2020: The Media, the Election, the Non-Sense

Adam Beckler
Nov 1, 2020 · 26 min read
Emperor Honorius feeds his chickens as his empire is torn apart by revolts and barbarian invasions.

Partisanship is the defining characteristic of the American media landscape. Historically, the media seemed less partisan and more reliable because it did not have any competition. The structure of 20th-century communications technology facilitated the rise of a national, cultural elite. This elite class has an inordinate influence on American culture because it makes American culture. Journalists, professors, entertainers — they produce the information we consume.

Media professions generally attract people predisposed to an interest in aesthetics and ideas, traits strongly correlated with politically liberal views. Youths with these traits pursue careers in media and participate in a positive feedback loop of hiring like-minded individuals. The cycle repeats and the professions become more ideologically homogeneous over time.

Political conservatives, who feel slighted by their exclusion from mainstream media, took quickly to the Internet as an alternative means of communication. In 2016, Trump was elected because he espoused opinions uncommon in mainstream media narratives, directly challenged the credibility of “fake news,” and utilized social media in innovative ways for a presidential candidate. His unexpected success represented an unprecedented threat to the cultural elite. Regretting the role they played in electing Trump, both the mainstream media and Silicon Valley became more aggressive in ensuring their airwaves and networks were decidedly anti-Trump. As they lose control of the narrative, cultural elites will be forced to exert their authority and power in increasingly obvious ways. This is a strategy of diminishing returns — the harder the media works to actively influence events, the more credibility they lose with those who do not share their worldview.

This essay is my humble attempt to describe 1) the structure of the media, 2) the underlying reasons for our political differences and how our media technology exacerbates these differences, and 3) the impact of the collapse of the legacy media and ascension of Internet communication.

Part I: The Media

The media are active political participants. They are not merely biased; they have their own agendas. If you scoff at the thought, you might be the sort of person (like me) who grew up watching Jon Stewart mock Fox News. Take the disdain you hold for Fox News’s obvious conservative bias and apply it to every other media outlet in America. Fox News exists, and is successful, in direct opposition to the rest of the media. The reason that Tucker Carlson consistently leads his competitors in ratings is simply that conservative viewers only have one option, while liberal viewers split themselves among several in CNN, NBC, MSNBC, CBS, and ABC.

If you find yourself resisting the idea that the media have an overt liberal bias, consider the following: In an analysis of 2016 campaign contributions by people identified in federal campaign filings as working in journalism, more than 96 percent of the money benefitted Hillary Clinton’s campaign, rather than Donald Trump’s.¹ There is a method to the madness of Trump’s prolific use of Twitter, which allows him to circumvent a hostile media (Fox excluded) and speak directly to his supporters.

If you are liberal, you might strongly resist the notion that the New York Times and CNN are just as biased as Fox News. If you are conservative, you might be excited or unimpressed that I have pointed out, what seems to you, an obvious truth. Remove yourself from either of these mindsets. They are too personal and emotional.

Imagine instead that you are a neutral alien observer, sent from the Intergalactic Federation, to study and analyze the impact of America’s media landscape on its upcoming presidential election. You do not care about who is right on any given political issue. You do not have a vested interest in a particular narrative. You will not be affected by the outcome of the election. You are thinking on a historical, not electoral, timescale. If you are able to sincerely adopt this outside perspective, you might notice that the most important thing happening to America (and the world) is not an election, or a police shooting, or even a pandemic. It is the ongoing communications revolution of the Internet replacing the previous communications revolution of broadcast technology.

Historically, our media institutions have dictated the terms of our national dialogue. If a story was not in the newspaper, on the radio, or on television, it did not get discussed. In a sense, the media inadvertently exercised a subtle form of mind control. What we knew and what we thought were largely dictated by how the media presented information. That is still the case, but now the media is all of us. Our national conversation takes place on social media platforms, where traditional media outlets are merely big players rather than the entire system itself.

If it seems like “the other side” is going insane, it is because we are consuming wildly different information to such an extent that we no longer exist in the same reality. The institutional media narrative that guided our national discourse for a century is crumbling away. Competing narratives are fighting to take its place. The battle is religious in scale. At stake is the story that America tells about itself. The only way forward is to understand what is happening and to think for ourselves instead of letting other people think for us. We must give and receive ideas in good faith.

