The Ideological Gap Part Three: Media, Echo Chambers and Debate
I meet historian Joe Skeaping at the Southbank Centre in London. Head of history at Brighton College and a long-time friend of mine, we begin our chat by talking about the man of the moment; Donald Trump.
I offer up the opinion that he is just a Fox News grandpa who just happens to run the most powerful country in the world. Joe has a different take on the man. “People really wanted a candidate who came in and said ‘look, all these things these people believe in are wrong. You’re being left out. I can come in and stop them.’ I don’t think it goes any deeper than that.”
There is no doubt that Fox News and Donald Trump both share the same message. Trump constantly repeats whatever he has heard on Fox and Friends that morning on his infamous Twitter feed. What is more difficult is to decipher who is the “useful idiot” in this scenario. Are Fox, their Executives specifically, helping to feed the President to get their agenda across? Or is Trump using Fox to shape his policies? Joe thinks the latter. “That is his electorate. He has to know what they want.” He watches the news, figures out what is worrying his people at that moment and reiterates it, making it a bigger story, and validating the fears of his supporters. In a way, he’s keeping them happy by keeping them angry.
There is little doubt that the media helped shape the American election, as it did the EU referendum, but in very different ways. In America, they have less use for newspapers compared to Britain. Their periodicals tend to be localised, and therefore much less influential on a national stage, save for the odd exception like the New York Times and The Washington Post.
America still predominantly gets its news from the TV, and a strange thing happened when Donald Trump announced he was running for President. The election cycle was no longer about informing the electorate, a practice that had admittedly been in decline for some time surrounding presidential elections. Instead the coverage was pure entertainment. CNN, a historically neutral channel, would cut away from more important news to broadcast full Trump rallies. MSNBC, a left-leaning channel, would host endless roundtables about why Trump was such a bad candidate, almost ignoring the fact that the Democrat primary was going on at the same time. Trump’s message was no longer relegated to just Fox News.
By endlessly focusing on Trump, these mainstream media sources legitimised him, not just by giving him airtime, but also by attacking him at every turn. Trump gained support from those who had grown disillusioned by the so-called “liberal media”. They had a candidate to share that hatred with, not one who was going to cosy up to the morning show hosts. Edna Miller, a Trump supporter from West Virginia, told me how much she despised broadcast news. “It’s not news, it’s opinion. Why don’t you let me make up my own mind?”
In the EU referendum, it was quite different. Most of the daily newspapers were firmly behind leaving the EU, and had been for many years. Their campaigns to get Britain out was helped greatly by some questionable claims made by the official leave campaign. The £350m to the NHS bus was the main offender, but there were also bold claims made about immigration, fishing quotas and trade, amongst others, that appealed to these newspapers’ natural readership. The BBC, meanwhile, was hamstrung by its requirement of balance. For every IMF report suggesting Brexit would be disastrous for the economy, they also felt the need to print one of these claims that have now been found to be untrue. Just like with CNN and MSNBC in America, they legitimised the claims made by the leave campaign.
But how much influence these papers had on the outcome remains questionable. Stephen Clarke from the Resolution Foundation questions whether it is the paper or other media outlet that dictates the worldview or whether that type of media is consumed because a worldview is shared. “It could be that Telegraph readers vote Tory because they read the Telegraph or it might be because certain types of people who tend to vote Tory read the Telegraph.”
In the 2017 General Election, YouGov found that on the two ends of the broadsheet spectrum, the Telegraph and Guardian, readers voted very much in line with their chosen paper’s ideology. Things were slightly more muddled when you moved towards the tabloids and the more centrist papers, but, on the most part, readers voted for the endorsed candidate of their chosen publication, if there was one. This could mean that the paper managed to convince their readership of their point of view, but it is much more likely that the voter buys the paper to support and reinforce their own ideology. Douglas Finlayson, a leave voter and Guardian reader, put it eloquently when he told me: “The power [the papers] have is they close down debate. They just give feed to their readers of what they want to read. Buying a newspaper just to reinforce your prejudices is never a good idea.”
This calls in to question the role of the so-called ‘echo chamber’ in modern politics. Many a naval gazing editorial has been written about the social media bubble people now find themselves in, and the role it played in the presidential election and the EU referendum. For many, myself included, the referendum result was a certainty. I had this perception because nobody on my Facebook wall, be it Labour, Lib Dem, Green or Conservative voter, wanted to leave. That was according to my wall, but wasn’t the reality. Much has been made of the Facebook’s algorithms, with many people complaining about a sterile newsfeed. But, in defence of these lines of code sanitizing our social media, it is simply because the user has not been clicking on anything that distorts their worldview. That is not Facebook’s fault.
In May 2016 the Wall Street Journal launched Blue Feed, Red Feed, an interesting aggregator that takes the most shared stories on social media from both liberals and conservatives and puts them side-by-side. There is a list of topics you can check, and a cursory click on the Donald Trump topic will not surprise you. The liberal side follows the almost fanatical pursuit of proof for the alleged collusion between Trump and Russia, and the Conservative side praises Trump, whilst continuing to denounce Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Neither side shares many legitimate news sources, and both are hysterical, to the point of parody.
