As Donald Trump’s unlikely political ascendance continues, everyone from Fox News pundits to liberal musicians are expressing (increasingly resigned) bafflement at his Teflon-like ability to emerge unscathed from attacks at every angle.
Recently, New York icon and alt-rock godfather David Byrne penned a lengthy essay explaining why he thinks people are immune to what he describes as Trump’s “lies and bullshit.” And like many individuals of a certain age, he’s blaming it on social media.
“How do folks continue to ignore facts? How have people’s viewpoints become so insular and isolated that any contradictory information never even penetrates the bubble? How did we get to a point where dialogue is impossible?” Byrne asks on his website. The answer, he believes, has a lot to do with Facebook and Twitter.
“Like many people nowadays, followers of Trump (and other candidates) often get their news from social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook,” Byrne writes. “The problem with Facebook and Twitter is that those platforms mostly present a point of view that you already agree with…the algorithms built into those social networks are designed to reinforce this natural human tendency and expand upon it — if you like this, you’ll like this. The networks reinforce your existing point of view in order to give you more of what you like, as that will make you happy and keep you on the network — and, in turn, more ads can be accurately targeted your way. You remain blissfully happy ‘knowing’ or, rather, believing, more and more about less and less.”
Byrne acknowledges he’s not immune to this problem, but writes that he tries to get his news from five-six sources daily, and “suggest[s] that cycling or walking around in different neighborhoods gives [him] a slightly more face-to-face view of the diversity of humanity, especially here in New York.” Byrne’s essay also links the decline of middle class economic mobility (and ensuing frustration) to the rise in Trump’s popularity, and he cites sources throughout.
While there’s a lot of truth too what Byrne postulates, it’s worth noting that the echo chamber problem isn’t new to social media. The idea that people focus on that which confirms their beliefs and ignore things that challenge their views has been talked about in popular culture and by psychologists since at least the ’70s; a prime example is the false-but-still-infamous Pauline Kael quote about how Nixon couldn’t have won the election because she didn’t know anyone who voted for him.
Does social media exacerbate the echo chamber problem? Probably. But there’s also another possibility: that some Trump supporters hear the outrageous, offensive things he says and choose to support him regardless.
A fascinating article from The Washington Post last November reported that numerous Trump supporters didn’t care that he propagated factual inaccuracies in his speeches — regardless, they thought he would be a “strong” leader. Other supporters reportedly distrusted the so-called liberal media for nitpicking the veracity of his statements — in other words, Trump supporters don’t care about fact checks because they don’t trust the fact-checkers.
So if Trump supporters perceive the American media — run primarily by corporations and billionaires — as too liberal, chances are they’re not going to be swayed by the thoughts of a former art student and indie icon, no matter how much truth there is in his musings.