I will go first.

A. Sensemaking and the Global-Village

If it seems like things do not make any sense, it is because we have become incapable of making sense of things. Sense-making is the “process of creating situational awareness and understanding in situations of high complexity or uncertainty in order to make decisions.”²

In recent history, media institutions such as newspapers, radio stations, and television networks have served as our societal sense-making institutions. In more recent history, countries that have fully adopted Internet-based technological innovations are undergoing a sense-making revolution. The primary method of information dissemination has transitioned from broadcast networks (think radio) to decentralized networks made up of individual users (think podcasts). Writing in 1962, Canadian mass-media theorist, Marshall McLuhan, explained the changes in a culture that can occur from the introduction of a new communications technology:

“[If] a new technology extends one or more of our senses outside us into the social world, then new ratios among all of our senses will occur in that particular culture. It is comparable to what happens when a new note is added to a melody. And when the sense ratios alter in any culture then what had appeared lucid before may suddenly be opaque, and what had been vague or opaque will become translucent.” ³

McLuhan means that any technologies which mediate our experience with reality also alter our subjective experience of reality. For example, he argues that literacy and the printed word create an emphasis on the visual because the process of writing necessitates the externalization of thoughts on physical surfaces.⁴ Conversely, traditional oral cultures favor auditory experiences like communal music and storytelling.⁵ This is all to say that the ongoing transition in communications technology has profound implications for American culture.

In 1960, McCluhan explained how new broadcast technologies of the time had created a “global village”:

“These new media have made our world into a single unit. The world is now like a continually sounding tribal drum, where everybody gets the message all the time. A princess gets married in England and — boom, boom, boom! — we all hear about it; an earthquake in North Africa; a Hollywood star gets drunk — away go the drums again.” ⁶

McCluhan’s observations on media technology turning our world into a “global village” were made sixty years ago, yet still resonate today. Then, information was generated by media institutions and broadcast from a centralized location. Now, information is generated by third-party users and disseminated primarily on major platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Although these Big Tech companies exert an increasing amount of editorial discretion (more on that later), the role of media “gatekeepers” has been exponentially reduced compared to centralized broadcasting. It has never in history been easier to contribute to the public discourse.

Humans are so adaptive to change that most of us, and our parents, seamlessly integrated smartphones and social media into our lives. The change felt gradual; iterative releases and marginal improvements year-to-year made the progression from mobile e-mail to social media seem natural. The quality of life improvements of the smartphone are undeniable — constant communication with loved ones, near-instantaneous access to information and entertainment, and GPS technology at your fingertips, just to name a few. Humans can adapt and thrive in response to these changes, as we have adapted to new tools and technologies for our entire evolutionary history.

But social media is a different animal entirely. Logging in to Twitter is to mainline the culture. It is an intoxicating experience, giving the user the feeling of participating in a national dialogue in real-time. The upside is enormous.

Perhaps in the absence of gatekeepers and politicians, the people of a nation, or even the world, will communicate directly with one another, breaking down cultural barriers and realizing our common humanity. Perhaps we harness the latent and untapped potential of the formerly voiceless and develop for the first time in history a truly democratic culture, unshackled from the parochial tendencies of the elite.

Or perhaps we forget how to talk to our neighbors. Perhaps the American melting pot coagulates into its constituent elements. Perhaps, rather than individuals of different tendencies and temperaments working together within their local communities, we are inadvertently creating opposing hive-minds, screaming at each other from their respective echo-chambers.

Anyone with a pulse knows that social media has changed our politics. Why? That is a more complicated question.

B. Polarizing Impulses

McLuhan was speaking of broadcast technologies when he referred to the “global village.” In this communications paradigm, there were speakers in institutional positions of power and influence, and listeners who, absent extraordinary circumstances, were merely passive receivers of information. With the advent of social media, we are all speakers and listeners, which has led to people clustering in “echo-chambers,” self-sorting into communities of like-minded people.⁷

