How in the name of holy hell did Donald Trump, a lifetime con artist who never did a damn thing for anyone but himself, get elected President over someone who had spent her lifetime in public service on behalf of the less fortunate?
It took me weeks, and a full course of antidepressants, to figure it out.
The answer is that he hacked the Internet. Not the whole Internet, but the Internet medium that has emerged to drive politics in the Internet Age we now live in.
Trump’s supporters could do this, because those who created the medium refused to take responsibility for it. The people who built the industry refused to curate the product and protect it from liars.
Google created Google News a decade ago but has done nothing with it, because the papers whose stories it linked to started demanding cash for the links. Rather than seek to monetize a popular service, they stopped spending money on it because they didn’t want the responsibility of curation.
Facebook has insisted from the start it was “not a media company” even as more-and-more people began relying on its “news” feed for their news. This left it vulnerable to lies in its “news” feeds, and a deliberate campaign to have people ignore anything but lies, if they chose.
Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg did not want the responsibility for the new medium, they just wanted profits from building an industry. Yet right now Facebook alone draws more ad revenue than the entire newspaper industry. More people draw their news, and their view of the world, through Facebook than any TV network.
Here is what is unique about our time. The medium is now the message, in ways Marshall McLuhan never imagined. The same technology industry that drives the economy is responsible for the media that creates political power. Someone is going to fill the vacuum if its creators don't, and to date they haven't.
The Internet is the primary media of our time, whether those who created it like that or not. They have a responsibility to protect it. They failed in this responsibility. Now they, and we, are paying a terrible price.
Fox News, Steve Bannen, and Vladimir Putin took full advantage of the inattention. They flooded the zone with lies, and with fake news, following the lead of “clickbait” firms, some of which evolved into news channels like Buzzfeed but most of which created a bubble of lies and half-truths that has moved offshore along with many other functions requiring some human labor.
Facebook has been less interested in this than in click farms where Indians and other Third World workers create phony “likes” and reviews, because phony likes hurt the advertisers while phony stories don’t. It was inevitable that this activity would become automated and that is the threat Facebook began focusing on.
Bannen and Co. simply slipped under the radar.
Even now, Facebook’s plan to combat “fake news” is weak tea, filled with hand-wringing over not wanting to shift popular opinion in any way.
Facebook, in other words, still insists it’s not a media company even while it has become the dominant media company of our time.
This economic and political era is different from all those that have come before. That’s because the industry which dominates our economy is also the medium that drives the discussion. TV drove the resource economy, from which Trump emerged. Magazines created opinion in the manufacturing age, newspapers in the Progressive Era, and books in the Civil War era.
During all these eras, there was separation between the interests of companies that were responsible for public opinion and the industries which benefitted from that support. This is no longer the case.
The situation we now find ourselves in most analogous to the one the Founding Fathers themselves lived in. Politicians like Thomas Jefferson bought propagandists like James Callender, and John Adams specifically targeted such lying through the Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798, which still sullies his reputation as an “enemy” of the First Amendment.
All Americans are going to suffer under Bizarro Carter. Trump is from another era, an era that has passed and cannot be reclaimed as he claims it can be. What he does that is popular with his base will do significant damage to the economy, and thus his popularity. What he does that is unpopular will harden millions of hearts that are now prepared to go to war against their own government.
But none of this will be turned around unless tech billionaires like Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos get involved in forging a new, technology-directed politics. Bezos has at least done something in buying The Washington Post, but that’s not enough.
Here, the comparison with Jimmy Carter is apt. Carter was a slap in the face to the oil industry that had, until then, gotten everything it wanted from government with little effort. I lived in Houston at the time and saw what happened with my own eyes.
It was the back half of the 1970s that saw the founding of what liberals now call the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” a network of alternate media, think tanks, pressure groups, academic institutions, and interlocking dark money groups who could force the political knees of a majority to jerk even when it wasn’t in the majority’s best interest, electing both George H.W. Bush and his idiot son, the latter twice! Liberals have spent the last decade trying, fitfully, to create such an infrastructure, but they have been hampered by the lack of a funding base.
Zuckerberg, Page, Gates and Bezos — the four horsemen of this new age — have enough money hidden under their seat cushions to create such an infrastructure, and given what Trump is going to do to the tech economy – balkanizing the Internet, increasing taxation, driving out investment – they have every financial incentive to create that infrastructure.
Until technology owns its own network of like-minded academic institutions, think tanks, media channels and issue groups it cannot drive political discussion in ways favorable to it. Oil learned that under Carter. Technology will learn that now. The great historical question is whether they will learn the lesson or simply try to accommodate stupid, as Tom Watson and Henry Ford did Hitler, seeking to route around it the way the Internet routes around other blocks. If that’s the idea, I have one question for you. How are you doing in China? Because that’s what Trump wants to make the U.S.A., a one-party state where you toe the line and he calls the tune.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, won’t get fooled again. There is technical, financial, and political work to do that will require everyone’s efforts, and for their own sake the barons of the Internet Age need to pull their weight if their future, and ours, is to be saved.
So let me be blunt, sir.
Mark Zuckerberg. You must grow into your responsibility, right now, or your little girl won’t have a viable planet to live on.