Trump and the Filter Bubble
The scary thing about Trump is that he's breaking new ground. It'll be professionalized by 2020 Trump::FilterBubble Dean::Internet.
— Clay Johnson (@cjoh) December 12, 2015
The phrase "Filter Bubble" was coined by Eli Pariser, founder of MoveOn, the first effective left wing online organization, and a man who knows a bit about how the internet can influence political thought. Pariser was most concerned with the pernicious impacts of systemic personalization (e.g. weighted Google Search results or algorithmic timelines), but I believe what Clay is referring to is the result of Social Media becoming a primary news source.
He's right. The Trump phenomena will be studied and professionalized in the same way the political establishment digested Howard Dean's use of online outreach to build grassroots support and raise small-dollar donations. The benefits of the internet aren't without hazards. This is one of them.
More and more Americans get their news from Facebook and Twitter, a trend that is going to continue to increase. What Trump is exploiting has nothing to do with pernicious personalization algorithms, but rather the fundamental result of what happens when news is curated by social network rather than newspaper editors. Once you're getting your news via what is effectively word of mouth, a few things happen:
- Your news no longer has to be anchored within the acceptable bounds of "mainstream" discourse.
- Your news is intermingled with hearsay, conjecture, opinion.
- The mix of news will be over-weighted towards things you believe in, and against contradictions to your worldview.
As many have pointed out, Trump has replaced the traditional conservative "Dog Whistle" — coded suggestions designed to be inoffensively packaged into a mainstream quotes or soundbyte — with a bullhorn, and it's working. Being direct and "speaking your mind" is more appealing than being vague and suggestive, but he's the first candidate since Pat Buchanan gave it a try in '96. And things have changed since then. What Trump has exposed is that, at least in a Republican Party primary, there's now more to be gained than lost by dropping the act and openly playing to the resentment and animosity of the base.
I'm cautiously optimistic that Trump's campaign is destined for a Goldwater-esque waterloo in a general election. If it isn't choked-out by the party brass via contested convention in Cleveland, it's hard to see Trump overcoming his massive demographic disadvantages. But it's still scary, and real damage is being done regardless of the electoral outcome.
What's even more concerning is Clay's notion: the idea that more intentional and prepared actors will almost certainly capitalize on what Trump has now shown to be possible, and do so in such a way as to make much more serious grab for power. This could be really bad, and it's all the internet's fault. The fractionalization of perceived reality is imperiling our future.
They Have Their Own World
There have been a number of pieces written on the Trump phenomena. His fans. His followers. His rallies. They're both fascinating and frightening, and these first-hand accounts give some key insights. Recently, NY Times contributor Zeynep Tufekci had some excellent first-hand reporting on what it's like within the Trump bubble:
"His supporters and I did not share the same factual universe. At one point, I heard Mr. Trump declare that Congress had funded the Islamic State. I looked around, bewildered, as there was no reaction from the crowd. My social media forays confirm that even that was not an uncommon belief."
The emphasis is mine because this is the whole point, but also this is not new. From the underground newsletters of the John Birch society to the human centipede of AM talk radio to the Bush administration's noted distain for "the reality-based community", reactionary political conservatism has long thrived in its own universe of ideas and knowledge. To some extent this is part and parcel with what makes any ideology or culture possible — shared beliefs — but conservatives have a historical tendency to stray into the realm of the crazy, culty, or crackpotish, the kind of mania Richard Hofstadter identified 50 years ago as The Paranoid Style in American Politics:
"I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind."
In what is one of the seminal pieces of American political journalism, Hofstadter traces the "style" back to the panic over the Illuminati in 1790s New England, connecting it through to McCarthy, and to his present-day object of the Goldwater campaign in '64. But it's probably not uniquely American. I'll wager that students of political history can find infinite examples deeper in the past. Fear-mongering is probably one of the original organizing tactics, likely predating all modern states. Ho hum.
However, what is novel in our moment, in this campaign, are the tools available to construct, maintain, and enlarge such self-referential spheres of ideas. The internet allows alternative realities to take root and flourish faster and more insidiously than ever before.
The Dialectic is Real
This is the dark side of democratizing publishing. For the latter half of the 20th Century our news was managed by this bloodless quasi-priesthood of objectivity, the people we know as "journalists". They've largely lost control at this point. As Tufekci writes:
Mr. Trump’s rise is actually a symptom of the mass media’s growing weakness, especially in controlling the limits of what it is acceptable to say.
As someone who has often railed against the suffocating confinement of contemporary political discourse, this is a sobering reminder that there were upsides to having gatekeepers. They did, in fact, keep some barbarians out.
It gets dark. You can make a pretty good case that without finding encouraging words from like-minded folks in white supremacy forums, Dylann Roof wouldn't have shot up that church in Charelston South Carolina last year. There's also a bizarre and under-explored intersection between Trump's campaign, Breitbart.net, and the national shame known as GamerGate.
However, even though the internet spawns all kinds of terrors, and empowers people with the worst of motives at the worst of times, I still think we're going to be better off in the long run. The notion that the only thing keeping the world from spiraling downward into a shitstorm of racist demagoguery is a professional editorial presence sells humanity a little bit short.
And anyway, there's no going back. The genie cannot be re-bottled. The proper response to the rise of Trump (and whatever subsequent movements he begets) is counter organization. We can't rely in some "referee" to step in and cry foul, or some professional authority to insure that the Real Truth wins out. The only way this works is for the rest of us to rally and convince one another, to nurture and grow our own bubble of ideas, to expand and strengthen the Reality Based Community.
Human life is a dialectic, a competition of ideas. That's how it always works, in politics doubly so. The best ideas don't automatically win. Being grounded in reality has a lot of benefits, but it often takes a long time for those benefits to kick in. The universe's long moral arc bending towards justice isn't something to be relied on to deliver wins on any given Sunday. In the short-run, bad actors, troll, and garbage people will be competitive, and may even have an edge:
The amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit ... pic.twitter.com/z69rArKELG
— Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp) June 24, 2014
The point is, don't be discouraged. Whether it's reality TV oligarch strongmen or under-humanized computer programmers — ugh, don't ask; though it's been on my mind, I don't have the stamina to try and stretch my argument here to cover other spiky nonsense on the internet — people with terrible ideas will keep coming, and we'll have to keep parrying and riposting for progress. This is joyous work.
We're still early in the process of figuring out what democratic conversation looks like. The tools are still evolving, but more importantly we are still figuring it out. It's not surprising that there are fits and starts.
It's quite likely that this fall's election campaign will feature an uninspiring centrist for the Democratic party, and one of two extreme conservatives for the Republicans. While that might not sound like something to get super fired up about, I'd say it's an opportunity to stick a big fat stake into the heart of some of the most malignant political ideas that stalk the land. If we get the opportunity to sharpen our sense of what we believe in, so much the better. More on that soon.