This week, it’s hard to think about anything but the election. On Instagram, almost every story focuses on voting and support for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. On Twitter, celebrities and friends seem to echo the anxiety of the nation as we await the results. On Facebook, I’m instantly, maybe unfoundedly, suspicious of any political posts, and I’m grateful I haven’t encountered any yet.
It feels like since the 2016 election cycle, social media has been a major player in spreading political news and, more concerningly, influencing political opinions. Our generation, initiated into politics during the Trump era, now has a perspective on how campaigns and administrations operate that is a departure from what our parents experienced. Instead of cable news, we hear about matters of the state first on Twitter and then on talk shows and eventually, we might read about it in the paper.
We have witnessed President Donald Trump take advantage of his social media presence to further his professional agendas, manipulate media narratives and garner attention. At first glance, Trump’s heavy involvement in and general dependency on social media seem unbefitting of the office he holds. History tells us that a president addresses his people through journalists, press conferences or national broadcasts, not through Twitter. However, by making social media his administration’s primary medium of communication, he provides a forum for political discourse that is more accessible to the average American than it has ever been before.
The content of his tweets have inspired ridicule, indignation and outrage, but they’ve also inspired unwavering support. They paint him as a man who isn’t afraid to voice his opinion, to launch personal attacks on opposers or even to strain foreign relations. In spite of the inappropriate views he might express, in the end, his actions are viewed as a testament to his unflinching honesty and imply a strong sense of transparency from his administration.
Unfortunately, many of us have found that the 45th president has an affinity to alter and manipulate facts to his benefit. This trust he builds with his followers is how Trump spreads his own brand of fake news. His tweets, a display of his ability to fabricate events and his taste for hyperbole, become fodder for supporters to share and promote, for his opposition to share and critique and for broadcasting networks to share and improve ratings.
And here, we encounter a problem. In principle, politicians being in touch with the populations they serve sounds ideal. It provides a platform for ordinary citizens to play a larger role in governance and policy-making. But in reality, there is no one to hold you accountable for your words. Whether you tell a blatant lie, give misleading information or provide a biased account of events, we’ve created a culture that marks it up to be a difference in opinion.
We’ve seen that this “difference in opinion” can be extremely influential when expressed by people with power — it isn’t limited to just Trump or conservatives. Now, an important question arises: If the president himself isn’t a reliable source of information, who is?
The answer should be simple: journalists. But like most things in 2020, it’s not so easy.
In a world where we frequently associate politicians with corruption and deceit, journalism should be the unbiased, justice-seeking practice that functions to serve the public. But in the wake of Trump’s most successful social media campaign, “Fake News,” the trust between the media and the public is immensely frayed. Though “Fake News” was used in reference to news organizations like CNN that reported news with a bias against Republicans, it can just as easily be applied to networks that do the opposite.
For loyal Fox News viewers or veteran CNN viewers, the fake news movement is a passing inconvenience, or convenience, that originated from political ambition. For me, it is a constant source of anxiety.
The news organizations that I’ve quoted in high school reports and cited in college papers, perfectly content with their ability to provide objective truths, are now being accused of the opposite. When I need them the most, to understand the current political environment and educate myself on how policies will affect me, I’m told they are heavily laden with personal bias.
One part of me understands that it is impossible to be completely objective, especially in the political realm. Abundant criticism or support can be justified based on your personal experiences and views. What works for me might not work for someone else.
However, the other part of me is slowly turning into a conspiracy theorist.
At the end of the day, news organizations are businesses. They’re profit-driven. This pushes them to prioritize work that elicits reactions and lends itself to sensationalism. The market favors outlets with the most viewers instead of those with the highest quality of analysis or information.
Moreover, the interests of advertisers and shareholders often influence the direction of news stories. Additionally, the majority of news organizations are owned by a small number of conglomerates such as AT&T, Fox and ViacomCBS. This concentration of media power within a few select individuals allows them to have almost absolute control over what and how information is disclosed to the public.
It is alarming that all my opinions are a product of my environment that is controlled by people I’ve never met. But it is more alarming that we have created a culture where a large proportion of the U.S. youth carries a mistrust of both the administration and the system built to hold it accountable.
Yagna Sreeramaneni is a sophomore writing about current cultural issues. Her column, “Changing the Lens,” ran every other Friday.