The year was 1993. All jeans were “mom jeans”, and Saved By The Bell was still poisoning the minds of the young with its sanitized depictions of subversive teenage criminal activity.
Meanwhile, on the Internet, America Online’s hordes of troglodytes and child predators were finally granted access to the Usenet user groups—once a repository of highly-informed, academic-level discussions. So as many predicted, the quality of those discussions spiked strongly downward like sales of M.C. Hammer pants and Steven Seagal’s credibility as a martial artist.
This event was dubbed the “Eternal September”, referencing the recurring annual phenomenon of freshman college students degrading Usenet discussions for the first few months of every new school year. But the people who coined the term grossly overestimated how singular the effect would be, much in the same way World War I was referred to by some as “The War to End All Wars” until a genocidey little stache-boi named Adolf came along and told his bros to “halte mein bier”.
Things were about to get a lot worse. Enter: Smartphones, and Social Media.
Nowadays it’s a cliche to say the Internet has revolutionized the way we interact with the media, especially about politics. Of course, not all revolutions are a step in the right direction (looking at you, Crystal Pepsi).
Still, one would assume that lowering the barriers to entry for media participation would naturally result in an improved media landscape. But more voices in a conversation does not mean better conversation just as more chefs in the kitchen does not make a better soup. And as anyone who’s been tricked into eating at Golden Corral certainly knows, more soup doesn’t mean better soup.
…more voices in a conversation does not mean better conversation just as more chefs in the kitchen does not make a better soup.
Without belaboring the point any more in order to cram 90’s references into this article like a Trapper Keeper filled with pogs, here’s exactly how political coverage on Internet and politics in the Internet age went to shit (just like your Tamagotchi) in three stages (which we won’t turn into one of those god-awful, bullshit slideshows in a desperate attempt to squeeze more revenue out of your click. You’re welcome.):
1. Overchoice, Underthink
The glut of choices for individual consumption of political information has created a situation Behavioral Economists describe as “Overchoice” (choice overload). This is associated with emotional discomfort and a breakdown of one’s decision making processes leading to an individual gravitating towards the least-distressing option.
That least-distressing option tends also to be the one which requires the least mental effort, let alone critical thinking, so the phenomenon of Confirmation Bias further short-circuits one’s innate logic heuristics (sometimes described as “common sense”), much in the same way a morning-spanning argument between co-workers over where to go to lunch is unlikely to be decided in favor of the healthiest option rather than just getting fucking pizza delivered and I don’t care if you want vegan moon sprouts Janice, we’re getting bacon and pineapple.
3. Antisocial Media Disorder
Social Media services such as Facebook, from which as many as 62% of American Adults get their news, not only reinforce, but reward tribal in-group signalling for approval from one’s “team” in the form of “Likes”, rather than contentious discussion; and the native discussion formats themselves don’t easily lend themselves to citing sources to back up the flag-waving, “tastes great” vs. “less filling”, red vs. blue bullshit in the first place.
Prior to the explosion of this kind of “new media” via the Internet, fewer sources meant both more scrutiny on those sources for accuracy and integrity, and fewer opportunities for confirmation bias to play a part in the public misinforming itself.
Furthermore, in the face of the new media takeover, as those traditional media sources continue to wither, Journalists have been pressured into abdicating traditional ethical duties in order to remain competitive. As a secondary consequence, members of the electorate who are sincerely interested in being informed voters are exposed to a higher volume of low-quality, biased information, drowning out the reasoned, astute voices in the national conversation.
Postmortem on the Modern World
Long gone are the days of prime time television featuring erudite policy debates between intellectual heavyweights like William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal. They’ve been replaced by sycophantic tribal cheerleaders like Sean Hannity and Cenk Uygur, Tucker Carlson and Rachel Maddow; each signalling to the bias of their audience above and beyond any commitment to the common good of deciding policy based on the objective realities of the world.
“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a United States Senator and Ambassador from New York once said that everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. Voters in today don’t seem to be aware of the difference, much less possess the cognitive toolkit needed to separate the two. And politicians in this political climate are more than happy to take advantage of this huge blind spot in the public’s critical thinking skills.
So nowadays it doesn’t really matter if a politician presents opinions as reality and lies as facts, as long as the media will repeat them to a public who can’t tell the difference. And that’s why we can’t fucking have nice fucking things.
Sources and shit
- “Eternal September Lives On.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 9 Apr. 2012, www.economist.com/babbage/2012/04/09/eternal-september-lives-on.
- Iyengar, S., & Lepper, M. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 995-1006.
- Nickerson, Raymond S. “Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises.” Review of General Psychology, vol. 2, no. 2, 1998, pp. 175–220., doi:10.1037//1089-26126.96.36.199.
- Gottfried, Jeffrey, and Elisa Shearer. “News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2016.” Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project, 26 May 2016, www.journalism.org/2016/05/26/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2016/.
- Anstey, P. 2011. John Locke & Natural Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. A thorough examination of Locke’s scientific and medical thinking.
- Moynihan, Daniel Patrick. “Daniel Patrick Moynihan: a Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary”. Public Affairs, 2012.