Tribal Citizens and Trend-Based Policies: The Drawbacks of New Media

Introduction

The growth of new media has greatly changed the way in which people acquire information. In the past, television, radio and printed media were the principal organs through which most garnered information (not to mention word of mouth). Today, information is increasingly attained online through digital media, which includes the aforementioned organs as well as the advent of social media. As for the latter, a solid majority of U.S. adults—62%—gets news through it as of 2016, which is up from 49% of U.S. adults in 2012 (Gottfried and Shearer, 2016). The nature of new media is quite different from “old media,” as it is more personalized, less hierarchical, and highly libertarian in nature. This different nature comes with many benefits as well as many detriments that are of increasing concern to many, including this author.

Given the importance and timeliness of the topic of new media, this research paper seeks to provide a non-exhaustive analysis of some of new media’s negative effects. With particular emphasis on American audiences, the first chapter briefly outlines the recent rise of new media and the ways in which its supply and demand sides are generally leaving the citizenry less informed and more tribal. The second chapter looks at two examples of how new media has negatively affected crucial decisions made by top policymakers. The first case regards the role that social media played during the 2015 refugee crisis, while the second regards social media’s effect on the current U.S. administration’s 2017 decision to launch missile strikes against the Assad regime. Together, these two chapters aim to present just one narrow viewpoint regarding the detriments of new media for both the general population as well as policymakers. As space is extremely limited, only some of the more striking detriments of new media will be included.

 Chapter 1. Tribalism and Blissful Ignorance

As the reach of new media has increased to broader audiences, trust in media by many in those same audiences—and by Americans especially—has steadily declined. Today, while more Americans than ever before get news through new media, only 32% of Americans have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media, which is down from 44% in 2011 (Swift, 2016). Though this inverse correlation does not imply causation, the fact that these two phenomena are occurring at the same time is still significant, as the expansion of new media offers growing numbers of disaffected Americans a buffet of alternatives, both for better and for worse. As this research focuses on the detriments of this shift in news production and consumption, this first chapter will consider some of the negative effects that new media has had on both the supply and demand sides.

1.1. New Media’s Supply- and Demand-Side Drawbacks

One negative shift in news consumption that is driven by the supply side of new media has been the dissemination of so-called “fake news.” Defined as news articles that are intentionally and verifiably false, and that could mislead readers (Allcott and Gentzkow, 2017, p. 213), fake news thrives in the new media environment. With the drastic lowering of barriers to entry for the media industry, the increase in fake news is associated with lower standards for the accuracy of reporting relative to mainstream media outlets, which have more to lose from the dissemination of inaccurate information. Also, the highly polarized political atmosphere in the U.S. has made citizens more susceptible to believing fake news stories which either affirm their worldview or smear those of their political opponents. Furthermore, the fact that fake news is often shared via social media networks means that articles can reach vast audiences which rival or even exceed those of mainstream media outlets, making them potentially highly profitable (Ibid., pp. 221-223).

Important problems emerge on the demand side of the new media equation as well. For example, although the young are considered to be internet savvy, in the new media environment they are in fact quite information-illiterate. A recent Stanford study evaluating students’ online reasoning found that when assessing information over social media channels, students were easily duped into thinking that paid advertisements were real news stories; they were also prone to overlooking clear evidence of biased reporting (Stanford History Education Group, 2016). Even worse, in today’s new media environment, people who share news stories often do not care about the veracity of the information they consume and share. Many today share news to display their “dedication to a community, feeling, or ideology” so as to reaffirm the viewpoint of their enclosed online community. This is not driven by a desire for knowledge, “but by our primal human impulse to divide into groups” (Johnson, 2017, pp. 14-15). In essence, new media is making its consumers tribal and, unfortunately for many, complicit in their own misinformation.

Given these trends, it is no surprise that in 2016 Oxford Dictionary designated “post-truth” as its word of the year. Defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” (Oxford Dictionaries, 2016), the emergence of a post-truth ethos in media is probably the most corrosive detriment to come from the growth of new media. When so many consumers practically want to be lied to in ways that confirm their beliefs, they not only become less informed about objective truths, but they also become the shapers of their own blissful ignorance. Ominously, the algorithmic echo chambers common on social media sites are there ready to oblige these consumers’ tribal tendencies. In summary, this first chapter has presented a non-exhaustive sample of some of the most important ways in which new media is making the citizenry less informed. The following section, by contrast, looks at some of the crucial ways in which new media affects policymakers for the worse.