I’ve seen one of the conservative feeds in real time. Whilst interviewing Edna’s daughter Angelique Richardson, a Hillary supporter from London via New York, she showed me what her mother had shared over the previous 24 hours. “He’s hated because he’s doing exactly what he promised. Patriots for Trump” emblazoned on a picture of Trump at the podium, with the American flag in the background. “Abortion isn’t a women’s issue it’s a human issue” over a picture of a dead fetus. “The real reason liberals hate Trump is because the President expects them to work. Share=Agree” plastered on a picture of protesting students. Angelique laughed at this one. “My Mom hasn’t worked since she was a teenager.” 17 posts in total over a 24-hour period. Angelique decided to block her mother on Facebook. “In a very basic way, that’s a tough thing to do”.
Edna, for her part, told me she was sick of Facebook because all it was to her now was politics. She’s not alone there. A heavily shared meme on my feed before the 2017 general election simply said “Brace yourself. Facebook is about to become the fucking House of Commons.” I am acutely aware that many of my friends who vote Conservative were worried about posting their support, as they didn’t want to face abuse. Both Joe and Stephen think echo chambers are a dangerous thing, even if they do not exist purely in our social media feeds.
Joe points out that people have surrounded themselves with likeminded people for centuries, and that this regular act has now just reached the digital age. “If you’re into politics, you should be worried about echo chambers.” But is it a problem created by social media? “100% no.”
I find the hysteria surrounding echo chambers slightly troubling. It is not as if before the Internet there was a roaring debate. On the contrary, the Internet has plenty of spaces for people to voice their opinions. The problem is, these places tend to be hijacked by the trolls and the devout. These particular spaces are problematic, because they have begun to inspire real violence, like what we saw in Charlottesville, but they are very much on the fringes of the average social media feed. I’m of the opinion that echo chambers became a big story on the remain side and the Democrat side because neither could fathom how they had lost. It’s the same with fake news. Fake news has been around for centuries, there is a market for it because people want to reinforce their own ideologies; otherwise there would be no money in it.
The fact of the matter is both the remain campaign and Hilary Clinton ran historically bad campaigns and are unable to take any responsibility for it. You can still see that today with the Democrats obsession with Trump’s alleged collusion, and whilst there are legitimate questions to be answered there, it is not the reason why they lost. By harping on about fake news and echo chambers they have given the other side a weapon to use against them, which is the reason why anything legitimately worrying that is written about Trump he can now write off as fake news.
Which brings me to another thread running through most of the interviews I conducted for this series, and that’s a general sense of disillusionment with politics, especially from those who voted for leave or for Trump. Edna thinks there needs to be more bi-partisanship, Hart Morgan, a Trump supporter from Illinois, believes all politics is now just about “point scoring”, Douglas has grown completely disenchanted with politicians, and prefers going to Quaker meetings, where the debate is a lot more civil, and Jesse Banovic, from Wiltshire, has pretty much given up entirely, though she wants to fight for change instead of voting. “Over the years it’s become so murky, and part of me just thinks ‘oh God, I don’t want to be part of it.’ I’m not being apathetic.”
A subject all of my interviewees agree on is the need for greater and more civil debate. My experts, Stephen and Joe, basically said the same thing which is you should look outside of your comfort zone for opinions that are different from yours. Douglas and Edna, my two oldest interviewees, both think more debate would be useful, but can’t see it happening. “The existing forums, like Question Time and newspaper letter pages, aren’t working anymore.” Douglas told me.
The young people I spoke to seem more optimistic about it. I noticed a general interest from all of them about why other people voted differently, though I don’t think many of them have gone past the point of interest to actually investigating. Hart, a young man who seems to not suffer from being in an echo chamber, thinks: “If you’re past the point of debate, you’re to the point of violence, so I certainly hope we’re not past that point.” Hopefully the ugly scenes in Charlottesville do not become symptomatic of this polarised age.
On November 9th I was completely aghast at the Trump result, so I began to talk to some Trump voters over Facebook. I realised they didn’t always buy into Trump as a whole. One woman was a military veteran, and Trump had promised to clean up the horrendous Department for Veteran Affairs. Hillary hadn’t. Another just wanted a conservative to be nominated to the Supreme Court, and was happy to sacrifice 4 years of Trump for it. These are legitimate concerns, and Hilary didn’t offer them what they wanted. I very rarely vote for someone I actually support, just for someone I perceived to be the lesser of two evils. Many Trump voters are the same.
That is why I think it is important we keep talking. We have seen moments of violence from both sides, in both countries, and if we are reaching that point then it is crucially important to start a dialogue again. Kat Morgan, from San Francisco, put it better than I could. She told me: “It’s okay to feel righteous, and it’s okay to feel passionate. But, I think we need to turn the volume down, enough to hear what the other people are saying.”