Wednesday, March 21, 2018

"Facebook Freakout"

So shocking was Donald Trump's election as President of the United States that it requires explanation - and assignment of blame. Vladimir Putin was clearly a major culprit in what appears to be an ongoing saga. But what about Facebook? More to the point, what about our current fixation on Facebook's multiple failures - what Ross Douthat, in today's NY Times, terms "our current freakout over Facebook"? 

Douthat is by his own admission "not a fan of Facebook." He considers social media "a cancer on our private lives and a source of derangement in our politics." He may be correct about that, especially the derangement part. Even so, I am one of the approximately 2/3 of Americans who are on Facebook, and I remain a fan of sorts. I appreciate the ability to keep in contact (however superficially) with people I would otherwise probably not be writing to or telephoning. And I especially appreciate the opportunity Facebook has provided to reconnect with people from previous periods in my life whom I would otherwise have forever lost any contact with. 

That said, I do not think of it as a legitimate source of political news. Recognizing that some may do so, I share the growing national concern with Facebook as yet another out-of-control corporate giant, which may also have contributed in some measure to the corrupting of the 2016 election. Having said that, however, I am reminded that it was not primarily the social- media generation that elected Trump president. So I must also agree with Douthat's larger point that the media format that made Trump president, the media format "whose weaknesses and perversities and polarizing tendencies he brilliantly exploited ... was that old pre-internet standby, broadcast and cable television, and especially TV news." Trump accomplished this in two steps, Douthat argues. the first was The Apprentice, which portrayed "a much-bankrupted real estate tycoon ... as a titan of industry, the for-serious greatest business man in the world." We who had seem Trump close-up in New York might have been immune to such illusions, but we now that many other Americans probably formed an impression of Trump as some sort of great businessman - a dangerous perception when combined with the erroneous but ever popular American notion that success in business ought to qualify one for political office (instead of being the disqualification that the conflict between private and public interest might suggest) 

More menacing than The Apprentice, however, was what happened once Trump became an actual candidate. "Step two was the use of his celebrity to turn news channels into informercials for his campaign." Douthat is referring both to the "more than $2 billion in effective advertising" Trump benefited from during the primary season and to his exploitation of "the polarization that cable news, in particular, is designed to feed." The former is essentially built into TV's business model. Trump's celebrity sold. It made money for networks and cable companies. The latter, however, is not inherent in TV per se, but political polarization has become TV's default way of covering the news, something that probably wasn't inevitable even if it now seems to be the natural state of affairs.

Everyone recognizes that, as those who get their information from newscasts die out, the failings of social media may matter more in the long-term. Meanwhile, however, any accurate accounting with what happened in 2016 needs to lay at least as much blame on old media as new.

At least since the 1960s, TV has been a decisive player in American politics - more often than not harmful. In the future, we should probably expect the same from social media.

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