It is useful to conceptualize these self-selected online communities as “polarizing impulses” or “collective consciousnesses.” These are autonomous entities in that they are outside any individual or group control. They are emergent in that they arose organically as a result of how we interacted with new technologies. While there are certainly many communities online that share collective characteristics, there are two primary political clusters, roughly corresponding to what James Davison Hunter labeled “orthodox” and “progressive.”⁸ He roughly defines “orthodox” as the “commitment on the part of the adherents to an external, definable, and transcendent authority.”⁹ Within cultural “progressivism”, by contrast, “moral authority tends to be defined by the spirit of the modern age, a spirit of rationalism and subjectivism. Progressivist moral ideals tend, that is, to derive from and embody (though rarely exhaust) that spirit.”¹⁰ Hunter qualifies what would otherwise appear to be an overly simplistic set of discrete categories:

Though competing moral visions are at the heart of today’s culture war, these do not always take form in coherent, clearly articulated, sharply differentiated world views. Rather, these moral visions take expression as polarizing impulses or tendencies in American culture…In truth, most Americans occupy a vast middle ground between the polarizing impulses of American culture.¹¹

Hunter acknowledges that the “orthodox” and “progressive” tendencies inevitably correspond with political conservatives and liberals. The danger with using these labels is that “one can easily forget that they trace back to prior moral commitments and more basic moral visions.”¹² Culture wars do not emerge over politics per se, but rather over “fundamentally different conceptions of moral authority, over different ideas and beliefs about truth, the good, obligation to one another, the nature of community, and so on.”¹³

These different conceptions of moral authority seem to be tied to personality differences which “affect how individuals respond to the stimuli they encounter in their environment.”¹⁴ Personality psychologists have “reached a working consensus that personality traits can be comprehensively conceptualized and reliably measured in terms of five traits (the Big Five): Agreeableness, Openness (to experience), Emotional Stability (sometimes referred to by its inverse, Neuroticism), Conscientiousness, and Extraversion.”¹⁵ These personality traits can be viewed as “predating, rather than being caused by, social and political influences, offering an opportunity to examine how fundamental, enduring personality differences affect an array of social outcomes, including political attitudes and behavior.”¹⁶ To summarize what is an extensive body of research, personality trait Conscientiousness is associated with holding conservative political views, and personality trait Openness is associated with liberal political views.¹⁷ Conscientious people “exhibit a tendency to show self-discipline, act dutifully, and aim for achievement; they display planned rather than spontaneous behavior; and they are generally dependable.”¹⁸ Conversely, Openness involves six dimensions, including “active imagination, aesthetic sensitivity, attentiveness to inner feelings, preference for variety, and intellectual curiosity.”¹⁹

Liberals and conservatives are predisposed to their beliefs based on these objectively measurable personality characteristics. This serves an evolutionary purpose. Conscientious conservatives (think accountant) preserve what works, and Open liberals (think professor) update our systems to an ever-changing reality. Over time, one cannot function without the other. It is the interplay between these opposing tendencies that gives our civilization the dynamic tension necessary to navigate reality.

In summary, political orientation is not based merely on surface-level policy disagreements, but rather underlying moral values and personality characteristics. Historically, political discourse took place locally, among a population with a hypothetically diverse set of personalities. Now, an increasingly large portion of political discourse takes place online, with like-minded individuals clustering together in echo-chambers of relatively homogeneous opinion. It is not hyperbole to say that America’s future is dependent on the orthodox and progressive tendencies rediscovering how to talk to each other. Otherwise, we are two separate countries, each with a massive blind spot.

C. Dealing With Complexity

Jordan Hall, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has adapted some of McLuhan’s ideas to a modern media context, refers to legacy media institutions as the “Blue Church” (the name will be explained shortly), which he defines as a “narrative/ideological control structure that is a natural result of mass media. It is an evolved (rather than designed) function that has come…to form an effective political and dominant cultural force in the United States.”²⁰ Hall explains the emergence of 20th-century mass media as an adaption to the increasing complexities of modern life:

“By any measure of social complexity, the transition from the 19th to the 20th century was extraordinary. For the first time in human history, the population shifted from a rural to an urban majority, bringing the increased pace of life and social interaction that comes with big cities. Horses gave way to railroads which were replaced by automobiles and then airplanes — shrinking the world into a single connected meta-community…The forms of social control that had been used to get us to the 19th Century were inadequate to the levels of novelty and complexity of the 20th century. Society cannot function without a regulatory structure adequate to its level of complexity. The Blue Church was the emergent solution to this problem.”²¹

