Before I answer, let me say something to those who might believe I’m being passive aggressive and writing about them. This essay isn’t about you, singular; it’s about you, plural. In other words, it’s about us. The circumstance I describe here is everywhere, not just somewhere, and I run into it all the time. So what? I believe firmly that what I am about to describe is one of the most pernicious political circumstances facing America today.
So, what is my Facebook Newsfeed saying about Andrew Cuomo? Nothing. My feed, like your Facebook feed, is populated by folks in my social network, which (in my case) are mostly liberal-leaning friends, colleagues, and family members. They aren’t commenting on the accusations about Cuomo underreporting COVID-related nursing home deaths or about the multiple accusations of him engaging in sexual harassment. And there isn’t one word about whether Cuomo should resign. It’s crickets.
On the flip side of the coin, there’s Florida Governor Rich DeSantis. With Trump gone and DeSantis getting airtime as a possible 2024 presidential candidate, DeSantis is political enemy #1 on my Facebook Feed. Everything he does is bad, and literally nothing he does is good.
What’s going on? It’s the unproductive and problematic political ‘discourse’ (sic) in America today. And the fundamental issue has nothing to do with either Cuomo or DeSantis directly. It’s about us, and it’s also about how telecast and social media have morphed in ways that do not serve America in the quest to achieve an informed and mature political commentary. What’s more, the ‘us’ and telecast/social media issues are interconnected.
Facebook and the mass media enable dysfunctional communication choices. Because there is a market (and $ to be made), Facebook and media have jumped on board ‘big time’ to satiate users’ needs.
The ‘us’ matter has been well-documented. There’s a family of issues associated with what’s called cognitive bias, including confirmation bias, which is fueled when like-minded people engage in echo chamber-like style. Facebook serves that function well, especially when users post ‘news’ from dubious sources and make unfounded claims about what is and isn’t true. All too often, a preferential end drives the search for evidence to confirm a belief or position. It would be hilarious if it weren’t dangerous, which it is.
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve witnessed people evaluate dubious material as credible. How can that be? One reason is the source. In many cases, they pass on information they’ve received from a trusted source, typically a friend or family member.
Unfortunately, Facebook and the mass media enable dysfunctional communication choices. Because there is a market (and $ to be made), Facebook and media have jumped on board ‘big time’ to satiate users’ needs.
Believe me when I assert that Facebook is NOT a news source. When it comes to politics, it’s a ‘slant source.’ And let’s be real: there’s very little ‘news’ being telecast on the 24-hour networks—at least not ‘news’ as we have come to know it traditionally. What 24-hour networks provide is mostly political commentary on niche networks that cater to specific political tastes. It’s ‘good business’ when companies target products to market, but (in this case) it is bad for America’s political health, akin to eating a constant diet of burgers and fries.
There’s more. Neither Facebook nor the all-day ‘news’ outlets, like CNN or MSNBC, started out the way they are presented today. Facebook was about users connecting with each other, sharing personal news with people in their social network. It still does that, and it serves that function well. But increasingly so (on many Newsfeeds), political content overwhelms personal sharing of life events.
CNN (as Ted Turner founded it) was about bringing to America what had been previously restricted to the ‘Nightly News.’ CNN made the news available 24 hours a day. It was news, too, read by anchors with field reporting and with a limited amount of commentary. Today, it is the reverse—a lot of commentary with a modest amount of news (beyond politics). What we get constantly are ‘talking heads’ in a panel format. Ted Turner wouldn’t recognize the network he founded.
MSNBC at launch included conservatives Laura Ingraham and Anne Coulter in its line-up alongside traditional personalities, like Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric. The controversial Don Imus was MSNBC’s lead morning show. Today, for all intent and purposes, MSNBC is a liberal politics network. Don’t believe me? Do a content analysis—any hour of the day—and record how many minutes are devoted to liberal politics vis-à-vis how many minutes are spent on non-political matters—of any kind.
In both cases, like the proverbial frog in boiling water, most Americans either didn’t notice the change or they recognized it after the shift was complete. Worse yet, I’ll speculate that millions of people like the way these networks have morphed.
And there’s even more. Many folks watch one of these networks all day long. And I can’t count the number of business waiting rooms I’ve frequented where the same news network is on each and every time I walk in the door.
It’s astounding that the impact is rarely discussed. Think about it. When people are exposed to a constant and uniform stream of thought, hour after hour, day after day, then what they read, hear, and see becomes ‘the truth,’ the way things are—reinforced when those in one’s social network are following the same feed and watching the same programs. The dynamic is patterned, too. Particular Facebook friends become privileged sources, and certain TV hosts become ‘friends,’ referenced by their first names. Can you imagine (for those of us who are old enough to remember), ANYBODY calling Walter Cronkite (the legendary CBS broadcaster) ‘Walter?’
I used to think that it was hyperbolic to use the words like ‘propaganda’ and ‘brainwashing.’ I no longer think that way. I’ve been in too many conversations (check that, I’ve witnessed too many conversations) after which I say to myself: “That’s straight out of Facebook or CNN or MSCBC or Fox or America One Network.”
Bottom line? We are contributing mightily to the very problem we frequently deplore—political polarization and the inability of people from different political persuasions to talk with one another respectfully and responsibly.
It’s easier than ever for people of the SAME political persuasion to communicate, make/share assertions, believe this or that to be true, and declare others as ‘the problem.” Mind closed, case closed. And when that happens, something else can ring true: it is the firm belief that “I’m just fine” and ‘My People” are beyond reproach. Translation? The critical evaluation of self and group flies out the window.
It is one reason why my Facebook Newsfeed is silent on Cuomo and jacked up about DeSantis. And at this point, I’m not sure that even heaven can help us from ourselves. It’s that bad.
(This article is available for listening at Frank’s audio platform,Under the Radar.)