The first period that I spent living in the United States (as an adult) covered roughly a year, from August 2015 to October 2016. This means that my first real taste of life in this country came during one its interminable presidential election campaigns — and one of the most tumultuous such campaigns in living memory at that.
I worked in a newsroom for that year, which means that for eight hours of the day there was always a TV screen tuned to cable news somewhere in my line of sight. And when I wasn’t glancing at the TV screen I was staring at my computer, plumbing the internet in an occasionally successful (but ultimately quixotic) quest to quickly “grow an audience” on behalf of my employer. Meanwhile, in my free time I read probably thousands of news stories — few of which I can actually remember.
That is to say that I had a front row seat to the train wreck that was the 2016 presidential election campaign. Or, at least, I had a front-row seat to the media spectacle that swirls and magnifies it beyond any kind of human comprehension.
What basically happens is this: starting around February of the preceding year — a full 21 months before the actual vote — candidates begin announcing their intention to run for president. These first announcements receive a bit of media attention, but the campaigns themselves tend to get lost in the daily hurly burly of U.S. politics.
By June or September, however, candidate names start to appear in the news. By December, the media is starting to drum itself into a frenzy. Candidates are putting out policies, raising money and running down their stamina and finances. However, at this point the electorate’s attention remains largely distracted by more pleasant things, like the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas. So the media’s drumbeat remains slow, building its pace incrementally from week to week. Once New Year’s Day has come and gone, and the electorate needs something else to get them through winter, the internet will begin to slosh and churn with a daily storm of ELECTION 2020 news, predictions and opinions.
While this initial torrent will feel particularly strong to the uninitiated, we are still only in the early stages. The gigantic American media machine is awakening. The early primary elections in Iowa and New Hampshire will fix the nation’s attention on the candidates, who will not relinquish it for the rest of the year. The drumbeat will begin to quicken. Super Tuesday will come and go, and then all of a sudden primaries will be happening every other week. Hopes will rise and fall. Gaffes will be made, analyzed and then analyzed again. For eleven of twelve months the 24-hour news channels — an insane amount of time to fill with news in the first place — will forget that the world (and much of the country) even exists. Americans love their statistics — whether in sports or in politics — and you will start to hear about “hispanics” and “blacks” and “whites.” Scandals and scoops and titanic think pieces will drop, create tsunamis of reactions and wreak havoc across the electoral map. If you weren’t paying attention you’ll hear about these disasters from a friend 24 hours later, check nytimes.com and find no trace of it because it’s already gone, old news, buried under the constant deluge of contentcontentcontent, words carefully researched, arranged and then tipped like a sacrifice into our insatiable collective maw where, if they contain the mysterious alchemy necessary to “generate clicks,” they catch fire and momentarily catch the eyes of the masses. Those of us who are paying attention for that half day will watch it flame up, squint briefly, some of us will scream to no-one in particular, others will think deeply for up to 20 minutes. Then the words turn to ash and drift away into the pit, and we will lose ourselves sifting in our personal oceans once again.
This process will continue through the summer. By September, opening a news website or flipping to a news channel or hitting “play” on a news podcast will be like opening the door onto a room full of screaming ghouls. No-one can take the suspense: who’s it going to be?!
American media, however, has a problem. That is this: elections are actually rather boring. They are ostensibly about Big Issues — nowadays Americans are interested to see what their next president will do about healthcare, foreign policy, economic growth, immigration, economic and racial inequality and climate change, for example. But the U.S. system is more interested in individual personalities than the actual policies with which they plan to shape all our lives. As the primary votes get closer, the polite debates we’ve seen so far will start to get personal, and nasty. Policy will be all but ignored. The news will start to fill with “he said-she said” stories. Dodgy outlets will start to run headlines about how “Candidate X Destroys Candidate Y” or “Candidate Y Made Candidate X Look Like A Fool.”
Election day will come, and the once-sloshing, churning internet will whirl and scream and glow incandescent with the heat of it all. At the end of the night, one candidate will raise their arms and claim a new day is dawning, the other will put on a brave face and thank their volunteers. We will all wake up in the morning — finally knowing what it’s like to know — and realise we actually have to pay attention to our own lives again.
You may have guessed that I am not looking forward to this particular element of the coming year. I know many of you aren’t, either.
It is, however, inescapable. Most of us live in a democracy (no, I am not going to talk about the electoral college or any of that here), and its proper functioning depends to some extent on our enlightenment about what we want our society to look like.
Many Americans I know feel this obligation quite deeply: to be an informed voter. And this first obligation feeds into a second: to pay attention. To be engaged.
And that’s an admirable desire. The problem is that in an environment of abundant information, very few of us are equipped to properly navigate the media landscape. When I was studying journalism in the early years of this almost-finished decade, a large percentage of my lectures involved watching ageing reporters scratching their heads about the internet and saying “We don’t know what’s going to happen. The internet’s a wild west.”
The internet is still a wild west. It is full of charlatans, propagandists, satirists, scammers partisans and liars. It is also full of humanity, humor and grace. The trouble is that when you’re sitting in the bus or on the loo, swiping or tapping away, it’s hard to tell the difference. Scrolling on your phone doesn’t feel like a dangerous place. This is your time. You’re paying attention. You’re engaged.
Over the next several weeks, in this last bit of calm, I’m going to attempt to equip you with some knowledge and a few tools to help navigate the perilous landscape that is the internet in a presidential election year. We’re going to explore how social media works, the world of news, the concept of “fake news,” and anything else that comes up along the way. Armed with a decent grasp of these topics, the series will finish with An Internet-Savvy Voter’s Guide To Staying Informed And Also Sane (that’s a working title).
In this series, we will not be discussing the issues or candidates in the election (though they may be mentioned in a tangential way) and I am going to extract my own political views as much as possible. This is not a political discussion. This is a discussion about finding good sources of information, and being able to identify bad sources of information.
And I mean it when I say “discussion.” Any thoughtful questions, advice, additions, revisions, requests or comments are welcome in the “comments” sections below. I will respond.
Alright! Catch you all next weekish.