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Monday, 22 August 2016

Why the Facebook News feed is what's wrong with America

Jon Stewart was a master at criticizing a now obsolete delivery system for news. When he took to the Daily Show in the nineties, cable news was the fountainhead from which most peoples' perception of current events sprung. He did a masterful job in highlighting how the 24 hour news cycle thrived on making us dumber, which in turn explained why Americans were so susceptible to manipulation by politicians, corporations, religion, et. al.

His departure from The Daily Show was duly mourned, and I doubt we'll see another like him. But this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Because cable news' time has passed. It's still where we turn to hear about big events - mass shootings, political conventions, and other tire fires - but not where the meat of our understanding-or lackthereof- comes from. That would be the internet - a jungle of facts, figures and opinions from which we can choose which narrative we wish to believe, then disseminate it among an imagined network of "friends" through social media.

If Cable News was a tabloid magazine - a glamorized, exaggerated vision of real life, overselling drama at the expense of context (or credibility). The internet is a "choose your own adventure" novel. That cable news, and the various other instruments of media manipulation have dumbed down our expectations for current events does not improve things.

"Truthiness" is the word Stephen Colbert coined to describe the intellectual dry rot that had settled into American media by the mid 2000s - that is, how we give something that feels true equal consideration to something that is true. You don't need technical psycho-mumbo-jumbo to understand this concept, just click on any polarizing "trending" topic on Facebook and read the headlines of articles people are linking to.

Generally it looks like this: Person A, writes a few words about how they feel, then link to an article which supports that feeling. Something like these:

Both of those articles are bullshit. This is something that has to be recognized, whether you agree with the feeling that caused them or not.

Republicans who threatened to boycott Bradley Cooper's movies after he appeared at the DNC did not do so because they "can't tell the difference between movies and real life". Such a person would be certifiably mentally incompetent. They did it because 1) they learned Bradley Cooper has a different political orientation than they do, and 2) This is particularly egregious because he achieved the greatest financial and critical success of his career by playing staunch republican Chris Kyle in American Sniper. Whether you agree with these people or not, is up for debate, but first we have to be debating actual people, not a cartoon caricature drawn up by a Huffington Post that tries to maximize clicks by being witty. The news is not witty. An editorial can be witty. And an editorial absolutely cannot be confused with news if you want to be a functioning, intelligent contributor to society.

On the other side, a contributor to The Hill claims Khizr Khan, the father of a fallen soldier who gave a moving anti-Trump speech at the DNC, was "tricked" into his appearance. The suggestion that this educated man somehow he didn't realize his grief would be politicized at a political convention is absurd, condescending and ridiculous. It's an argument that can only be made by someone who is just about to realize they are out of logical arguments, and must invent things to justify their gut feeling.  Since Khan was sympathetic, eloquent, and morally unimpeachable, they cannot posit that anything he said was wrong, so they attack Hillary Clinton for using him for the wrong reasons.

In either case it's clear that the authors of such pieces were less interested in informing the public about current events than reassuring people of their gut feelings. The problem with this is that everyone who doesn't already agree them feels misunderstood, mocked and angry.

Imagine going into a store, where the salesperson says to you: "That dress makes you look fat. Buy this - it's more slimming." That person does not make the sale. No matter how accurate their summation of your appearance, most people will refuse to listen to a person who insults them. And thus does the country become more divided.

The reality is that we aren't helping. Ideology, and politics are salesmanship. You are trying to get someone to "buy" your opinion - be it that progress necessitates racial equality, or that racial equality is a threat to national security. Insulting the customer rarely helps.

Though I could sincerely point out that Khizr Khan was not "used" or "tricked" by the Democratic party - no Muslim has to be tricked into disliking Donald Trump, particularly not a grieving parent who feels his son's memory is insulted by the candidate - any more than anyone else who stumps at a political convention, I would rather criticize my people for taking their eyes off the ball. I can't fully grasp the ugliness that has led to Donald Trump's candidacy, but would like to. Depicting his supporters as a rash of idiots feeds their distrust of the "main stream media", such that people feel that news items which don't support their beliefs are hiding something from them. And the internet is always there to offer a comforting assurance that they were right.

See Trump never kicked a baby out of his rally! The lefties who read the articles on Huffpo or Rolling Stone or wherever else that incorrectly cited that he did probably know this. "He didn't kick the mother out, he was just a jerk to her.". "He was definitely joking when he said 'get the baby out of here', but his mocking the mother for believing he liked it was sincere'.". It doesn't show he hates babies, it shows he's an asshole.

This is eerily similar to the way Trump supporters explain some of his more incendiary proclamations as "sarcasm".  News, like a presidential candidate, is supposed to tell you what actually happened, but we no longer expect it to. On social media, at least, it is a tool for asserting our rightness, for affirming our beliefs by highlighting the multitudes who share them. Not for learning. Not for questioning.

Thus, many now claim as "news" any article supporting their already held beliefs, and are living in a completely different world from their neighbors. The problem is that you can't determine whether your beliefs are right or wrong without thoughtful debate, but who can debate when the facts themselves cannot even be agreed upon.

I'm a liberal, but if the left is more determined to be smug than useful, they are part of the problem. And both sides exist in their own bubble, obstinately refusing to recognize the other side as made up of thinking human beings . On the left I blame vanity, on the right I blame fear and insecurity. But either way, nobody's helping.