'Fact, truth and honesty don’t win elections': The role of algorithms and social media in this year's presidential race
As the excruciating US election comes to a close, it’s worth thinking about the fallout before we move on to the outcome.
The US elections take place next week
Thinking back to the beginning, with 20 candidates in the race for president, two stood out - Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Back then we were sure it was all just a big stunt and neither candidate had any credible hope of getting very far. We casually talked about how we live in a culture driven by marketing principles. We observed that polarization drives popularity. We connected those principles to brands and audiences, waiting for the real election to get underway.
Three frightening months later, it was clear that extremism had firmly replaced the middle ground. Balance was dead, and Trump had held on far longer than many legitimate presidential candidates of old. If not for Google fact checker, it would be nearly impossible to separate fact from fiction. But did fact even matter anymore? Fact, truth and honesty don’t win elections.
Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Statesman, was a guest speaker at an event at Fold7 a few weeks ago and I was inspired by her take on how the filter bubble is affecting us as social beings. The filter bubble, for anyone not familiar with the concept, is the artificial bubble many of us unwittingly create when we curate our social feeds according to the opinions we wish to hear. The rather alarming result being that we rarely expose ourselves to a different point of view, making us increasingly biased, unchallenged and at worse ignorant of truth.
Our world gets more and more complex but instead of dealing with it, we’ve simplified it to the lowest and most base common denominator. Good, bad. Woman, man. Heathen, Christian. Because we fear the unknown, we find simplicity reassuring. We retreat to opposite sides of the ring, surrounding ourselves with like-minded defence.
What if Adam Curtis, the director of the compelling BBC documentary HyperNormalisation, is right and we’re trapped in a dark, corrupt, and fake world, where over the past 40 years politicians, financiers and technological utopians constructed a simpler (and untruthful) version of the world, which many people accepted as the norm, because simplicity is reassuring?
Inspired by the above, and Lewis’s concerns that the internet is making us all the more extreme and simplistic in our views, I decided to venture over to the other side to try to understand the Trump supporters in my life (as an American citizen, I do know some). I was drawn to a headline posted by a friend: ‘How half of America lost its f**king mind’. As someone who was born in small-town Trump land, the columnist has more empathy for Trump supporters. He sees them as people whose values are the same ones the country was built on- religion, hard work, community. Their values are deemed unfashionable and small-minded and the more they’re mocked, the more rocks they throw. It wasn’t exactly a light bulb moment but I inched ever so slightly closer to a sense of understanding.
It leads to some interesting questions and problems to solve. What does balance mean today? It clearly isn’t about being opinion agnostic. The days of balanced reporting may be over and algorithms that feed us self-selected stories are surely here to stay, so how do we expose ourselves to different points of view? A good starting point is to proactively follow different points of view, even if it does initially make you feel uncomfortable. Even if you don’t agree with them, at least you’ll be able to construct a balanced opinion based on a real understanding of the opposition and what they believe.
Power has always been about authority and ownership. Loud, opinionated voices have historically had more sway. The middle ground has been tainted. It is boring, safe and ineffective. But maybe, if the right candidate wins the election, she’ll change that. She gets my vote because I believe she will resuscitate the middle ground and in this world of polarization, extremism, fear and self-imposed ignorance, I’m all for some healthy middle ground…#imwithher.
Yelena Gaufman is strategy partner at Fold7