Theories of American Media Failure: A Post-Election Map

15 November By Minna Aslama

Everybody agrees that media helped, to a great extent, make Trump president. So what went wrong? The week after election day, theories about media failure flooded American public sphere. Minna Aslama summarizes them.

Everybody agrees that media helped, to a great extent, make Trump president. So what went wrong? The week after election day, theories about media failure flooded American public sphere. Minna Aslama summarizes them.

Everyone has become a political scientist today: the United States elections have sparked a cascade of theories about why few people within the country and abroad anticipated the outcome. Equally, many commentators, on TV or in the pub, claim that they saw it coming, but that no one listened to them.

Judging from the public debate in America and abroad after the elections, no other institution or phenomenon is as much to blame as the media for how badly informed the public was, which in the end was what led to the election of Donald Trump. When citizens, pundits, and the media themselves are all calling for the reinvention of quality journalism, reform of news organizations, and rethinking of social media algorithms, looking back and mapping the explanations of how it all went wrong is a useful, and in some ways cathartic, exercise.

The Elitists

The most often invoked explanation is that the old-school, legacy media are no longer the Fourth Estate, the watchdog that informs citizens about the actions of the Power Elite. The media have become elitist themselves, focusing on the rich and famous instead of covering the concerns of Middle America. Instead of policy proposals (if there were that many), headlines captured Clinton’s health and Trump’s relationships with ladies.

The Media Are Profit-Driven Pollsters

The essence of this theory is that, to keep the news going and the eyeballs stuck on their broadcast or websites, the mainstream media focused on bombarding their audiences with data, but did not properly analyze those data or put them into context.

The week leading to the elections featured 40+ polls a day during the weekday and some 20 polls on Saturday and Sunday each, according to Realclearpolitics.com. No wonder that after the elections, media analysts kept browbeating the media for throwing on readers data that eventually failed them. “It was a rough night for number crunchers,” the New York Times wrote on 10 November 2016. “And for the faith that people in every field — business, politics, sports and academia — have increasingly placed in the power of data.”

Some theorists say that perhaps the trust of media in polls was too exaggerated or even bordering on naïveté, or journalists were too eager to write yet another election story and thus needed some numbers.

The Media Are Bullies

A third explanation of the failure of media in the past elections is that they acted like bullies.

However, there are, in fact, several opinions about who the bully was. One is related to polling and public opinion. It claims that the mainstream media ridiculed Mr Trump so much that that many of his supporters were silenced (but did not change their political views). They did not want to admit their views to journalists or talk to the pollsters. That massively distorted the media depiction of reality.

Another version of the bully theory is that Mr Trump used mainstream media to publicize his outrageous statements, and media happily obliged as they made great headlines. And we know that great headlines bring audience and ad cash.

The third, but related strand blames semi-independent, sometimes semi-professional trolls who could now mobilize fringe groups by shouting ugly things very loudly in social media.

Finally, many consider the Wikileaks revelations right before the elections as targeted bullying. Julian Assange, WikiLeaks mastermind, sees in WikiLeaks a new kind of journalistic organization. As America was embroiled in the campaign for president, WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of emails and documents related to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Mr Assange said that they decided to do so because they believe in the right of the public to be informed. He said that they didn’t publish anything on Mr Trump simply because they didn’t receive anything.

The Media Are Liars

What is worse: to be a bully or a liar? By taking a strong stance for their preferred candidate, many mainstream media outlets are said to have alienated audiences, especially of the opposite camp. At the same time, they did not fact-check enough, or early enough, to push candidates to respond on air.

The trust was gone. Some say Mr Trump’s supporters didn’t even care. They did not take the content seriously, but rather trusted the spirit, the intent, and the core mission of his campaign. Social media reinforced this by fostering bot-created tweets and fake news, and by promoting them through algorithmic selection.

The Media Create Filter Bubbles

Maybe the worst, or fundamentally saddest theory of social media failure in the past election, is about the social division they created instead of building a common, transparent, equitable public sphere for rational debate.

While social media was hailed as the mobilizing and unifying force for Barack Obama in 2008, now these platforms helped to form very distinct camps that hardly ever conversed beyond insults. The division, so sharp as also shown by the vote split, seems to go on, a week after the election, spilling over to the physical world: #notmypresident.

Photo: Kai Schreiber

More stories by Minna Aslama

Jessikka Aro: It’s Crucial That Journalists Become Watchdogs Once Again

15 July 2016

Jessikka Aro is an investigative reporter with YLE Kioski, the social media forum run by the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE. Aro specializes in Russia, information warfare, security and extremism.

Back in 2014, she started a crowdsourced investigation of pro-Russia info war trolls and a St. Petersburg troll factory. She then became the target of serious harassment by pro-Kremlin propagandists. Now, she is working on a brand new investigative book on the information warfare waged by the Putin regime.

Public Service Media in Europe: Exit Through the Back Door?

27 January 2016 By Minna Aslama

Recent turbulence at the Polish public broadcaster was seen by some observers as another political football game. Public broadcasting will survive any market or policy changes, however tumultuous they are, they say. But Minna Aslama argues that public TV has fallen out of political favor in many countries now. Even well-established broadcasters in western countries are likely to be dramatically downsized.

A New Corporate Accountability Index on Digital Rights Reveals: No Winners But Many Losers

17 November By Minna Aslama

Internet and telecommunications companies influence our world significantly, be it our personal interactions or political engagement. A new index has been developed to see how they fare in their general commitment to digital rights, as well as in terms of their practices regarding freedom of expression and privacy.

Who Remembers WSIS: New Technologies, Old Problems

23 October 2015 By Minna Aslama

A decade ago, the UN set up a slew of goals for better usage of information and communication technologies. Now, they have started to assess what has been achieved. One thing is abundantly clear: we are still grappling with problems from the past. Here is a dispatch from inside the talks.