Hail to the Tweet: Tribalism and America’s First Social Media President

See the French translation

Americans woke up this morning in shock:

How could we have elected that man?

How could so many people have voted for her?

How can I get Canadian citizenship?

How can we get rid of those looney liberals?

The better question Americans should be asking themselves today is: How did this Age of Stupid tribalism divide a nation and deliver disappointment. This was America’s first social media election and the polarisation that this manipulative communications tool brought about gave us the results we, sadly, deserved.

Many are asking today how Trump could have won. If we look at how social media works, we won’t have to go too deep. Several points come to the surface.

On social media, facts don’t matter.

I choose the facts I want to believe about my candidate or the opponent and I surround myself with those who agree with me. I rarely hear unfiltered views from the other side because I don’t go to those sites and have blocked most of the people whom I find are, well, stupid (ie, whom I disagree with). A lot of the bad things they said about Trump (or Clinton) were conspiracies or overblown by the media. Truth is not an issue in a post-modernist world.

On social media, we seek trust.

We no longer trust our institutions, companies or service providers – today we trust our friends (loosely now identified as those on social media with similar interests or concerns). So we prefer to get nutritional advice from the Food Babe or medical advice from WebMD rather than from professional experts. Trump’s brilliance was to use social media to cement our distrust in Hillary. As discussed in my blog last week, without trust, Clinton had no chance (even against a seriously flawed individual).  Without public trust, even a monkey could have beaten Hillary, and it did. Sadly, that monkey now has to find a way to govern.

On social media, news is ephemeral.

News speeds by in 140 characters or less and we graze on it without much concern for analysis or bigger pictures. We have a selective social memory that can easily forget or block out news we don’t want to hear. What Trump said or did three days ago is drained from my psyche and the immediacy of today’s news is what catches my focus. And the Donald behaved himself just before the election.

On social media, no news is bad news.

Trump could put his name into the headlines every day, for free, by saying or doing outrageous things. The more his antics were brought to our attention, the more used we got to his flaws. Nothing surprised or shocked us anymore, while at the same time he enlarged his base population who agreed with him. Social media allows uncomfortable thoughts to find friends and become comfortable (ie, acceptable). So, about that wall!

On social media, we run from fear.

Fear is a prime motivator. We were disgusted by Trump, we hated him, but we were not afraid of him (this is strange since his “ready finger on the button” is terrifying). If you pity someone for his flaws, it is hard to be afraid of him. Somehow fear got mixed into the soup of other negative emotions and created either confusion or complacency. Meanwhile, Trump made Americans fear higher taxes, more expensive health care, banning of guns and a bleak future under four more years of the same leadership. When we run from fear, we rarely check where we are running to (until we get there). Such was the case on the morning after the UK Brexit vote.

On social media, the narrative is what you shape it to be.

Social media is the perfect personal story-telling tool. Trump was able to shape several stories into a narrative from a small part of the electorate, package it and sell it, through viral transmissions, as a general popular discontent until it became a reality. Why didn’t any other Republican leaders see that narrative before? Well, because Trump wrote it and breathed life into it. He essentially mainstreamed a hillbilly perception of America. This is not the first time propaganda has worked so well, but social media has now made it so easy for a single individual to adapt the narrative to a soundbite.

On social media, you don’t need infrastructure or organisation.

It often felt like Trump’s campaign was a one-man show. The Clinton campaign used the traditional party structure, network and organisations, spent large volumes of cash, boots on the ground and worked to get clear political messages across all communications channels. Trump would live-stream his unscripted (re: genuine) events and make news with 3am tweets. But despite the chaos, he convinced enough people that he could lead a large government.Once again, facts don’t matter. I have shown how small environmental organisations can manipulate social media and pretend to be large, credible institutions.

On social media, we are not looking for truth, just affirmation.

We don’t seek truth – we see affirmation. Trump told us we were going to be OK. He’ll make us “Great Again!” That he was there for us. He talked straight to his audience, making them feel good about themselves. His tribe did not demand any evidence (not even demanding to see his taxes) or proof that he could control a complex political labyrinth. People heard what they wanted to hear and blocked out those who might interfere with their comfortable affirmation. This is how all social media gurus operate. Evidence and expertise is over-rated in a social media driven world where I just want to feel good among people like me. Trump identifies a raw nerve through a very effective emotional communications tool, widely shared by a tribe seeking a better way – Hope (in Obama’s lexicon) and Opportunity (in Trump’s lexicon).

