Editorial: Stupid is as Facebook does — how social media is failing democracy

Donald Trump becoming president of the United States was a failure amongst many levels. Social media is just one of them.

Donald Trump’s election victory last week caught much of the rest of the world by surprise, leading to headlines of disbelief and outright mockery in many international publications.

It’s not hard to see why. Throughout the campaign and for much of his life before the new President-elect has come across as decidedly un-presidential. A president ought to behave in a dignified, statesman-like (or stateswoman-like) manner. This is or at least was, until a week ago a given for virtually any modern, developed and democratic country. Alas Trump is anything but. The litany of comments in which he denigrates or outright mocks people on the basis of race, religion, being a woman, or being disabled are well documented. He even berated Arizona senator and former Vietnam POW John McCain’s status as a war hero because, in his opinion, war heroes don’t get captured. He also displayed an alarming contempt for the very democratic process in which he was engaged, suggesting he would not accept the election result if he lost, that the election (and polls and media and seemingly the world at large) was rigged, and threatening to prosecute his opponent.

Perhaps even more troubling than what he says is the casual, almost flippant way these comments shoot out of his mouth. Then there his often-petulant child-like reactions to even mild criticism, and his also child-like propensity to claim he didn’t say something that he clear did say, on camera. Conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer hit the nail on the when he wrote earlier this year, “this is beyond narcissism. I used to think Trump was an 11-year-old, an undeveloped schoolyard bully. I was off by about 10 years. His needs are more primitive, an infantile hunger for approval and praise.”

And Trump’s comments about not accepting the result of the election? That is more reminiscent of the kind of comments made by election candidates in developing counties with relatively fragile histories of democracy (in Cote d’Ivoire in 2010, for instance). In a similar more-likely-seen-in-a-developing-country vein was Trump promise to rewrite libel laws to make it easier for him to sue news organization that write critically of him.

Try to picture the same comments coming out of the mouths of Justin Trudeau, Stephen Harper or Tom Mulcair during Canada’s election. Can’t fathom it? That’s because none of them would ever behave that way. The same held true south of the border up until Trump. Think about it Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, John McCain, George W. Bush, John Kerry and so on honourable statesmen all, regardless of whether or not you share their political views.

With such an obviously distasteful candidate this election should have been a foregone conclusion. It should have transcended the usual ideological debate about right-leaning or left-leaning policies. It should have, above all, been about choosing a candidate who at least acts like a president ought to.

It was heartening to see that happen in some cases, to see McCain and both Bushes push aside party allegiance and refuse to vote for a candidate who lacks common decency. But it was just as disheartening to see others, such as Paul Ryan, swallow their earlier repudiation of Trump and line up behind him, putting party and power ahead of integrity.

Much has been written about how Trump managed to pull off the shocking win, with a lot of ink spilled on him being from well outside the political establishment, Hillary Clinton’s lack of widespread appeal, and on the glass ceiling for women seeking the highest offices. Certainly those contributed. As did another factor that has received much less attention the ongoing dumbing down of media.

Turn the clock back some 60 years and listen to the broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow, and other television news pioneers. The diction and language used were much different then. Murrow and his colleagues treated their audience as intelligent and were not afraid to use bigger words and detailed explanation. Fast forward to today, where the emphasis is almost always on short, simple and sensational. While that may help attract eyeballs, it does nothing to further thoughtful discourse. In fact, in many ways it inhibits it.

In addition to the news being dumbed down, it has also been polarized in recent decades thanks to the rise of news outlets (Fox News, say, or the Tyee) dedicated to a single political perspective. A great advantage of traditional mainstream media is their centrist bent, and their tendency to include a variety of perspectives. Sure, the National Post may be somewhat right-leaning, but there is still plenty of leftist commentary in there. The Toronto Star leans left, but has its share of right wing columnists. This is a good thing encountering differing perspective forces readers to wrestle with ideas they might never have otherwise, if only in an attempt to understand where in heavens name such ideas come from. Outlets such as Fox News and the Tyee unfortunately minimize this kind of exposure.

In the last 10 to 15 year this trend has reached a nadir with social media. Sadly many people today get all their news, such as it is, from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and the like. This hyper-personalized kind of information feed does more than minimize differing views it often obliterates them altogether. When there is disagreeing discourse, it usually comes in the form of combative, snarky entries in the “comments” section which is hardly conducive to opening and broadening minds. And frequently there is no disagreement at all just a single view point, amplified by “likes” and retweets from similar-minded family and friends. Talk about an echo chamber.

In this kind of media environment, it’s not hard to see how Trump voters might be at least partially, if not wholly, unaware of just the kind of character he is. The worrying part is that this phenomenon is every bit as present in Canada. Sadly, short of prescribing everybody to sit down with the Globe and Mail, the National Post and the Economist every morning, it’s hard to see any solution in sight.

But hey, do U really, like, care about the dumbing down of media or Trump, when there’s another, like, really hilarious video about a goat doing something funny, just waitin’ 4 U on Facebook?