Nobody likes to fail, and whenever a project or cause you believe in receives a setback, it’s only natural to look for someone or something to blame. On that note, it’s pretty clear that many Americans with liberal or moderate views (and not a few conservatives) are still upset about Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election and looking for someone to blame.
One of the favorite scapegoats is social media, including Facebook and YouTube, which stand accused of distributing fake news and abetting Russian attempts to sow dissension in the American public.
However, as I sit down to write my last Social Media Insider column for MediaPost, I would like to take the opportunity to urge against settling for explanations that encourage us to point the finger at new technology, scam artists, foreigners — anybody but ourselves.
Don’t get me wrong. Nobody should feel comfortable about the idea of foreign governments trying to influence U.S. public opinion during elections or at any other time.
Fake news is a scourge, Russia is a menace, and if social media helped foreign agents attempting to meddle in U.S. politics, we must take countermeasures to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
The voluntary steps taken by Facebook and Google to identify fake news producers, direct users to real news and trace the origins of online ads are all steps in the right direction, though more will be needed.
The danger, however, is that the losing side of the 2016 election — including left-leaning members of the political establishment, media elite and academia, among others — will cite evidence of Russian meddling to dismiss the election’s results as illegitimate.
This is risky for two reasons.
First and most importantly, blaming social media and fake news allows those who espouse such views to retreat to a comforting but simplistic conclusion that Americans didn’t really mean to elect Donald Trump, but instead were tricked into doing so by Russian spooks.
That interpretation is dangerous because it gives Trump’s critics carte blanche to disregard the resounding, if unpleasant, messages that his supporters sent by voting for him. Economic desperation, loss of feelings of dignity and self-respect, rampant drug addiction, stifling political correctness, and anger at a corrupt, self-dealing political class — these were just some of the factors that delivered Trump to the White House.
And they are very real, enduring problems, not transient phenomena or figments of our imagination.
The fact that 7 million people who voted for Barack Obama switched their allegiance to Trump in 2012 speaks volumes about what really happened. A careless and complacent political class ignored the grievances of half the country and finally paid the price.
Going further back, there is evidence of angry populism, fed by disillusionment with mainstream politics, such as Ross Perot’s surprisingly successful run as a third-party candidate in 1992. Did the Russians contrive to give him 19% of the vote as well?
The second reason blaming social media and fake news is dangerous is because it shifts responsibility for all the various shortcomings of the American electorate — economic illiteracy, racism, xenophobia, and so on — onto unnamed foreigners bent on stirring up trouble.
How plausible is it that hordes of Americans suddenly became bigots because of an ad or fake news story they saw on Facebook? Much more likely is the classic marketing model: Voters who were already so inclined found their prejudices and fears confirmed and encouraged by things they read and saw on Facebook.
Perhaps this validation made them more likely to vote, but in the end, it is still our nation’s own deep-rooted dysfunctions that are to blame. The 2016 election was not the first time savvy politicians have called on the meaner angels of our natures — and unfortunately, it will not be the last.