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Will this social media world continue to deliver leaders like Trump? We still need time to adapt to this communications tool. Until then, opportunists and gurus will continue to exploit our vulnerabilities and offer trust and affirmation to a ready audience.

An “Age of Stupid” Moment

This is clearly an Age of Stupid moment. Both sides rejected the position of the other tribe, refused to listen and broke off the means to engage and dialogue. Supporters surrounded themselves with like-minded thinkers to confirm their bias, rejecting views from others whom they packaged as stupid and dangerous.

Facts don’t matter in the Age of Stupid … just the ones that I choose to be important or want to believe. Whether it is about food safety (GMOs, pesticides), climate change, vaccines, large corporations, international trade, Bill Gates, scientists … I hear what I choose to hear via social media exclusion, and ignore the rest (which I can choose to disenfranchise). When people stop listening to others, Stupid can find fertile ground.

Should we be surprised that this tendency has found a comfortable home in our political discourse? That is precisely where this disposition came from. This tribalistic move to the dangerous political extremes is not only an American phenomenon.

  • The Philippines is presently being governed by a obsessive madman;
  • The Austrian presidential election came down to a choice between the far left and the extreme right;
  • Governments in Poland, Hungary and Slovakia embarrass their populations;
  • The only question about next year’s French election is who will make it to the second round to challenge the National Front.

I fear this is 1933 all over again. Then the public was easily swayed by messages from a new communications technology they had not yet adapted to (cinema). Today, the new communications medium is far more pervasive and far less social. Social media provides status (Trump is the perfect candidate) … it does not provide a means to solve difficult problems.

Social media is the perfect tool for the Age of Stupid! … Now, about that wall!

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Michael Reed says:

    I beg to differ, and play devil’s advocate. It is the extreme calcification of the status-quo and status-quo thinking, in all aspects of Western Society, has led us to this, and this upheaval and overthrow is a “good thing” because of it. It is, ultimately, an expression of the over-used, misunderstood term “Disruption”, and “social media” is where the always messy revolution is being played out. An elitist (not elite) group of cronies in business, technology, science, education, government, and culture has slowly, arrogantly consolidated their powers, privileges and control over the “populace” in the last 75 years, and “social media” has awakened the “populace” to a painful awareness of this – whether they understand the details, background or true meaning. There is always a mighty struggle for people who’ve been lulled into complacency to regain a sense of control over their lives when they discover they’ve been deceived and used. It is always a mess and a challenge and will have serious problems.
    As we’ve seen in Brexit, the world, EU nations, and the U.K. didn’t collapse when a stake was driven into the heart of Brussel’s domination – despite Brussel’s and their cronies claims. The fear & loathing & condescension displayed by Remain is a testimony to why they needed to be reigned in, or crushed. As we’ve also seen, trying to have reasonable discussions and arriving at reasonable agreements between those in-power and their “subjects” has delivered little or no change or progress. It takes a Trump, Brexit, whatever, to accomplish this, short of a violent overthrow or coup, to kick-start change. Trump, despite the conspicuous, ridiculous hyperbole of the pearl clutching, bed wetting far Left media, is no Hitler or Stalin. The U.S. is still a republic ruled by laws, with a separation of powers and checks and balances in place. He will, like all others, employ an array of expert advisors and, as he has in business – and unlike Obama, accept their judgements and advice. In addition, Congress & Courts (finance & law) will have power over the vast majority of any of his actions.
    As the newly awakened “great unwashed masses” struggle with re-learning who to trust, who to believe, who to listen to, there will continue to be distressing developments, but there is No Reason to Panic! They (we) have been sleep walking for decades, while being manipulated by marketers, indoctrinated rather than educated by ideologues in public schools and universities, and having “emotional intelligence” touted as being of more value and significance than actual intellects … which is the true Root of Tribalism, not social media.
    Humanity has survived many dark & disastrous times of tribalism and both natural & inflicted ignorance, and each time the turmoil has led to better times, temporarily at least. The Risk Monger and cohort, should be viewed as a combination of the monks of the “dark ages” and the Diogenes of our times – preserving/sharing the knowledge & learning of the ages, while seeking honest people. Despair not, YOU CAN DO IT!