The unexpected difficulties of social coordination in the wake of the Industrial Revolution necessitated a new adaptive communications technology. Fundamentally, mass media solved the problem of large-scale social coordination and sensemaking in an unfamiliar environment.²²

Because of the centralized nature of 20th-century mass media, powerful institutions formed around essential variations of broadcast technology. For example, academia, newspapers, television, and Hollywood-style entertainment all share the same essential hierarchical structure. In order to manage the complexity of the environment, mass media’s solution was to “add someone to the front of the boat whose job is nothing but synchronizing the whole team (“stroke!”) and reduce everyone else’s job to responding to the signal coming from that leader (“stroke!”)…”²³ This hierarchical structure functioned remarkably well for most of the 20th century; it put a man on the moon, developed antibiotics, and invented the modern network and computer technologies that make the Internet possible.

Now that the what of the Blue Church has been described, we must examine the who. Through complicated historical processes, individuals associated with Hunter’s “progressive” tendency have populated legacy media institutions to a far greater degree than those with “orthodox” inclinations; hence the “blue” (i.e. liberal) in Hall’s “Blue Church” moniker. Before explaining why this might be the case, it is important to note that it is indeed the case: By 2016, “more than half of all publishing employees worked in counties that Clinton won by 30 points or more.”²⁴ Among social science and history faculty at 40 leading American universities, a 2016 study found a ratio of 11.5 Democrats for every Republican. In history departments, the ratio is 33.5 to one.²⁵ In 2016, “individuals and firms in the television, movie, and music industries gave $84 million in campaign contributions, with 80 percent going to Democrats.”²⁶ What accounts for this discrepancy?

Tracing the trajectory of American culture from the 1920s, it is conceptually useful to oversimplify generations into caricatures. Generations are amorphous concepts, with blurry lines and many exceptions that prove the rules. And yet, generalizations are necessary when condensing history.

The roaring 20s, abundant and decadent, gave way to the depression of the 30s. In response to unprecedented economic suffering, American voters allow the dramatic expansion of government. Pulled out of the depression by the greatest war in human history, America expends tremendous blood and treasure in an objective defense of human liberty. Grateful for its victory, but wary of the Soviet menace, American culture calcifies into the stiff, yet honorable 50s — a traditional culture, unique in its adherence to liberal principles, galvanized by the nuclear age to defend its values at all costs and reproduce with a sense of gratitude and necessity. Between 1950 and 1965, median family income rose by almost $20,000.²⁷ Over the same period, consumer spending rose by 60 percent. For the first time, the majority of Americans enjoyed discretionary income.²⁸

This generation raised a generation that had not endured the suffering of the 30s and 40s, but enjoyed the spoils of victory. Finding the traditionalism suffocating because they had no conception of its historical necessity, it is this generation that understandably rebelled against, and inevitably outlived its parents. The activist culture of the 60s won many victories. Through nonviolent resistance, the civil rights movement ended legalized racial discrimination and segregation. The 60s counterculture opposed American intervention in Vietnam, fought for a more equal role for women in historically male-dominated institutions, and experimented with psychoactive drugs. They created rock n’ roll, changed from suits into jeans, and were shot at Kent State for their trouble.

A paradox eventually presented itself to the counterculture: what should the most anti-establishment generation since the founding fathers do when they grew up?

It is no surprise that the men and women of the undoubtedly liberal 60s counterculture, presumably high in personality trait Openness, gravitated towards professions that selected for creative individuals interested in either aesthetics or ideas. In the decades following the cultural revolution of the 1960s, the political left became ascendant in American sense-making institutions, primarily media, entertainment, and academia. What happened when anti-establishmentarians occupy the commanding heights of the culture? They do what they always do and turn a critical eye toward the power structures of society. But rather than criticizing from the outside, they were now criticizing from the inside. Criticism of power structures became the new cultural power structure. In recent history, this ethos has been passed down relatively unchallenged in colleges and universities, resulting in a mindset among today’s cultural elite that is paradoxically skeptical of all power while simultaneously wielding more of it than any other cultural group in America. Graduates go on to populate fields like journalism and entertainment, and their ideas slowly trickle down to the rest of us.

