EssaysFeature

The Election of Donald Trump and the Great Disruption in the News and Social Media

Pablo J. Boczkowski and Zizi Papacharissi’s introduction to Trump and the Media

Donald Trump’s election as the 45th President of the United States came as something of a surprise — to many analysts, journalists, and voters. The New York Times’s The Upshot gave Hillary Clinton an 85 percent chance of winning the White House even as the returns began to come in. What happened? And what role did the news and social media play in the election? In Trump and the Media, journalism and technology experts grapple with these questions in a series of short, thought-provoking essays. Considering the disruption of the media landscape, the disconnect between many voters and the established news outlets, the emergence of fake news and “alternative facts,” and Trump’s own use of social media, these essays provide a window onto broader transformations in the relationship between information and politics in the twenty-first century. In the following, you can read Pablo J. Boczkowski and Zizi Papacharissi’s introduction to Trump and the Media.

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Donald J. Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency of the United States took the world by storm and became a key moment of the still nascent twenty-first century. Analysts, pundits, politicians, and members of the public have feverishly tried to make sense of why this happened and what it might mean for the future of democratic life. Lots of explanations have been proposed and an even greater array of potential future scenarios have been floated in public discourse. This has naturally led to many disagreements that probably will be sorted out only with time. Beneath these disagreements, however, there are two ideas around which significant consensus has emerged.

First, the electoral victories, initially in the primaries and then in the general election, of Trump are to a certain extent extraordinary within the context of the American political system. While the electoral contests were unfolding, most observers in leading think tanks, the media, and the academy thought of them as relatively improbable outcomes. When he was finally declared the winner of the presidential contest on November 8, 2016, the dominant feeling in the establishment was one of deep surprise.

Second, there is a certain sense that the media played an important role in this extraordinary turn of events. This applies to both the news and social media individually, and even more so to the combination of them. From the apparent disconnect of the agenda-setting media with a vast segment of the American voters to the deluge of fake news circulating on social media, and from the intensity of the confrontation between President Trump and these media to his constant use of Twitter to promote alternative — and often unsupported by facts — narratives, there is a sense that the matrix that used to tie politics, media, technology, and the citizenry in fairly predictable ways has moved far away from equilibrium.

This book was born from the premise that these two ideas are connected, and that probing that connection provides a powerful window into broader transformations that mark the information landscape of the twenty-first century. We take the extraordinary character of the ascendancy to power and the leadership style of President Trump not as an exception or a fluke. On the contrary, we think that it that makes visible the fault lines underneath ordinary processes that have been evolving during several decades but were more difficult to ascertain during periods in which both electoral outcomes and political communication followed conventional, and therefore quite foreseeable, patterns — in the same way that the malfunctioning of a technological system does not create but reveals underlying design problems that were present long before the system breaks. Furthermore, this also applies to the news and social media: they did not become unsettled all of a sudden, but as part of evolutionary processes that are now easier to see and assess.

Making sense of these processes is challenging due to the complexity of the phenomena at stake and the recency of the main events in question. But it is also imperative to begin the discussion in order to contribute to ongoing scholarly and public conversations that can shape future trajectories in a constructive fashion. We tackle this challenge by asking a series of renowned scholars of communication, technology, and politics to contribute accessible essays focused on a key aspect of how the coming to power of Donald Trump intersects with the dynamics of information production, distribution, and reception in the news and/or social media. We do not aim to offer a comprehensive or definite account — much more time will have to pass before any text can accomplish that. By contrast, our goal is that, taken together, the essays in this volume can illuminate in a kaleidoscopic and timely manner some of the most critical and distinct dynamics that account for the nature of this president’s relationship to the media, provide historical context, and lay out possible future scenarios.

Thus, our aim is to present a collection of chapters that informs readers about questions lingering in the collective mind regarding such issues as the role of the press, digital information infrastructures, and social media; the character of a media and political system increasingly removed from a common ground and fragmented into disparate cultural enclaves; and alternative futures that might emerge from major shifts in media, politics, and the ties that bind them. We rely on the current populist moment to explicate, and contextualize, tendencies and tensions that have been developing for some time. Moments change and situations evolve. What is normal may gradually turn into a new normal between the time we write this introductory chapter and the moment the book is published. This does not negate our ability to do relevant work; quite the opposite. It invites us to produce work that addresses, yet is not trapped in, the moment. This is how we see our stance as scholars in general, and as editors of this volume in particular. We employ the present, long moment as an opportunity to rethink our roles as researchers, journalists, and citizens. In other words, we take advantage of the present, but do not fall prey to it. The chapters in this volume all take inspiration from, but move beyond, the contemporary situation so as to attain and retain their relevance for future analyses.

A lot can change in the next few months or years. A lot can stay the same. Therefore, our emphasis is on the Trump candidacy and the initial phase of his presidency as critical instances of more geographically and temporally extended phenomena, and certainly not the cause of the present media condition. In the chapters that follow, our contributors trace the roots of the dynamics that reinforce the contemporary impasse in journalism. As a result, we write about the relationship between truth and politics; editorial practices and conventions; facts, events, and reality; media and historicity; the economics and business of journalism. We use theory, previous research, and history to understand. These are our interpretive lenses as we consider the more contemporary vocabulary of fake news, alternative facts, clickbait headlines, and bot farms.

The volume is organized in four sections. The first one is titled “Journalism in Question” and considers the present position journalism finds itself in, the historical context that led to the current situation, and the role that the news media play in the business of truth-telling. The second section, “Emotion, Populism, and Media Events,” tackles these three topics as they relate to both our platforms for storytelling and the democratic process. The following section, titled “Why Technology Matters,” sheds light on the place of technology in news storytelling, social media conversations, and political communication strategies. The closing section, “Pathways Ahead,” outlines how the present context can either entrap us in state of embattled passivity or dynamically drive us to reinvent media practices and democratic life.