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    1. riskmonger says:

      Thank you Michael for your contribution. There is a lot to consider there.
      As you said, there is an awakening which I argue was made easy for one person to galvanize via a mobile phone (and not via a political party). This is a disruption the present ruling class does not get, whether in DC or in head-offices of large companies. Small groups are now able to make big waves. We have to adapt to this social media tool since there will be opportunists who exploit our emotions (my radar is usually aimed at Big Organic … by the way, a Trump presidency will likely be bad news for them). I suspect the next election in a post-Trump world will likely have more individuals and fewer political parties – the two-party machinery failed (or rather was superfluous in a direct access world).
      The status quo is shaken, the swamp will be drained, but then what? I got a letter today from an apoplectic SumOfUs member demanding dollars to fight the end of the world (I wanted to blog on their end of days scenario but I have a busy schedule at the moment). Will the NGOs rise up to fight what they could not accept (Scott Walker’s quagmire) or will they become obsolete? I suspect the NGOs will assume the voice of the opposition (for those in their tribe who will listen). They have great social media manipulation skills so watch that space.
      The other side of the “great unwashed” is more curious. One of Trump’s target electorates were the white, lower middle class. He won Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania (Democrat
      strongholds). After several decades of de-industrialization, blue collar jobs disappeared, new skills were not taught so the working class drifted. Hillary did not reach out to them, Trump did. But what is he proposing? By breaking trade deals, there is an assumption that those working class factory jobs will come back. I have my doubts.
      True, in a globalized economy, not everyone prospered. But wealth expanded more than jobs through high-tech, high added-value jobs. Moving the clock back to a past period of greatness worked to make Trump popular among this excluded class (not your average Republican voter), but now what.
      It is going to be an interesting time … my blog was about how he used social media brilliantly to get elected. I did not say how he would govern – maybe he will be entrepreneurial or maybe he will be like Ike. But if he goes to DC to take over the place … the social media beast he used so well will bite him in the face. Time will tell!

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    2. AlainCo says:

      considering the methods of Trump, exploiting post-reality on social media, I connect that not only to dominant anti-GMO/nuke/pesticides/meat/capitalist memeplex that captured not only part of the population with false facts, but also politicians, EU commissions, laws, and even scientific budgets and thus scientists.
      the tobacco company (merchant of doubt) methods are used with post-reality trump-like to sell the dominant urban memeplex.

      but this memeplex, if acceptable for reality disconnected urban people, ignorant on farming, on energy, on genetic, on grid stability, on battery technology, on international commerce, on economics, on car mecanic or house building, is making part of the blue collar people, of the “peripheral countriside” (read http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/gop-rip/ http://www.lefigaro.fr/elections-americaines/2016/10/26/01040-20161026ARTFIG00122-donald-trump-est-le-heros-de-l-amerique-peripherique.php ), absolutely furious.
      Their life is becoming harder, with less money, but also less and less freedom, less exit strategy… they are less free facing harder time, more regulation and more competition…

      Recently I found what was “mainstream” and “the system” was meaning for me… it means the group of people that (try to) defines what is real, tolerable, and what should be insulted as pure evil.
      It looks good if the “system” is mostly right, but from Syrian/Ukrainian/Libyan war to environnemental-inspired regulations the system have totally got free from reality, not so differently from Trumpism.

      since long we are un a trump deliria, but one inspired by Club de Rome ans Soros vision. the consensus is grossly far from reality on many subject, and if we accept by ignorance most of those bullshit and attack dissenters, each of us can see the errors on domain their are experts in, provided we dont benefit from the delirium (like journalist, politicians, scientists, executives, who get funded for being wrong the right way https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/view/41803801/alvesson-functional-stupidity-scaiem http://www.princeton.edu/~rbenabou/papers/REP_4_BW_nolinks_corrected%201.pdf ).

      in fact many people, especially the experts, benefit from being wrong in domain they master, and those who don’t follow the consensus are of few kind :
      – the losers, like blue collars, farmers, or impoverished elite (doctors, shopowners of the wrong side, scientists of the wrong side)
      – furious/burnouted/rejected insiders becoming whistle-blowers (see Snowden, Mannings, Michael Flynn, Judith Curry)
      – the experts in a domain they don’t get paid, or not benefiting from the fashion (eg scientific in the industry not gov’t paid).
      – amateurs who get competent (by passion , former education, curiosity)
      – retired professional

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      1. riskmonger says:

        In our post-truth or post-trust or post-modern world, reality is what we want it to be. Those going into their fourth day of anti-Trump marches are not prepared to accept the results as part of their reality. And they seem to think they can just omit what they don’t want to see or listen to. I am going to have to take a closer look at the intolerance of the tolerant open society.

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