In a truly extraordinary article by The New Yorker editor David Remnick, the veteran journalist recounts the time he spent with President Obama in the lead up to election night and in the days after.
Remnick, who authored the 2010 biography The Bridge – The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, got first hand insight into how the President responded to the catastrophic loss, and his incisive questions provide a unique insight into how Obama thinks about the tumultuous political landscape in America.
While the essay grapples with a wide variety of issues, it is Obama’s insight into the current media culture that stands out. The President has run campaigns in two different media eras — the standard television and newspaper based era where there was a generally agreed upon reality, and the new social media paradigm where communities wall themselves off from opposing views and live in their own bubbles of wildly differing realities. This exchange between Remnick and Obama is extremely telling:
The new media ecosystem “means everything is true and nothing is true,” Obama told me later. “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll. And the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal—that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.”
That marked a decisive change from previous political eras, he maintained. “Ideally, in a democracy, everybody would agree that climate change is the consequence of man-made behavior, because that’s what ninety-nine per cent of scientists tell us,” he said. “And then we would have a debate about how to fix it. That’s how, in the seventies, eighties, and nineties, you had Republicans supporting the Clean Air Act and you had a market-based fix for acid rain rather than a command-and-control approach. So you’d argue about means, but there was a baseline of facts that we could all work off of. And now we just don’t have that.”
The proliferation of fake news stories on Facebook and Twitter no doubt played a huge role in the election of Donald Trump. While Leftist sites are no doubt guilty of disseminating poorly sourced stories that no serious outlet would publish (think US Uncut for example), radical Rightwing sites are so far removed from consensus reality that they might as well be discussing an alternate universe. Sites like InfoWars and Breitbart.com defy every rule of ethical journalism, but are never held to account because in the new media era, they can thrive off of the communities they create. Facebook and Google are thankfully taking steps to defund these sites and marginalize them, but the damage has already been done, and we now face four years under the rule of a uniquely unqualified and dangerous sociopath.
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Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.