Part II: The Election

As we move on to discussing the election, it will be difficult to remain neutral. The election is our ongoing nightmare. To help us wake up, it might be useful to revisit our adopted perspective: Imagine instead that you are a neutral alien observer, sent from the Intergalactic Federation, to study and analyze the impact of America’s media landscape on its upcoming presidential election. You do not care about who is right on any given political issue. You do not have a vested interest in a particular narrative. You will not be affected by the outcome of the election. You are thinking on a historical, not electoral, timescale.

A. Insurrection vs. Establishment

The Blue Church is synonymous with the American cultural elite. It is important to distinguish the concept of the cultural elite from the economic elite (like all false binaries, there are individuals who are both). The economic elite tend toward the Republican party, perhaps out of genuine belief in the cause, mostly out of self-interest in the Republican maxim of lowering taxes. These elites live on Wall Street, in board rooms, and C-suite offices. They exert their power through a universal principle: the rich get richer. Worshipping at the altar of almighty compounding interest, the economic elite are active players in the financial industry, possessing enough collective wealth to steer liquidity toward those companies most likely to return the largest profits. Their tastes are expensive, but not necessarily refined. Yachts, caviar, butlers — all terribly gauche to the cultural elite.

Generally well-off, but less so than the economic elite, the cultural elite exert their influence by way of their positions in institutions of culture and media. These elites live in ivory towers, movie studios, and newsrooms. The opinions and preferences of the cultural elite permeate the entirety of American culture. How could it be any other way? They produce our entertainment, write the news, and educate the children of the non-elite at colleges and universities.

The cultural elite take their political cues from those with credentialed expertise. When Anderson Cooper invites a “foreign-policy expert” on his show, it is not because his staff has thoroughly vetted the predictions of the expert and measured them against reality. Rather, the expert is selected based on their credentials, i.e. advanced degrees, think tank experience, former government official, etc. This impulse is admirable. It is deferential to expertise in a way that served America well during the 20th century. Unfortunately, America’s expert class has withered on the unhealthy vine of the Ivy League. More than signifying actual knowledge and depth of understanding, humanities or social science degrees from prestigious universities function as membership cards to the club that runs America. College is the threshold through which the elite must cross to attain influence. This system used to produce men (and later, women) who had memorized Shakespeare and could name as many Roman emperors as American presidents. Today, ensconced in their echo-chamber and insulated from reality, the academy has grown distracted with convoluted and regressive racial and gender theories, always deconstructing, but never generating new knowledge. You do not have to agree with this characterization of the cultural elite. Instead, you only need to understand that this is how Trump supporters see them.

The cultural elite suffered a resounding defeat in 2016, which has shaken them to their core. Republican presidents have won before, but never by directly challenging the cultural authority of the Blue Church. This happened right as social media was replacing its traditional domain, shattering the existing narrative.

The most important dynamic to understand about the 2020 election is that Trump represents an insurrection against the political and cultural establishment, while Joe Biden represents that establishment. As a neutral alien observer, the first thing you might notice is that Donald Trump is the only president in American history to enter the White House without any political or military experience. Joe Biden was first elected to the United States Senate 47 Earth-years ago. This is, to put it mildly, a significant distinction.

To his supporters, Joe Biden represents a potential return to stability and normalcy after four years of an unstable and abnormal administration. Biden also represents the establishment within his own political party, having recently defeated Bernie Sanders to secure his party’s presidential nomination. Sanders, although himself an octogenarian, represented the preferences of younger democrats who sit comfortably to the left of Biden. According to a Quinnipiac poll conducted during the 2020 primaries, 53 percent of Democratic voters under 35 supported Sanders, while 3 percent supported Biden.

Indeed, Biden’s campaign seems to be a haven for voters who fear both another Trump term on one hand and an increasingly radical left-wing mutiny on the other. Biden is seen as such a safe choice for members of the political establishment that he has cross-party appeal to those members of Trump’s party who dislike his departure from presidential norms.

