I’ve spent a lot of post-election hours asking friends and colleagues to reflect on what happened Election night—how the polls and pundits got it so wrong when their predictions of a relatively easy Hillary Clinton victory morphed into a crushing defeat by Donald Trump.
A thoughtful early assessment came from the Better Government Association’s director of digital strategy and self-described “cusp millennial” Solomon Lieberman.
“Nobody owns the message anymore,” he says. “For generations the mainstream media has been the nation’s intermediary, the ‘middle man,’ between candidates and voters—trusted to digest, untangle, verify and re-circulate campaign messaging. Not anymore.
“2016 was the first ‘disintermediated’ campaign—a referee-less war of division with two candidates fighting each other in separate rings and in front of estranged audiences, many interacting for the first time at their polling places before re-polarizing to watch the returns come in.”
Sol notes that many people no longer turn to mainstream media sites, newspapers or feeds to guide their voting decisions because they don’t trust reporters and editors to act as unbiased gatekeepers or watchdogs.
“Blame newsroom-slashing corporate agendas,” Sol says. “Blame a failing education system, a general crumbling of faith in institutions, mobile phones and, as we saw at the end of Campaign 2016, epic failures of judgement by a nakedly partisan, prediction-obsessed, ratings-and revenue-driven cable empire.”
Then there’s social media.
“The alternatives—Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, niche websites and forums—are the new mainstream,” says Sol. “But unlike the trusted daily newspapers and nightly broadcasts of yesteryear, the new mainstream has no soul, no standards, and no mechanisms to ensure a shared experience. Nobody owns the message.”
Sol’s point is that social media—amusing, empowering and connecting as it is—has shattered our shared deliberative process by giving people addictive alternatives to traditional platforms: Free, self-selected echo chambers where we only hear what we want, from those we choose to listen to, blocking out anyone with a dissenting voice.
This is less of a concern, Sol says, “when the subject matter crisscrossing our feeds is the trivia that dominates social media, but when the topic is a presidential election that includes disagreements over key domestic and foreign policy issues, we’re missing the debate and discourse required for solid decision-making.
“It also invites abuse, offering candidates and political operatives free entry points to inject the falsehoods that plagued this campaign. And without a trusted, stable mainstream media to push back objectively and effectively, we’re left with a newly entrenched tribalism where no statement needs proving, and no case requires defending, as long as it’s on your pre-approved feed.”
Summing up the new landscape, Sol borrows a line from legendary playwright Arthur Miller, who said, “A great newspaper is a nation talking to itself.” If he were alive today, Sol adds, Miller might extend the line to say “…and a bad newspaper is your social media feed.”
Sol concludes on an optimistic note. “There’s hope,” he says. “These digital platforms and tools of the new mainstream are still a few cycles from adulthood, and while they’re scapegoats for those unhappy with the results of 2016, they’re immeasurably more agile than their forefathers.
“If the proprietors of these platforms can figure this out and foster a deliberative, intermediated, shared process—no more walls, no more echoes, and an ironclad insistence on ‘getting it right’ above all else—without diluting the liberty and beauty of these tools, then maybe we’ll end up with something Arthur Miller would be proud of.”
Time will tell.