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).
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!