‘Dig­i­tally savvy’ and at the mercy of me­dia fak­ers

Fake news is not new, but it poses a par­tic­u­lar dan­ger to young vot­ers

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Suzanne Fields

When Pres­i­dent Trump de­fended his use of so­cial me­dia as not sim­ply “pres­i­den­tial” but “mod­ern day pres­i­den­tial,” he had a point. If George Wash­ing­ton, John Adams or Thomas Jefferson wanted to get a per­sonal mes­sage du­pli­cated for the pub­lic to read, it took at least 24 hours to get it printed (even when their friends owned the presses.) The re­ac­tive me­dia was slower, too, but the party news­pa­pers, pam­phlets and hand­bills were no less snarky than ca­ble tele­vi­sion and so­cial me­dia to­day. Paul Boller, a his­to­rian and au­thor of “Pres­i­den­tial Cam­paigns,” doc­u­ments how the venom of pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns spilled into the cov­er­age of a pres­i­dent with rhetoric that “de­nounced, dis­par­aged, damned, de­cried, den­i­grated and de­claimed.”

Pres­i­dent Wash­ing­ton, so re­served, so dig­ni­fied and so mag­is­te­rial, was ac­cused of “de­bauch­ing” the coun­try. Alexan­der Hamil­ton, in a leaked let­ter, de­scribed Adams as “petty, mean, ego­tis­ti­cal, er­ratic, ec­cen­tric, jeal­ous-na­tured, and hot-tem­pered.” Long be­fore cer­tain or­gans of the press were de­nounced as pur­vey­ors of “fake news,” a Fed­er­al­ist poet, en­raged that Adams lost the elec­tion to Jefferson, blamed “the mere­tri­cious press.” The fight be­tween Don­ald Trump and CNN is hardly with­out prece­dent.

But what is of­ten over­looked to­day is the way the youngest of the ris­ing gen­er­a­tions are tak­ing sides in the po­lit­i­cal fights. They’re not too young to be heard, and they’re not as pre­dictable as some­times as­sumed.

It’s an oft-un­ex­am­ined cliche that the young are rebels against author­ity and choose their pol­i­tics to match, but the fo­cus of re­bel­lion in the mul­ti­me­dia so­cial cul­ture is not nec­es­sar­ily in sharp fo­cus. For that, a look at Red­dit, the so­cial news ag­gre­gate web­site where “The Don­ald” has his own sub­cat­e­gory, of­fers sharper in­sights. By one es­ti­mate, Red­dit is the eighth-most vis­ited web­site on the In­ter­net.

“The largest pro-Trump groups on Face­book have less than a quar­ter of the Don­ald’s fan base,” writes Tiana Lowe in Na­tional Re­view. Ig­nor­ing Red­dit’s ex­pand­ing young au­di­ence has been an enor­mous mis­take by the ma­jor me­dia out­lets, be­cause it yields clues about how young peo­ple are look­ing at the world and think­ing about their fu­ture.

Red­dit leans left, and saw a dis­tinct change in its au­di­ence after Ed­ward Snow­den re­vealed that the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency was con­duct­ing mass do­mes­tic sur­veil­lance of the Amer­i­can pub­lic. Red­dit posts turned sharply against Barack Obama, re­flect­ing the re­bel­lious bent of Gen­er­a­tion Z, the post­mil­len­nial gen­er­a­tion born after 1997.

“Once, rebels took bong rips in be­tween protest­ing war and Jim Crow laws,” writes Miss Lowe, a mem­ber of the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion she writes about. “To­day they [post] memes and fight against a dif­fer­ent form of so­cial con­trol, po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness and a per­ceived es­tab­lish­ment agenda.” These rebels didn’t like the black­mail they be­lieved CNN em­ployed in threat­en­ing to re­veal the iden­tity of the au­thor of Pres­i­dent Trump’s wrestling tweet, no mat­ter how silly it might have been.

By fo­cus­ing on Mr. Trump’s pop­ulist ap­peal to the white work­ing class, the press over­looked the po­ten­tial vot­ing power of the re­ac­tionary Gen­er­a­tion Z-ers, who de­spite ex­pressed lib­eral val­ues on many so­cial is­sues, voted for Mr. Trump and will have a long fu­ture at the bal­lot box. In­deed, in a His­panic Her­itage Foun­da­tion sur­vey of 50,000 teenagers taken shortly be­fore the Novem­ber 2016 elec­tion, the sur­vey­ors were sur­prised to find that a ma­jor­ity of the old­est of the Gen­er­a­tion Z were lined up firmly be­hind Mr. Trump.

There’s a cau­tion, how­ever, in any anal­y­sis of vot­ing pat­terns of the young. As “dig­i­tal na­tives,” they’re at ease on the In­ter­net con­sum­ing news and in­for­ma­tion flow­ing through the var­i­ous me­dia chan­nels. But they’re not very skilled at eval­u­at­ing what they see and read. They lack what schol­ars call “civic rea­son­ing.”

Stan­ford Univer­sity re­searchers at the Stan­ford Grad­u­ate School of Ed­u­ca­tion, spent a year eval­u­at­ing more than 7,000 stu­dents in mid­dle school through col­lege to dis­cover how they as­sess the in­for­ma­tion they read on the In­ter­net. What they found is alarm­ing. No mat­ter how deft they may be at “dig­i­tal pro­cess­ing,” many of them re­veal a dis­mal abil­ity to make dis­tinc­tions in con­tent, in dis­tin­guish­ing be­tween facts and what aren’t facts, and mea­sur­ing the re­li­a­bil­ity of sources. They’re of­ten un­able to dis­tin­guish be­tween ad­ver­tise­ments and ar­ti­cles, “fake news” and fact-based news and they’re of­ten obliv­i­ous of po­lit­i­cal bias. “Dig­i­tal savvy stu­dents,” con­cludes the Stan­ford study, “can eas­ily be duped.” With­out gate­keep­ers such as rigorous ed­i­tors, who have largely dis­ap­peared ev­ery­where, and oth­ers who vet sub­ject mat­ter for them, In­ter­net read­ers and view­ers are on their own, un­tu­tored and ill-equipped to make sense of the com­plex world they con­front.

Dis­in­for­ma­tion and dis­tor­tion, tweets, GIFs and memes, can of­fer sat­is­fy­ing short­cuts for those af­flicted with short­at­ten­tion spans, but they pose a grave dan­ger for democ­racy, which ul­ti­mately re­lies on thought­ful anal­y­sis and the abil­ity to rea­son to­gether. Suzanne Fields is a colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Times and is na­tion­ally syn­di­cated.


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