Trump supporters see in their candidate a rebuke of the status quo. In style and substance, Trump is a walking, talking rejection of the political establishment. His detractors criticize him as uncouth and braggadocious, in contrast to the somber polish of previous presidents. However, his supporters understand that his personality has allowed him to drive a truck through the legacy media. Trump was the first Republican presidential candidate to directly challenge the bias of the media. He did this with all the subtlety of a reality television star who has a penchant for slapping his name on everything from skyscrapers to steaks. Labeling non-Fox News media outlets as “fake news,” Trump communicates directly with his supporters on social media. He understands the influence this affords him: “[W]hen I have close to 100 million people watching me on Twitter, including Facebook, including Instagram…I have my own form of media.”²⁹

B. The New Terrain

You would be forgiven for missing out on one of the most consequential stories in modern American history. The New York Post recently published the story “Hunter Biden emails show leveraging connections with his father to boost Burisma pay.” As you can judge from the headline, the story is bad (though likely not fatal) for Joe Biden. However, we are not concerned with the content of the Post’s story, but rather the subsequent actions of Twitter and Facebook. Twitter blocked users from sharing the Post’s story and went as far as locking out of her account White House spokeswoman, Kayleigh McEnany. For two weeks, the New York Post (a newspaper founded by Alexander Hamilton) was locked out of its account for publishing a story counter to Twitter’s preferred narrative. Facebook said it was “reducing its distribution on our platform,” although it is unclear exactly what that means. Why is this such an important story? Because it is representative of the ongoing information warfare that is making us all insane. The tech-elite decided you could not be trusted to read the story and draw your own conclusions.

Silicon Valley is composed mostly of well-educated, creative coastal elites who are overwhelmingly liberal. In 2016, seventy-five percent of technology entrepreneurs supported Hillary Clinton, compared to only eight percent who supported Donald Trump.³⁰ They have unwittingly birthed the new media technologies that are replacing the broadcast technologies of the Blue Church. Big-Tech companies are desperately trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube, but I suspect it is too late.

Given that the “progressive” tendency is prevalent in the institutions that created and currently control social media, you would expect the “orthodox” tendency to be at a disadvantage — but, paradoxically, their structural disadvantage plays to their practical advantage. The ubiquity of the progressive tendency in the mass media of recent history exerted downward selective pressure on the “orthodox” tendency, necessitating a creative approach to collective action and opinion formation in the online space. Mother Jones, a progressive American magazine, acknowledged that “Trump’s presidential campaign keyed into the power of memes early on, monitoring obscure meme sites and boosting pro-Trump images and videos onto mainstream platforms like Facebook. Facebook’s algorithms favor images and videos over more nuanced text posts or links to news articles, so pro-Trump memes quickly went viral.”³¹

A meme, in the general sense, is an idea that spreads by imitation from person to person within a culture. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who coined the term, suggested that memes are to culture what genes are to life: “Just as biological evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest genes in the gene pool, cultural evolution may be driven by the most successful memes.”³²

Because the format of most internet memes is so simple, they can be rapidly adapted by individual users to specific circumstances and reposted online, with the most resonant memes being organically upregulated (i.e. going “viral”). Those who have thrived in this online meme environment are taking advantage of a collective capacity for sense-making that is able to react much more quickly to events than legacy media institutions. Jordan Hall explains that part of Trump’s insurgency is engaged in “total war”:

“They are simultaneously attacking the legacy power structures on multiple fronts (access, business viability and, in particular, legitimacy) while innovating entirely novel approaches to the problem of large scale communications and control (e.g., direct tweets from POTUS). Their intent is not to play with or even dominate the legacy media — but to eliminate them from the field entirely and to replace them with something else altogether.”³³

Understanding how the “orthodox” and “progressive” tendencies differ in an online context is a prerequisite for grasping our current political culture and the ongoing debate surrounding social media. Hall explains: “The Trump Insurgency represents a novel model of collective intelligence in general…This form of governance is structurally incompatible with the legacy media architecture. It is intrinsically dissonant with the kind of top-down, slow, controlled, synchronized approach of the old media.”³⁴

To suggest that the “orthodox” tendency is currently better at using social media for the purposes of collective intelligence formation is not to pass a value judgment, but only to describe reality. Nothing about the intrinsic nature of the “orthodox” tendency predisposes them for success in the online space — they merely made better use of the technology first. By historical accident, the “progressive” tendency came to dominate legacy media institutions in recent decades, meaning that the “orthodox” tendency was more desperate for an alternative outlet and more adaptive to social media’s peculiarities. It seems likely that as social media continues to eclipse traditional media outlets, the “progressive” tendency will become increasingly adept at taking advantage of the medium’s unique benefits.

