Op-Ed: The New Age of Trumpism
The role of social media in the political divide
How do we explain to our children that the foundation of American democracy was threatened by its own citizens and the president did nothing to deescalate the situation? Yesterday, the dystopian futures revered in the likes of Divergent, The Hunger Games, and The Handmaid’s Tale came to our doorstep. Testing the limits of complicity, a group of rioters in support of President Trump sieged the Capitol in an attempted coup against the declaration that Joe Biden legally won the November 2020 presidential election. Hours after the Capitol occupation took place, Vice President Mike Pence formally declared at the conclusion of an arduous recertification process involving both chambers, that Biden is rightfully the president-elect.
To Trump’s loving fanbase, the siege symbolized a reclaiming of an America reminiscent of its controversial past lost to the progressive future. Aligned with the president’s blatant rhetoric of racism/xenophobia, misogyny, nationalism, and continued explicit marginalization of already marginalized populations — a dangerous alliance of white supremacists (e.g. neo-nazis or The Proud Boys), the ill-informed, and highly suggestible people vulnerable to cultish-ideals creates a power-hungry anti-christ of democracy. The division of political lines has only grown intrinsically deeper over the course of the president’s tumultuous time in office. Watching the transfer of power from former President Barack Obama to Trump felt like a punch in the gut. How did we find ourselves at a crossroads between human decency and political leverage? One answer is social media.
As put by Tristan Harris in an interview for Netflix’s 2020 documentary The Social Dilemma, he questions: “How do you wake up from the matrix when you don’t know you are in the matrix?” Although there are many plausible causes that can explain the increasing dissonance of the American narrative, I believe as the documentary suggests: the intersection of artificial intelligence (AI) and psychological change is key.
“How do you wake up from the matrix when you don’t know you are in the matrix?”
— Tristan Harris
Although I have never seen The Matrix, the plot revolves around the Thomas Anderson/his alias “Neo”. Working as a computer programmer and hacker, he is confronted with the realization that “the life he knows is the elaborate deception of an evil cyber-intelligence”. Like many science fiction tropes, machine robots are often thought of as what will take over the world in a post-apocalyptic fashion. However, Harris dispels this idea and instead believes that the intrusive use of AI will penetrate society from within. And the blunt truth is that we are already seeing the effects of deep machine learning.
Artificial intelligence in and of itself is neither good nor bad. At its core, AI is man-made technology that simulates the human processes of “learning, reasoning, and perception”. Altogether, these goals are achieved by computers programmed to run complex algorithms. As the common phrase goes, power can be used for good or evil depending on who is in control. In the context of social media companies, there is a growing understanding of how these companies use AI in order to influence and change human behavior. One way of doing it is to program algorithms capable of deep machine learning to learn what content keeps a consumer engaged with the app and present more of that content. This is a simplistic take on what occurs behind the scenes of the ‘personalized for you’ aspect of social media feeds. Allowing a consumer to insulate themselves in reaffirming media disrupts the natural exploration and tolerance of other beliefs.
Consequently, it is no surprise that ‘fake news’ will be a permanent lexicon of the post-Trump era. Per the U.S. Cyber Security and Infrastructure Security Agency, a portion of their website is dedicated to election security, which includes the Countering Foreign Interference Task Force (CFI Task Force). According to the introductory page of the task force, disinformation is characterized by news “deliberately created to mislead, harm, or manipulate a person, social group, organization, or country”. This is completely different from both misinformation and malinformation. The government defines misinformation as an altruistically accidental creation and dissemination of non-factual news, whereas malinformation is the nefarious use of factual news taken out of its original context. After defining these basic forms of foreign interference, it becomes increasingly clear how Trump’s beliefs surrounding ‘fake news’ is synonymous with the concept of disinformation.
Easily articulated by these government provided public factsheets: The War on Pineapple: Understanding Foreign Interference in 5 Steps and Disinformation Stops With You break down the process of how disinformation spreads and how it can be identified. Social media can be a wonderful tool if used correctly. However, in the case of political affairs, it is a battleground.
Both in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, a sliver of the American populace initially supported Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders for president but switched their loyalty to Trump when Sanders dropped out of the race. Professor Brian Schaffner from Amherst University told The Guardian in 2017 that he believed the political parties themselves were a factor. He reported, “Sanders-Trump voters were much less likely than Sanders-Clinton or Sanders-third party voters to have been Democrats.” If this sounds like an arbitrary fact, it is not. This phenomenon, in part, can be explained by the data mining tactics made infamous by the Cambridge Analytica scandal as explained below.
While Cambridge Analytica was effectively shut down in 2018, the gray-area practice between inciting psychological influence and psychological coercion lives on. Since this form of data mining remains legal, the challenges associated with identifying fact from fiction are going to be a permanent feature of society going forward. And if there is anything to take away from what has just transpired, the divide is only going to get worse.
The American two-party system of Republicans and Democrats illustrates two realities of the nation that are diametrically opposed. Without ethical constraints put on social media giants and political actors with the opportunities to influence its people, there is no telling how deeply personal the subtle deception of chronic disinformation will permanently alter our perceptions of identity and the ‘authenticity’ of free-will.