Why social media is the real Trump card in the US election | John Naughton

As the Trump bandwagon gathers speed, one of the most touching sights is that of mainstream journalists in full-on mea culpa mode. “Those of us in the news media have sometimes blamed Donald Trump’s rise on the Republican party’s toxic manipulation of racial resentments over the years,” wrote the New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, last Saturday. “But we should also acknowledge another force that empowered Trump: us. I polled a number of journalists and scholars, and there was a broad (though not universal) view that we in the media screwed up.”

“Trump is not just an instant ratings/circulation/clicks gold mine; he’s the motherlode,” Ann Curry, a TV news anchor, told Kristof. “He stepped on to the presidential campaign stage precisely at a moment when the media is struggling against deep insecurities about its financial future. The truth is, the media has needed Trump like a crack addict needs a hit.”

By this stage, Kristof was in full self-flagellation mode. “It’s not that we shouldn’t have covered Trump’s craziness,” he wails, “but that we should have aggressively provided context in the form of fact checks and robust examination of policy proposals. A candidate claiming that his business acumen will enable him to manage America deserved much more scrutiny of his bankruptcies and mediocre investing.”

Finally, there was the biggest failing of all. Journalists were “largely oblivious to the pain among working-class Americans and thus didn’t appreciate how much his message resonated… We inhabit a middle-class world and don’t adequately cover the part of America that is struggling and seething. We spend too much time talking to senators, not enough to the jobless.”

All of which is no doubt true. But what’s interesting about Kristof’s lament is how he has apparently not noticed that the world has changed. Running through his apologia is an assumption that mainstream media’s high priesthood have serious responsibilities because they are the gatekeepers of information – curators of the stories that a society tells about itself.

Trump’s ascendancy demonstrates the extent to which that assumption no longer holds. It shows that mainstream media in the US no longer have control over what is acceptable for a political candidate to say in public. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the economic decline of traditional media brought about by the internet makes the survivors desperate to latch on to anything that might stop the rot in audiences and advertising revenue. In that context, Trump represents manna from heaven, and it is difficult to imagine what outrages he would have to commit on camera that would cause a TV director to fade to black. After all, we’ve already had him and his opponents (all candidates for the office of president, remember) arguing about who has the biggest dick and the sluttiest spouse. How much lower can it go? Stay tuned.

Illustration by Matt Murphy.

The second reason for Trump’s ascendancy is the rise of social media. Up to now, these have been largely tools for party machines to identify and target possible voters and solicit small donations. But Trump has borrowed an idea from Barack Obama’s two campaigns, and also used social media to recruit and energise supporters. And he has turned Twitter into a gigantic amplifier (he has 7 million followers) – which means that his message gets everywhere at zero cost. (The New York Times estimates that he’s already had nearly $2bn of free coverage.)

One thing that baffles mainstream journalists like Kristof is the way in which Trump seems to be immune to the fact-checking beloved by American journalism. Some light on this has been thrown by Zeynep Tufekci, who is one of the most perceptive observers of social media around. She has been spending some time inside the Trump “Twittersphere” and her report suggests that it is largely an ecosystem of digital echo chambers.

Professor Tufekci has watched “Trump supporters affirm one another in their belief that white America is being sold out by secretly Muslim lawmakers, and that every unpleasant claim about Donald Trump is a fabrication by a cabal that includes the Republican leadership and the mass media.” Many of the Trump supporters she’s been following, “say that they no longer trust any big institutions, whether political parties or media outlets. Instead, they share personal stories that support their common narrative, which mixes falsehoods and facts – often ignored by these powerful institutions they now loathe – with the politics of racial resentment.”

For decades we’ve been wondering what the long-term impact of the internet would be on democratic politics. Looks like we’re beginning to find out.

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