Do not take criticisms of the legacy media to mean that social media is a place for reasonable and accurate discussions. It is that, but it is also a thousand other undesirable things. However, the discussions are happening on a more even playing field, unmediated by institutional gatekeepers (save the social media companies themselves). On social media, there is at least a fighting chance for good ideas to spread.

Still, it is particularly concerning that tech companies continually demonstrate an overt liberal bias. Although the bias has not yet prevented conservatives from being successful online, Big-Tech companies will not be able to resist exercising their power in high-leverage moments, as the suppression of the New York Post story suggests. The Senate Commerce Committee recently called Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to testify on his company’s handling of the New York Post story. Expect to see retribution during the next Republican administration, whether that is in 2021 or further in the future. There have already been attempts to remove liability immunity, so that internet platforms could be sued for their content, much like newspapers can be sued for libel and defamation. It is also conceivable that lawmakers would regulate social media companies like public utilities, writing into law the requirement that social media treat all content neutrally (e.g., AT&T does not refuse you telephone service because of what you say on a phone call).

These potential solutions are sub-optimal. Removing liability protections would make it more difficult for competitor platforms to succeed. Insisting that social media be content-neutral could undermine one of the main appeals of social media: algorithmically curated content according to user preference. Additionally, we do not necessarily want social media companies unable to regulate content on their platforms. Think how immediately Facebook would succumb to a torrent of pornography. The inherent problems with proposed regulation of Big Tech companies will not prevent conservatives from seeking revenge. In the not-too-distant future, we could conceivably see the most significant anti-trust case in American history.

Prior to the 20th century, to the extent that people were informed, it was through local newspapers and word-of-mouth. Broadcast technologies allowed for national news programs, which brought us closer to a centralized perception of reality. However, it was only for an hour each evening and you had to be sitting in front of a television. You might still have read local newspapers and had conversations with your neighbors, unmediated by frantic Googling and real-time “fact-checking.”

Now, all media has collapsed into the internet. For example, a Facebook user might, in just a few short minutes on a platform, read an article shared by a colleague, look at family photos, watch a video clip of the news, and listen to a song shared by a friend. The transition from broadcast media to the new decentralized paradigm has been mostly organic, driven by consumer preference, free choice, and technological innovation.

However, the upside of this technological innovation casts a large shadow. Modern political and legal discussions surrounding social media fundamentally fail to understand the magnitude of the historical significance of social media as a technology.

If we cannot learn how to properly think about what social media is and what it is doing to us, we will lose the ability to think for ourselves — if we have not already.

Part III: The Non-Sense

As our environment becomes increasingly complex, we need to be able to respond to reality as quickly and accurately as possible to navigate the unique challenges posed by modernity. This is precisely the benefit of decentralized networks like social media — individual nodes in the network respond to their idiosyncratic piece of reality, and the responses that resonate most with the rest of the network “go viral” and help to modify the existing collective perspective. Social media can be viewed as an adaptive technology necessitated by the increasing complexity of a “global village.” For this technology to be effective, it is crucial that the two dominant tendencies of human morality are operating in the same space, at the same capacity. There is always a tension between the “orthodox” and “progressive” tendencies — but that tension is essential in our collective ability to accurately perceive reality. Each tendency represents important insights, which oscillate in relative utility depending on the underlying circumstances at any particular moment.

To the extent that social media is facilitating and exacerbating our polarization, we risk catastrophic consequences. Navigating reality is a constant push and pull between conservatism and liberalism. Do we open our borders to allow more immigration? Or do we close them to protect the domestic labor force? Do we raise taxes to provide more government services for those in need? Or do we lower taxes to encourage economic growth? These are important questions without obvious answers. Thus far, we have reached sustainable solutions through an electoral synthesis of public opinion. This synthesis is only possible when both sides view themselves and each other as part of a shared, worthwhile project. Americans are beginning to view each other as part of different projects.

Both Trump and his foil, the media, are talking directly to their supporters. To a Trump supporter, CNN sounds as ridiculous as a Trump tweet does to a Biden supporter. Each half of the American mind is playing in its own sandbox. It is likely that we will not reach equilibrium until the legacy media collapses. While the legacy media still cloaks itself in institutional authority, political discussions cannot take place without devolving into a discussion about “sources.” Perhaps the New York Times had once earned reflexive trust, but no longer. It deserves the same treatment Fox News has been getting for two decades.

