Where We Are [Part II]

Election Interference, Trump, Social Media, Journalism and Fake News
In Spite of All the Noise and Division, There is Hope

The ocean. Waves. Big wave surfing.

I love these natural wonders. So on my Facebook feed one time, and I’m not sure how Facebook knew this to begin with—I received content of the monster waves that occur in the winter in Nazaré, Portugal.

They must know I love the ocean and I can’t get enough.

With the way Facebook works, if you click on something you like or are interested in—cat videos for instance— expect to get a lot of other cat videos. In my case, I love ocean surf, the power of big waves and surfers trying to negotiate them. So, no surprise, I get a lot of big wave videos and photos. I click on these on purpose, so that I can see more of them in my feed. Same thing with basketball and the Boston Celtics; I love basketball content.

So, if you read Part I of this blog entry, you should know where this is going.

To keep America paralyzed and in perpetual division, it is only logical that foreign (and even internal) adversaries would agitate to keep things just the way they are. National elections are now so close, that any interference, any variation can tilt the result.

So, if someone clicks on a phony news source or website, they will get loads of other phony “news” and the manipulation begins.

Now we know that flooding our devices, news sources and social media platforms with messaging and content designed to engage, even enrage you, has big consequences, not only for elections, but also for the democratic process.

It’s pretty clear that one of the reasons Hillary Clinton lost was that her brain trust (and given the absence of a discernable strategy for Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, I use that term loosely) thought all they needed to do was get “their” voters out to the polls. In the postmortem book Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, the authors share that Clinton managers were pretty clear in their belief there was no need to persuade anybody else into Hillary’s camp.

Maybe Clinton’s strategists had not heard the term or experienced a “rainmaker” as described here in Part I. The “crooked Hillary” narrative created by her opponent and shared exponentially on social media (without any pushback by the Clinton campaign in the aforementioned battlegrounds) kept more than a few soft Clinton supporters home and away from the polls—the rainmaker on steroids.

In this new digital environment, facts have taken a beating. Some Trump supporters recall Obama’s administration as an economic disaster. To them, Trump created the stock market surge and the decline in unemployment. But the facts don’t back that up. Obama inherited a stock market with the Dow Jones at 7,949 and it closed on his last day in office at 19,827. When Obama swore the oath of office, unemployment was at 7.6%, and when he left office the rate was 4.7%.

The Affordable Care Act, under Obama, expanded coverage of preexisting conditions and Trump has worked to scuttle the law entirely (legislatively and in the courts), including that provision. So it was fascinating to see Donald Trump’s recent Tweet and related comments in his State of the Union Address that, thanks to him, he is the defender of covering preexisting conditions in health care.

But facts, it turns out, don’t really matter when it comes to the support of a candidate.

Politics, plus passion fueled by false information and narratives on social media, has either side’s base locked in to their position.

When candidate Donald Trump declared that he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue in New York and it wouldn’t matter to his most ardent supporters, experienced political consultants nodded their heads in agreement. Once the “base” of support is established, it generally doesn’t go anywhere, and supporters will find whatever logic they need to stay, even if it flies in the face of stark facts.

We saw this play out during revelations about Bill Clinton having an affair with Monica Lewinski. One might have expected that women’s rights groups would support Lewinski and be among the harshest critics of Bill Clinton. Didn’t happen. Clinton’s base was not moving away from him.

In the face of all of this, traditional journalism is confronting an existential threat. If a Facebook feed represents the primary or only source of “news” for millions, then we are all in trouble, and the tool will continue to be used with bogus content. Making matters worse is Facebook’s announcement that it will not check political content for accuracy.

Fact checking and “keeping them honest” has always been the role of an unfettered press in a nation founded under the principle of the rule of law. There is irony in that so much of this fact checking happens just as swiftly, through digital means and by traditional news outlets, as the offending inaccuracy. That’s good, and a reason for hope.

Traditional stalwarts like The New York Times and The Washington Post are seeing a spike in readership—and a lot of it is online growth. My late Dad, Carroll Robbins, had a long career in the newspaper business as editor of the Springfield Daily News, the Union News and The Republican, and would be cheered to learn that good, solid journalism—with multiple sources and primary source material— is still part of the landscape.

A mentor of mine a long time ago helped me learn that things can actually be getting worse and better at the same time. Old institutions decline or become irrelevant and are replaced by new ones that are more responsive. This can be hard to discern during times of upheaval. A book I recently read, Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, is based on data that humanity is trending toward the positive (and that we have the tools to solve our most vexing problems).

In spite of all the current noise, our interdependence has never been more evident. We need each other.  I think Americans, and all of humanity, will figure it out and get past this difficult period.

We watched Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burn in real time, and within hours, pledges of donations for the rebuilding began to pour in. 

The wildfires in Australia brought firefighters from the United States and elsewhere  to help battle the disaster

A Swedish teenager launched an international environmental movement to address the warming of the globe and its impact on future generations.

Students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School organized #NeverAgain to engage elected officials around changing gun policy.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s profound statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice” is something we can all believe in, no matter our political affiliation.

But in seeking justice and truth, in today’s digital landscape, it will require an abundance of caution before we click on “news” and share with our “friends.”

Photograph of Paul Robbins
Paul Robbins

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