With the mid-term elections next month, I have been pondering the effect of social media on the 2016 election and wondering how it will affect things in November. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced of the truth in the words uttered by an admired philosopher of my youth, Pogo, who said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
It boggles my mind how quickly and easily a Facebook meme or a Twitter post can get shared and cause outrage. There is a bad assumption being made and that is whatever is posted there is the truth simply because it is posted there and supports a particular point of view.
Recently, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology conducted a study that found false news spreads faster than the truth on social media. One researcher said, “It took the truth about six times as long as falsehood to reach 1,500 people.”
It’s neither the Russians nor the Internet bots doing the sharing either. In the majority of cases it was “ordinary people” with normal accounts.
I am not surprised by this. In the scheme of things, the Internet is relatively new and most users are not savvy enough to realize that the majority of what they read online can only be described as hogwash. There are different levels of hogwash, from not so bad to really bad, but it is hogwash nonetheless.
How else can you explain the rise in the number of people who think the Earth is flat or that the Newtown school shooting was hoax designed to get our guns?
In addition, there are hogwash masters, people who have become rich and famous by shoveling such drivel. Alex Jones of the Infowars website comes to mind, but there are many others who don’t mind making followers and money while throwing out outrageous ideas and conspiracy theories.
Still, it all comes down to this – we, the viewing public, are responsible for the mess we’re in. Hogwash masters don’t make us follow them, we do it willingly.
Part of it has to do with the Information Age. There is so much information available to us at our fingertips that we can’t sort through it all. At one time, we relied on journalists to get the facts. They’d investigate, double check the facts, and they tells us what they found out. The Watergate scandal is a classic example. Then things changed.
I saw it happening when I was a news director back in the 80s. There was a time when the FCC required radio and television stations to present opposing points of view so the public could make an informed choice. Stations argued that newspapers weren’t held to this standard, so the FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. Then the floodgates opened.
Radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh began to take over the airwaves. They could make claims without presenting a balanced point of view.
Major news organizations also went south. I remember what happened when the networks began to put their news divisions in with their entertainment divisions. Suddenly morning news shows like Today became celebrity fests and cooking segments. And we, our own worst enemy, loved it and the ratings for such things took off.
CNN came on board and suddenly we had 24 hour news with only three hours of content. To keep it current, stories would go live so we could watch car chases. Reporters and announcers would speculate live without confirmation or the nuisance of actually fact checking anything.
When the Internet came, balance was thrown out the window and we ate it up. To compete (and pay the bills), media outlets had to adapt, so they did. Following the success of sites like Yahoo News, real news organizations began to lead with fluff pieces about celebrities and cats because that’s what we clicked on.
This trend has trickled down to smaller media outlets. Despite the fact that most of our tax dollars go to local organizations, we know little about what they’re doing because those stories get buried or not covered at all in favor of what we told news organizations we want to see — fluff.
And so, as the November election looms, we will go to the polls as probably the least informed electorate in modern history, a manipulated rabble bent on self-destruction by the choices we’ve made.
We have met the enemy, and he is us.