In the absence of legitimate institutional authority, the Blue Church attempts to discredit dissenting voices by narrowing the range of acceptable thought. Political opinions held by Barack Obama less than a decade ago are now taboo. Attempts to cancel or de-platform dissenting voices are ultimately an attempt to re-establish a coherent narrative. If we view the ongoing media struggle as a war, the old media and the cultural elite have been losing ground. The illiberal tendency to decide to attack the speaker rather than the speech is a fallback position. Ad hominem attacks are used to “avoid genuine debate by creating a diversion to some irrelevant but often highly charged issue.”³⁵

We are in the ugly process of finding out how many layers the cultural elite can place between themselves and reality before reality reasserts itself and the dominant cultural narratives of the last century collapse. Let us hope it happens sooner rather than later. In the meantime, we must prepare ourselves by becoming sophisticated consumers of information, constantly checking our perception of events with those whom we trust. We must doubt everything we read and approach new data with humility. We must make a collective, good-faith effort to make sense of things. The era of feeling like we know what is happening has ended.

The era of non-sense has begun.

[1] Dave Levinthal & Michael Beckel, Journalists Shower Hillary Clinton with Campaign Cash, The Center for Public Integrity, https://publicintegrity.org/politics/journalists-shower-hillary-clinton-with-campaign-cash/ (last updated Oct. 18, 2016).

[2] Dave Snowden, What Is Sense-Making?, Cognitive Edge (June 7, 2008), https://cognitive-edge.com/blog/what-is-sense-making/

[3] Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy 41 (1 ed. 1962).

[4] Id. at 21.

[5] Id.

[6] Maria Popova, Uncovered Gem: Marshall McLuhan’s Global Village, Brain Pickings, https://www.brainpickings.org/2010/03/15/marshall-mcluhan-global-village/

[7] Walter Quattrociocchi et al., Echo Chambers on Facebook, (June 13, 2016), https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Walter_Quattrociocchi2/publication/331936299_Echo_Chambers_on_Facebook/links/5c93b14b299bf111693e20f4/Echo-Chambers-on-Facebook.pdf

[8] James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (1991).

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Alan S. Gerber et al., Personality and Political Attitudes: Relationships Across Issue Domains and Political Contexts, 104 Am. Pol. Sci. Rev. 111 (2010).

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conscientiousness

[19] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Openness_to_experience

[20] Jordan Hall, Understanding the Blue Church, Medium (Mar. 30, 2017), https://medium.com/deep-code/understanding-the-blue-church-e4781b2bd9b5.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Jack Shafer & Tucker Doherty, The Media Bubble Is Worse Than You Think, Politico (May 2017), https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/04/25/media-bubble-real-journalism-jobs-east-coast-215048.

[25] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/10/03/voter-registration-data-show-democrats-outnumber-republicans-among-social-scientists

[26] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/27/opinion/sunday/hollywood-liberal.html

[27] The Obama Presidency. Books.google.com. Retrieved October 18, 2014.

[28] Mysteries of Sex: Tracing Women and Men through American History. Books.google.com. Retrieved October 18, 2014.

[29]Ian Schwartz, Trump: “ Wouldn’t Be Here if It Wasn’t for Twitter,” “ Have My Own Form of Media”, RealClear Politics (Mar. 15, 2017), https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2017/03/15/trump_i_wouldnt_be_here_if_it_wasnt_for_twitter_i_have_my_own_form_of_media.html

[30]David E. Brockman et al., Predispositions and the Political Behavior of American Economic Elites: Evidence from Technology Entrepreneurs, 63 Am. J. Pol. Sci. 212, 213 (2018).

[31] Stephanie Mencimer, “The Left Can’t Meme”: How Right-Wing Groups Are Training the Next Generation of Social Media Warriors, Mother Jones (Apr. 2, 2019), https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2019/04/right-wing-groups-are-training-young-conservatives-to-win-the-next-meme-war/.

[32] Meme, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/meme.

[33] https://medium.com/deep-code/situational-assessment-2017-trump-edition-d189d24fc046

[34] Id.

[35] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ad_hominem

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