A number of themes coalesced as our contributors parsed these important issues. We want to conclude this introductory chapter by highlighting three of them: (1) the benefit of historical hindsight permits us to understand that our experiences are neither entirely new, nor a mere continuity of what came before; (2) the importance of situating the current moment within a preexisting crisis in journalism that exacerbates systemic tensions but also opens up new opportunities; and (3) the emergence of a distinct digital culture that has been shaped by longstanding social transformations and has also contributed to major social and political changes.

First, several contributors emphasize the deep historical roots of key tendencies and tensions in the relationships between Trump and the media that many commentators have treated as mostly novel. These tendencies and tensions have long occupied a certain place in the media and political landscape. Areas of continuity range from how current press–government confrontations draw upon notions of enemy formation that shaped editorial practice during the Cold War to the extent to which the commercial orientation of American journalistic institutions during the twentieth century prepared the ground for a news and social media system overly focused on profit and unable to contain the spread of false information, among others. This shows how contemporary tendencies and tensions have not developed overnight.

However, a historical sensibility also helps put in perspective significant discontinuities, such as how particular uses of social media have shifted to the front stage of campaign messaging a lot of what used remain in the backstage of political communication, and how the democratic ideals embedded in the design of a platform like Twitter were subverted into a tool well suited for the spread of populist rhetoric. This is because, as Melvin Kranzberg famously remarked in his first law of technology: “technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral,” thus its use can have divergent — and sometimes unforeseen — consequences when deployed in different historical eras and sociocultural milieux. The past survives in the present but does not determine it.

Second, as several of our contributors argue, it appears that the contemporary moment caught journalism rather unprepared, and in the middle of its own crisis. The social media metrics that favor clickbait headlines, eyeball economics, and bot-supported storytelling further confused a vocation that was already experiencing an existential conundrum of its own. Social media afford journalists ambience — an always-on presence. In addition, they offer seemingly direct connection to politicians and the public. But they also imply that journalists are no longer the first ones, nor the only ones, with access to the story. Journalism no longer has a monopoly on deciding what’s news — and perhaps, it never really did. As a result, facts are semantically renegotiated to a greater extent than before, and fake news and alternative facts have become part of our everyday vernacular. In order to move forward and, potentially, out of the matrix of misinformation connecting and confusing politicians, the media, and the public, journalism must reconsider its place in society. Social media enable journalists to have a connection to the public that can be employed so as to transform ambience into higher degrees of vigilance and relevance. It is through these heightened states of vigilance and relevance that journalism can rebuild networks of trust; give voice to diverse stories; reconnect publics that feel displaced, misunderstood, and insecure; and restore the fractured sociocultural fabric connecting diverse publics together.

Third, what has been happening to journalism is part of a larger transformation that is critical to the Trump and the media nexus: the emergence of a digital culture that combines high levels of top-down algorithmic power concentrated in the hands of a few corporations with equally high levels of bottom-up insurgency capabilities distributed among a myriad of individual and collective actors. If the former might give the impression that a few technological giants can determine our present — after all, what media corporation in history can boast reaching over a quarter of the population in the planet, like Facebook now does? — the latter should remind us of the vitality of avenues for contingent resistance and change. For instance, a social movement such as Black Lives Matter would not have the same ability to shape the national conversation about racial justice by relying solely on the information infrastructure of the past century. This tension between increasing level and concentration of top-down power on the one hand, and renewed strength and tactics for bottom-up intervention on the other hand, opens up a broad range of novel opportunities for action, from regulatory efforts taking place in Europe to street demonstrations of unparalleled scale and scope like the Women’s March that took place in cities around the globe on January 21, 2017. The potential future trajectories of our societies will depend in part on how this emerging digital culture is designed, governed, and appropriated in everyday life.

Taken together, the issues addressed in the chapters that follow invite designers, policy makers, journalists, and citizens to reconsider their ethos toward technology, communication, and civic life. Ethos includes ethics, but also evolves beyond ethics to speak to a particular sense of purpose when designing, governing, and using the digital infrastructure that subtends our societies. Thus, the events that culminated with the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States afford a unique opportunity to reflect on what kind of media ecosystem we want to build as a collective and why. An alternative ethos for journalists, designers, and politicians may be challenging to arrive at, because it requires working cooperatively. This runs contrary to the prevailing news media mentality of securing scoops and not sharing information. It also runs counter to a strong mindset in technology firms, which places emphasis on proprietary rights and locks up access to the algorithmic process that rules automation. And, finally, it defies the personalized nature of electoral processes, which more and more invite voters to choose increasingly simplified personas over complex projects that can only be realized collaboratively. Yet, in light of how high the stakes are, we are hopeful that journalists, technologists, and politicians can find new common ground. If anything, the present moment, lasting or fleeting, calls for a new ethos to take form.

Excerpted from Trump and the Media edited by Pablo Boczkowski and Zizi Papacharissi, published by The MIT Press 2018. All rights reserved.

Pablo J. Boczkowski is Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University. He is the author of Digitizing the News: Innovation in Online Newspapers, coauthor of The News Gap: When the Information Preferences of the Media and the Public Diverge , and coeditor of Remaking the News: Essays on the Future of Journalism Scholarship in the Digital Age (all published by the MIT Press).

Zizi Papacharissi is Professor and Head of the Communication Department and Professor of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author and editor of nine books, includingA Private Sphere: Democracy in a Digital Age,Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology and Politics, and the Networked Self series.

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