A few things I learned about the media (and social media) from the US elections

Traditional print media has begun losing prominence and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have become the new purveyors of news.

Written by Radhika Iyengar | Updated: November 16, 2016 10:37 am
trump, trump news, trump president, world news, indian express, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump arrives to speak at his election night rally in Manhattan, New York, U.S., November 9, 2016. (Source: File/REUTERS)

Over the last few years, there has been a dramatic shift in the way we consume news. Traditional print media has begun losing prominence and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have become the new purveyors of news. These media platforms have a strong reach and far greater impact than any legacy media. However, with the transition, there have been pitfalls. The US Elections magnified these pitfalls, highlighting how skewed Donald Trump’s coverage was in the media – how he, his ludicrous statements and antics largely drove the narrative of the elections.

Here are some of the things I learned from what happened there:

CIRCULATION OF FAKE NEWS

Post Trump’s victory, a lot of people sat down to chart out how exactly the “bigoted, racist womaniser” was elected President. Many have directed the blame on Facebook. The social media platform received considerable flak for being one of the chief platforms for circulating unfiltered, unchecked and unbridled ‘fake news’ associated with Donald Trump that principally celebrated him. Many pointed fingers at Zuckerberg, holding Facebook responsible for allowing unauthentic news to exist on its newsfeed and not stalling the snowball effect of pro-Trump shares.

While Zuckerberg called the blame-game a ‘crazy’ idea, last week Emily Bell wrote a scathing piece in Columbia Journalism Review asserting that “Facebook could no longer be the ‘I didn’t do it boy of global media’” and listed exactly how Facebook had a major role to play in the elections. In addition, Buzzfeed did an in-depth investigation and named a number of pro-Trump pages like Occupy Democrats, The Angry Patriot, RightAlerts etc., that existed solely on facebook. These pages that posed as ‘news outlets’ were responsible for generating pro-Trump fake news and had thousands of followers.

While Facebook claims to be a neutral party that has no control over what people read/watch/share, it has to admit that it is a major media company. The stories it publishes sculpt dominant collective thought. Facebook cannot hide behind the explanation that stories that are “fed” to people on”news feed” are based on algorithms, which in turn are generated according to the material users read or watch. If Facebook could introduce anti-clickbait algorithms, which could detect stories that were over-exaggerated or highly erroneous, it definitely could roll out algorithms which could detect fake news. Facebook does have control over its algorithms. It’s the hand that rocks the cradle.

DID THE MEDIA CREATE TRUMP?

In The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof wrote, “…the media screwed up. Our first big failing was that television in particular handed Trump the microphone without adequately fact-checking him or rigorously examining his background, in a craven symbiosis that boosted audiences for both.” This view is in tandem with Obama who pointed out that the media was responsible for giving Trump free exposure (according to The Upshot, “$2 billion worth of free media”).

Trump knew exactly how to draw in the media – he hurled highly eccentric, obnoxious statements – and the media had hit a goldmine. For a considerable portion of the elections, Trump dominated mainstream media and therefore, mainstream conversations. In fact, I recall receiving weekly curated newsletters from a prominent, respected American publication where most of the featured stories were on Trump. In 1987, Trump wrote in his book The Art of the Deal, “If you are a little different, or a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you.”

And that’s exactly what happened. It created Trump as a larger-than-life political phenomenon which helped his campaign gain tremendous momentum.

CLICKBAIT HEADLINES + AND UNCHECKED SHARES

In a hit-and-miss media age where there is a deluge of information that is unchecked and unaccounted for, people are consuming everything that is thrown their way. We exist in an I-knew-before-you-did social media system, where there is an urgency to share stories—inextricably lined to the varying levels of how ridiculous, game-changing and unbelievable they are. It’s not that people don’t have to time to simply Google and fact-check before sharing it, but that they are – a) driven by an urge to be the first to share a “shocking” story, b) are too lazy to fact check, because it’s easier to press the share button rather than keying in questions in the search bar that begin with, “Is it true that…”

Undoubtedly, the unmatched, unfiltered push Trump has received from the media has an important factor to play in his rise. Interestingly, media (of which even I hold myself responsible) continues to publish posts and stories about him. It’s his entertaining, offensive, establishment-defying antics that challenge the otherwise ‘normalised’ veneer of political correctness that draws us to him. In fact, even after he has won the elections, the world is still talking about him. Hillary Clinton, who in comparison to Trump hardly received any coverage during the election campaign, has voluntarily slid into the shadows. Hardly anyone is speaking about her. In fact, Bernie Sanders is getting more social media traction that Clinton.