Chapter 2. The Emergence of Trend-Based Policies

While the growth of new (and especially social) media appears to be contributing to an increasingly uninformed and tribal citizenry, it has also shown in recent years a propensity to affect some of the highest ranking policymakers in the world. Two contemporary events were significantly shaped by social media, with far-ranging and potentially destabilizing consequences. First is the role that social media played during the refugee crisis of 2015, with Twitter and emotionally-charged photojournalism affecting events whose repercussions still echo today. The second case regards the current U.S. administration’s decision to launch missile strikes against the Syrian government and the role that social media played in the making of that decision. In short, this section argues that new media has the power to shape the decisions made by global policymakers as well as by general audiences, though often in ways that are more emotional and trend-driven than prudent.

2.1. Tweets Heard Round the World

The 2015 refugee crisis is one instance when social media undoubtedly had an enormous effect on global events. In the final days of summer 2015, three events which took place over new media channels each played an important role around the time German Chancellor Angela Merkel uttered her famous sentence: “We can do it.”  The first was a tweet from Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, which dryly read, “We are at present largely no longer enforcing Dublin procedures for Syrian citizens.” This tweet was shared widely across social media (and through word of mouth) and instantly made Germany the prime destination for those seeking refugee status. Hungarian Ambassador to Germany Peter Györkös said that on the following day, Serbian border police found thousands of discarded passports on their side of the border. “From that moment on,” Ambassador Györkös remarked, “all refugees were Syrians.” (Spiegel Staff, 2016).

Chancellor Merkel said reservedly of the tweet that it had triggered a “certain amount of confusion,” which was a rather restrained admission of the discordance within German governmental agencies and overall breakdown of political control (Oltermann and Kingsley, 2016). Two days after the bungled tweet surfaced, images emerged on Twitter of an abandoned truck used to smuggle 71 refugees, all of whom died from asphyxiation. Just six days later, the pitiful image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body on the beach went viral across social media. Although it is impossible to know the precise extent to which the emotionally-charged tweets influenced Chancellor Merkel’s decision-making process, there is little doubt that social media played an important role in shaping events. Chancellor Merkel’s resulting open-door policy changed the perceptions of many towards Germany and engendered a short-term sense of euphoria; however, long-term effects were a deepening of schisms within the E.U. and greater instability across Europe.

President Donald Trump also recently made a jarring decision influenced in part by social media. When images surfaced on social media of victims suffering from chemical weapons attacks purportedly carried out in Syria by the Assad regime, Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, tweeted that she was “heartbroken and outraged” by the images. According to a diplomatic memo released by Britain’s ambassador to Washington, Sir Kim Darroch, the feelings harbored by Ivanka Trump, who had become one of President Trump’s unpaid assistants just a month prior, was a “significant influence in the Oval Office” (Agerholm, 2017). Eric Trump, the president’s middle son, said that he was “sure” his sister influenced their father’s decision to launch retaliatory missile strikes, and that “you can tell [President Trump] was deeply affected by those images of the children” (Johnson, 2017). The ill-omened implication here is that, like in the two cases outlined above, critically important policies can sometimes be held hostage by whatever is currently trending on social media.

Conclusion

This short research paper has sought to show some of the most significant drawbacks of the growth of new media. Of course, this select framing was not done in an effort to draw any binary conclusions about new media being either wholly good or bad; in fact, this author is quite fond of the digital Wild West that comes with new media’s libertarian media model. The shortcomings of this emerging media landscape is a topic of great concern, however, and if this paper has been at all successful, then the reader should be left with a sense that these shortcomings are potentially quite dangerous, especially on the policymaking end. But policies which arise from gusts of popular feeling are no new threat to the U.S., it should be noted.

In fact, during his travels, Tocqueville remarked that the extent of democracy he observed in America posed a serious threat to freedom, as it risked leading to a tyranny of the majority whereby everything was subjected to “the ubiquitous claims of ‘public opinion’” (Mahoney, 2001, p. 206). Today, a similar risk exists for policy to be hijacked by the ubiquitous claims of what is trending. As for the citizenry, Tocqueville noted that due to its unprecedented levels of public trust, America was the country with the least “independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion” (1835, p. 292). With public trust in America today declining steadily, there is a risk that new media could lead to America having the worst of both worlds: i.e. tribal citizens and trend-based policies.

In conclusion, the rise of new media has important detrimental implications for both the general citizenry and for policymakers. As for the former, the emergence of a post-truth media ethos has given rise to increasingly tribal news audiences which are at best ill-equipped to differentiate fake news from real news, and at worst complicit in their own deception. Regarding the latter, the risk that short-term social media trends have the power to influence world-changing policies became apparent during the 2015 refugee crisis and the 2017 missile strikes against Syria by the U.S. The former policy led to a breakdown of the Schengen Area and deepened tensions across Europe, while the latter policy was an erratic move that ran the risk of creating yet another power vacuum in an already conflict-ridden region. In short, it is this author’s hope that these notable new media drawbacks were analysed in this paper in a way that was convincing and succinct.

 Bibliography

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