, provoking visceral responses but providing little in the way of context or perspective. “We get intensity, 24/7, but no substance,” Papacharissi laments.
Even as on-the-ground reporting has been in retreat, a victim of financial pressures as well as the public’s hunger for zealotry and spectacle, so-called computational journalism has been advancing. By presenting seemingly rigorous statistical analyses in web-friendly, interactive “visualizations,” popular sites like FiveThirtyEight and the New York Times’s The Upshot would appear to offer an empirical counterweight to reflexive emotionalism. But the objectivity and reliability of computational journalism were called into question by the failure of the number-crunching sites to gauge the extent of Trump’s support during the campaign. The election revealed that, as George Washington University’s Nikki Usher writes, the “alluring certainty” of quantified information can be an illusion. By hiding the subjectivity and ambiguity inherent to data collection and analysis, the slick presentation of quantitative findings or algorithmic outputs is “as liable to mislead as it is to inform.” Whenever the problems come to light, cries of “fake news” resound, and journalism’s credibility takes another hit.
Usher believes that the flaws in computational journalism can be remedied through a more open and honest accounting of its assumptions and limitations. C. W. Anderson, of the University of Leeds, takes a darker view. To much of the public, he argues, the pursuit of “data-driven objectivity” will always be suspect, not because of its methodological limits but because of its egghead aesthetics. Numbers and charts, he notes, have been elements of journalism for a long time, and they have always been “pitched to a more policy-focused audience.” With its ties to social science, computational journalism inevitably carries an air of ivory-tower elitism, making it anathema to those of a populist bent. “In the partisan and polarized American political environment,” Anderson concludes, “professional journalistic claims to facticity have become simply another tribal marker — the tribal marker of ‘smartness’ — and the quantitative, visually oriented forms of data news serve to alienate certain audience members as much as they convince anyone to think about politics or political claims more skeptically.”
Anderson’s stress on the aesthetics of news dovetails with broader observations about contemporary journalism offered by Michael X. Delli Carpini, dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. He sees “Trumpism” not as an aberration but as the culmination of “a fundamental shift in the relationships between journalism, politics, and democracy.” The removal of the professional journalist as media gatekeeper released into the public square torrents of information, misinformation, and disinformation. The flood dissolved the already blurred boundaries between news and entertainment, truth and fantasy, public servant and charlatan. Drawing on a term coined years ago by the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, Delli Carpini argues that we’ve entered a state of “hyperreality,” where media representations of events and facts feel more real than the actual events and facts. In hyperreality, as Baudrillard put it in his 2000 book The Vital Illusion, “form gives way to information and performance.” The aesthetics of news becomes more important to the public than does the news’s accuracy or provenance.
Through its many voices, Trump and the Media makes a convincing case that journalism has sailed into dangerous straits. The belief that more freely flowing information would by itself “spark more, and deeper, democratic engagement with civic life,” as Oxford’s Gina Neff describes it, has been shattered, yet in the headlong pursuit of that belief we’ve dismantled the editorial structures that had been used to filter information and shape it, however imperfectly, into a “shared and coherent narrative.” The circulation of news now seems more likely to tear apart the social fabric than stitch it together.
What the book doesn’t do — and perhaps no book could, at this point — is chart a clear course forward. Some of the writers cling to the techno-progressive flotsam, believing that the problem with democratization is that it didn’t go far enough. Others urge journalists to abandon their pursuit of objective reporting and take on the roles of activist and advocate. Still others suggest that news organizations need to shed their competitive instincts and learn to share sources and reporting rather than fight for scoops. The suggestions are well-intentioned, but most come off as wishful or simplistic. If pursued, they could make matters worse.
If there is a way out of the crisis, it may lie in Fred Turner’s critical reexamination of past assumptions about the structure and influence of media. Just as we failed to see that democratization could subvert democracy, we may have overlooked the strengths of the mass-media news organization in protecting democracy. Professional gatekeepers have their flaws — they can narrow the range of views presented to the public, and they can stifle voices that should be heard — yet through the exercise of their professionalism they also temper the uglier tendencies of human nature. They make it less likely that ignorance, gullibility, and prejudice will poison our conversations and warp our politics.
At this confused moment in the nation’s history, Turner writes at the close of his essay, “what democracy needs first and foremost is not more personalized modes of mediated expression [but rather] a renewed engagement with the rule of law and with the institutions that embody it” — one of those institutions being the press. The most important lesson we can take from the the last election may be an unfashionable one: to be sustained, democracy needs to be constrained.