For well over a year now, political analysts, journalists, and let’s be honest — all of us, have been asking one predominant question: “How did we get here?” More precisely, how did the 2016 Presidential Election yield the two most disliked candidates in modern history? Does factual information and telling the truth no longer matter in American politics?
One answer lies (no pun intended) in the very platform that was once hoped to be the next great democratizer of knowledge— the internet. Early in the history of the commercial web, pundits saw the potential of the internet for civil discourse and the sharing of factual information. If citizens had access to the internet, they could be more informed of the candidates’ positions and data related to voting issues.
As a 1997 WIRED article anticipated, “Of all the prospects raised by the evolution of digital culture, the most tantalizing is the possibility that technology could fuse with politics to create a more civil society. It’s the possibility that we could end up with a media and political culture in which people could amass factual material, voice their perspectives, confront other points of view, and discuss issues in a rational way.”
Not only could the internet provide access to information for everyone, it could also provide access to an audience for anyone to express their views and describe their experiences. Until the web, any form of mass media — TV, newspapers, radio, books, etc. had gatekeepers controlling the content produced and distributed. This lack of access to all but a few wasn’t some sinister plot to brainwash the masses, rather a matter of the limited distribution channels available to reach people, and therefore a high cost to do so (along with an ethical standard at many organizations to uphold truthful, unbiased reporting).
The hope of a platform available to the masses to finally share their experiences and viewpoints with the public was expounded upon by Howard Rheingold in 2000:
“The problem with the public sphere during the past sixty years of broadcast communications has been that a small number of people have wielded communication technology to mold the public opinion of entire populations. The means of creating and distributing the kind of media content that could influence public opinion — magazines, newspapers, radio and television stations — were too expensive for any but a few. Just as books were once too expensive for any but a few. The PC and the Internet changed that.”
While the web undoubtedly has brought the means of creating and distributing content to anyone, you’d be hard-pressed to find many people who believe this has led to a more civil society where people are more likely to amass factual information. Anecdotally, more people would probably agree that today’s internet is more similar to the cautionary warning mentioned in the same WIRED article mentioned above regarding the potential negatives of the anonymity and democratization of content creation: “And along with online freedom comes its ugly offspring: the confrontation, misinformation, and insult that characterize many public forums on the Internet.”
This, it seems, is the reality of which future the internet brought to politics. Instead of a focus on factual information and civil discourse, there has been more misinformation created and shared than during any past election, and a discourteous rhetoric to accompany it.
Meanwhile, Facebook and other social media platforms have bolstered creators’ ability to widely distribute content quickly, regardless of its truthfulness or credibility. This has spawned a cottage industry of individuals publishing hyper-partisan articles with misleading headlines and false information. These articles are shared and passed around social circles, with readers unable or unwilling to recognize their lack of credible sources and journalistic ethics. According to one investigation, over 100 pro-Trump websites are run by teenagers in Macedonia, who are singularly motivated by the ad dollars that a virally shared story can earn them.
As Facebook algorithms mix credible news sources with unabashedly biased pages, an interesting trend has emerged: Americans’ trust in mass media has sunk to an all-time low of 32%. Only 14% of Republicans say they have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in mass media. This is no accident, as the Republican nominee has repeatedly called reputable new sources “dishonest,” “liars,” and “a terrible group of people.”
When Trump attempts to discredit mainstream media to his supporters, they assume any criticism of their candidate by major media outlets is a conspiracy against him. This allows Trump to lie and propagate false stories without any negative repercussions to his polling numbers. As a consequence, Trump supporters aren’t uniformed — they’re misinformed, which is part of the reason his support has held steady through so many scandals and blatant lies.
To be sure, misinformation and a distrust of media exists on all sides of the political sphere. However, the practice appears to be much more common among right-wing supporters, which isn’t surprising considering the candidate’s proclivity to lie.
It appears that 2016 has highlighted the truth of the internet in politics — the web did not become some great bastion of factual knowledge and rational discussion, rather, it has morphed into a platform to spread misinformation which threatens to detach the electorate from the truth.