Three weeks after Donald Trump won a historic victory to become the 45th president of the United States, the media postmortems continue.
In particular, the role played by the media and technology industries is coming under heavy scrutiny in the press, with Facebook’s role in the rise of fake newscurrently enjoying considerable coverage. This represents a shift from earlier in the campaign, when the volume of media airtime given to Trump was oftenheld culpable for “The Apprentice” star’s political ascendancy.
In truth, a Trump presidency is – in part – a reflection of the status and evolution of the media and tech industries in 2016. Here are 10 ways that they combined to help Trump capture the White House in a manner not previously possible. Without them, Trump might not have stood a chance.
Inside the tech industry’s role
1) Fake news looks a lot like real news. This is not a new issue, but it’s a hot topic, given the social media-led explosion of the genre. As BuzzFeed found, fake news can spread more quickly than real reporting.
President Obama has weighed in on the problem, as have investigative reporters. And The New York Times found that fake news can “go viral” very quickly, even if it’s started by an unassuming source with a small online following – who subsequently debunks their own false story.
2) Algorithms show us more of what we like, not what we need to know. Amazon, Netflix and Spotify demonstrate how powerful personalization and recommendation engines can be. But these tools also remove serendipity, reducing exposure to anything outside of our comfort zone.
Websites like AllSides, and the Wall Street Journal’s Red vs Blue feed experiment – which let users “See Liberal Facebook and Conservative Facebook, Side by Side” – show how narrow our reading can become, how different the “other side” looks, and how hard it can be to expose ourselves to differing viewpoints, even if we want to.
3) Tech doesn’t automatically discern fact from fiction. Facebook doesn’t have an editor, and Mark Zuckerberg frequently says that Facebook is not a media company. It’s true that Facebook content comes from users and partners, but Facebook is nonetheless a major media distributor.
More than half of Americans get news from social media; Facebook is the 800-pound gorilla. “The two-thirds of Facebook users who get news there,” Pew notes, “amount to 44 percent of the general population.” But its automatic algorithms can amplify falsehoods, as happened when a false story about Megyn Kelly trended on Facebook this summer.
4) The rise of robots. It’s not just publications and stories that can be fake. Twitter bots can look the same as real Twitter users, spreadingfalsehoods and rumors and amplifying messages (just as humans do). Repeat a lie often enough and – evidence suggests – it becomes accepted as fact. This is just as true online as it is on the campaign trail.
My mother always warned me not to believe everything I read in the papers. We need to instill the same message in our children (and adults) about social media.
5) Tech has helped pull money away from sources of real reporting. Google, Facebook, Craigslist and others have created new advertising markets, diverting traditional ad revenues from newspapers in the process.
Meanwhile, programmatic advertising, which uses computer algorithms to buy – and place – online ads, is changing the advertising dynamic yet again. This canmean companies unintentionally buy ads on sites – such as those from the alt-right – which don’t sit with their brand or values; and that they would not typically choose to support.
The media played its part, too
1) Fewer ad dollars means fewer journalistic boots on the ground. Data from the American Society of News Editors show that in 2015 the total workforce for U.S. daily newspapers was 32,900, down from a peak of 56,400 in 2001. That’s 23,500 jobs lost in 14 years.
Though some of these roles have migrated to online outlets that didn’t exist years ago, this sector is also starting to feel the cold. A reduced workforce has inevitably led to less original journalism, with fewer “on the beat” local reporters, shuttered titles and the rise of media deserts. Cable news, talk radio, social networks and conservative websites – channels that predominantly focus on commentary rather than original reporting – have, in many cases, stepped in to fill these gaps.