​Nebraska’s News Feed

Social media killed our hopes for a well-informed democracy.

Flyover States

Even before 2016, American presidential elections have been influenced by the Internet and social media. President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign revolutionized social media as a way to raise funding—the campaign collected record-breaking amounts primarily from small donations from a wide variety of individuals. President Donald Trump’s campaign also repurposed social media, but, in this case, much of its effectiveness was out of Trump and his team’s hands, and the results were far more disturbing.

By calling most major news sources, whose credibility had never been seriously called into question, “fake,” Trump encouraged right-leaning and independent voters to look elsewhere for their information. Alternative websites such as Breitbart and InfoWars existed before the 2016 election cycle, but their popularity has since skyrocketed, and other sites like them have grown en masse since the explosion of Trump-like rhetoric in the country. Biased news sources exist on the other side of the political spectrum as well, but they are not nearly as radical, and their content is not as violence-inducing as alt-right sites tend to be.

However, the existence of increasingly bipolar and objectively false news is undeniable, and causes a rift in the information people fundamentally share. In a piece for the New Yorker, George Saunders highlights that decades ago, all Americans consumed journalism through the same avenues: by watching one of a handful of nightly news programs, and reading their local newspaper or one of several national magazines like Time. Thus, if information was mistakenly reported or construed with a bias, all people began in the same arena; rules were understood, and people generally agreed on at least a few facts.

Today, almost no shared foundation for political beliefs or actions exists. Dozens of “news outlets,” ranging from cookie-cutter non-cable programming to independent news sites promulgated through Facebook to minuscule articles fed through Snapchat Discover, attempt to fill the fractures. It is nearly impossible for politics to found itself on a basis of information that all people share, when almost nothing is agreed upon as being objectively true or particularly relevant.

A recent research study out of Stanford shows that “heavy media consumers are more likely to believe ideologically aligned articles.” In other words, those who spend more time watching T.V. and scrolling through Facebook are more susceptible to fake headlines and news articles. Another study by the Washington Post ranks states based on how “couch-potatoey” they are, a metric that was heavily influenced by levels of media consumption. Of the 10 most “couch-potatoey” states, every single one of them voted for Trump. Many are in the Midwest.

While there are many more variables at play for both the couch-potato metric and a state's political leanings, the two studies reveal that citizens of these states are more vulnerable to fake news articles, which write favorably of Trump more often than of Democratic politicians.

Social media, to an even larger extent than news outlets, also radicalized communication regarding political events and ideologies. Writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper is no longer a pertinent way to share an opinion. As their popularity began to proliferate, sites like Twitter or Facebook ostensibly presented an opportunity for exposure to more diverse perspectives, but have instead become a wormhole for highly specific, distorted information. The people who once felt too ashamed or too isolated to spew their factually incorrect viewpoints can now join a community of those just like them, through Facebook pages and comments and shaky “news” websites.

In rural areas of the Midwest, this is particularly attractive and useful. Those living in 300-person towns surrounded by 200 miles of farmland with one stoplight are no longer limited to the viewpoints of the people in their small community. Through Facebook, they can connect with other people who think just like them. There is no need to question their off-kilter beliefs or justify their reasoning—instead, they can connect with those who share their viewpoints hundreds of miles away. Avoiding difficult questions about our ideals has become far too easy, and citizens share an obligation to escape their self-serving realms of political discourse and seek opinions that make them uncomfortable; without this, separate political parties evolve into cesspools of recycled and invalidated information.

For the last eight years of an Obama presidency, and perhaps stretching back further than that, a large consortium of people clearly felt that their leanings couldn’t be vocalized. Their sometimes quiet thoughts, disconnected from the mainstream ideologies of both Republicans and Democrats, awakened as a result of Trump’s presence in the political realm. His brash personality provided the catalyst for them to seek each other out, force their views into the public realm, and find strength in numbers.

Kelsey R. Thomas ’20 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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