I've been mulling over the extraordinary rise of extreme political partisanship that threatens to undo a political culture that has served our state and this country well for many years.
And I've come to believe it is connected directly with the remarkable and frightening ways social media have recently penetrated virtually every nook of our society, growing exponentially in penetration and power in a way that's deeply concerning.
What’s at the core of my concerns is simple: We're simply not used to taking in a torrent of stuff like this ‒ fake news, fact, rubbish, opinion, diatribe, slander, rage. A carefully reasoned article about climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks just about the same on a Facebook page as a completely uninformed rant.
A story concocted out of nothing about a child porn operation linked to a political party and run out of a pizzeria can – and did – go viral and nationwide within minutes. Perhaps worst of all, because everybody with a laptop is a publisher and very few are editors in social media land, there is relatively little informed pushback against stories that are vastly slanted or even entirely false.
Only now are some social media companies beginning to realize why for decades newspapers, magazines, and radio and TV newsrooms employed squads of editors who vetted, questioned and fact-checked every story. Their credibility and accuracy were their core assets. But a social media industry that ducks its public responsibility to accuracy and its responsibility to stop or set the record straight on fake news is an industry that is setting itself up for a devastating comeuppance, sooner hopefully than later.
Consider this as well: Much of our difficulty in dealing with all this comes from the fact that the linkage between computers and the internet is a relatively new method of delivering material to the human brain. Historically, each new media development from the penny press to Edward R. Murrow on the radio in London to CNN has taken a while before people learn how to weigh and assess things.
Until they do, history has shown that they often have been vulnerable to feeling a disproportionate and sometimes misleading series of impacts from each new medium as they’ve arisen.
Consider the developments in political media over the years:
President Franklin D. Roosevelt understood and mastered the new social medium of radio. His "fireside chats" in the 1930's were enormously popular, bringing his personality directly and powerfully into the nation's living rooms in a way previously unknown.
After hearing one as a child, I remember my grandfather saying, "Well, if President Roosevelt said so, it must be so."
So-called “whistle-stop tours” taken by politicians from the mid-19th to mid-20th Century amounted to an early form of a personalized information medium. As a little boy, I remember powerfully seeing President Harry S. Truman speak from the rear of a train on a stop in Ann Arbor.
That was when he was running for president in a campaign the experts said he couldn’t possibly win. So he went over their heads to the people … and won. Sound familiar?
Candidate turned President John F. Kennedy understood just how powerful the new medium of television could be when used in a political context. His mastery of TV – from his celebrated debates with Richard Nixon in 1960 to his many televised press conferences – brought his personality and political appeal directly to millions of American citizens.
Today, President Donald Trump uses Twitter in much the same way, using this new social medium as a way to bypass a media he finds inconvenient and intrusive and speak directly – unedited and unquestioned – to millions of Americans.
Throughout history, politicians came to power often by recognizing and exploiting the scope and spread of what we might call the "social media" of their times.
Over the years, as people become accustomed to taking in messages distributed by these media, their skepticism grew to the point where the medium was no longer the undoubted message. I wouldn't be surprised if the social media of today, now so disproportionately powerful in conveying emotion (if not fact), would over time generate an audience increasingly skilled in avoiding being manipulated by that comes in via the Internet.
That day certainly has not yet come, especially when we consider that millions of Trump voters still hang on every word of his frequent tweets and charges of "fake news" as they resound constantly from all sides.
All that said, there are some important aspects of today's social media news that are especially corrosive and dangerous in today's highly charged environment.
Part of the problem is that many social media posts are explicitly designed for consumption by folks with identical points of view and partisanship. If you know you're preaching to the choir, it's easy to post the fake news item that reinforces your point of view and select extreme language to use with it.
The rise of fake news is now obvious, whether it comes from Russian propaganda distributed worldwide or from partisan "news sources" that represent themselves as factual but exist largely to rouse a particular base of political true believers.
The net effect of such "news" is to throw into doubt the very existence of broadly accepted facts without which we simply cannot have a civilized, adult conversation about policy.
Sadly, what people now find on the web is increasingly a culture of playing loose with the facts, a willingness to dabble in wild conspiracy theories and to paint the opposition in a nasty negative way without any interest in a real conversation.
Some of this seems to be a spillover from the practice of "flaming" that has been spurred on by the impersonal nature of many computer-based exchanges.
The economics of social media don't help. Advertising depends on attracting reader traffic, and so social media companies are deeply interested in how many clicks they generate. The origin of the insulting term "clickbait" applies to stories of sub-marginal content but marketed with dramatic headlines. The practice of ad agency computers mindlessly placing ads according to how many clicks a given web site registers only serves to help further spread flamboyantly fake and sensationalized news.
I like to think people will figure out how damaging to their independent judgment today's media environment has become. Maybe many will develop internal fact-checking habits and a sense of skepticism and tact.
History teaches that social manias often lose their power when confronted by persistent facts. Reflecting on the example of people in 17th-Century Holland who speculated on tulip bulbs only to discover they were not much more than beautiful flowers, might be a useful cautionary tale to immunize us against what I hope will turn out to be a short-term frenzy.
What’s certain, however, is that for the good of democracy, our nation and humanity, this particular frenzy has already gone on more than long enough.