President Trump: Like?

Thursday 17 November 2016

Last week, the day after the US presidential election, I wrote a piece on Donald Trump’s victory. By the time I had written it, I had been confronted by a gloating, baiting student (ultimately, remaining on good terms), I had had a younger colleague ask advice on how to ‘deal with Trump’ in the classroom, and a more distant colleague in New York write to express concern about distressed, crying students suffering from post-Trump trauma. At home, I had worked to address, and I hope assuage, my youngest son’s fears that the Apocalypse was upon us.

When I finished, I reread what I had written and feeling a sense of cathartic release I hit ‘delete’. It would have been wrong to publish my shameless diatribe on the politically nonaligned InThinking website accessed by teachers of English Language and Literature.

Classrooms, most would probably argue, are not places for teachers or others to indulge their particular political sympathies. A similar argument could be made for this website. If the election of Mr. Trump and his concomitant political agenda sit, some may say, uncomfortably with the values expressed in the IB Learner Profile, I don’t intend to take that issue on, at least not openly in this forum.

Instead of writing a brazen denunciation of Mr. Trump, acknowledging that I am hardly keeping my political position a secret, I would prefer to consider the mediascape within which the US election was filtered. This is safer territory for discussion, and it is particularly pertinent to teaching English Language and Literature in our early 21st century context. 

I am not sure that there was ever a golden age of news journalism, although there is certainly a visceral temptation to look with maudlin affection to a halcyon past that probably never existed, and certainly did not exist ubiquitously. This said, it is certainly true that the ways in which we access news – where we do so at all – are changing. Myriad traditional newspapers, representing every hue of political perspective, and staffed by large teams of professional journalists, are, by and large, a thing of the past. Mercifully, a few limp on. Television news increasingly skews the world through an unabashed partisan political lens. And then there is Facebook.

If I was not entirely surprised by Mr. Trump’s win – Brexit serving as a harbinger of future events – it was not anticipated by my world focalized and made myopic through Facebook. You see, my Facebook ‘friends’ are mainly people like me (and probably you); they are educated, they regard themselves as liberal, and they keep up to date on a diet of The Guardian, The New Yorker, The Huffington Post Some are so right on in their leftist leanings that they even pay for their news coverage. Don’t you?

The problem (sic) is not that Facebook doesn’t connect people; it very obviously does, just as its mission statement asserts. But, as it connects, without contradiction, it also polarizes. Facebook’s algorithm, beyond my limited ken, simply creates a feedback loop so that my every ‘share’ and ‘like’ and click perpetuates the narrative to which I already subscribe, boomeranging back to confirm how right I am. When I read and then unwittingly shared the erroneous claim that Donald Trump once suggested he’d run as a Republican because ‘they are the dumbest voters in the country (who) believe anything on Fox News’, I stand guilty, like millions of others, of propagating fake news and establishing what President Obama has called a ‘dust cloud of nonsense’. Who, however, can blame my mistake? If Mr. Trump’s claim about the intelligence of Republican voters is a lie, it’s a very credible one, particularly when understood against the backdrop of my preexisting political paradigm and, incontrovertibly, Mr. Trump’s previous peccadillos. Facebook, and the mathematical chicanery that underpins it, never puts me in touch with the entirely legitimate deindustrialized discontent of pissed off in Preston or down and out in Detroit. And I don’t seek it out.

Now, of course, some may like to suggest that Facebook needs to get its act together. It’s entirely mistaken to claim, as Facebook does, that it is a neutral technology platform, not a media company. The Pew Research Center suggests that 44% of Americans get their news from Facebook. By any margin, this makes Facebook a successful media company. Unlike traditional print media of the past, however, Facebook doesn’t do much fact checking; its flirtation with human regulators didn’t last long. Even if it is plausible, as Facebook’s owner Mark Zuckerberg claims, that only 1% of his site’s news stories are phony, that remains a goodly number of untruths. And, as long as there is no adjustment to Facebook’s filter bubbles, it will continue to bifurcate its users along political lines, fortifying already obdurate ideologies.

It’s possible to imagine that Facebook may evolve to, over time, bring together people of disparate views, although this seems about as likely as Scotland winning a football match. Also, we should perhaps hesitate before assuming that Facebook had a significant role in determining the 2016 US election; of this we cannot be certain, and, anyway, mono-causal explanations so seldom cut it.

That election is not, of course, the point of this piece. Instead, what is at stake is the very nature of social life, and the development of a world that is, it seems, increasingly divided, where different sides do not know one another, fail to understand one another, and are disinclined to talk about their differences. This is not the fault of social media, but social media facilitates it.

It is possibly here that teachers of English Language and Literature have a vital role to play. English teachers, at least in my memory, have always been challenged to promote critical media literacy in their classrooms as part of a wider strategy of fostering critical thinking. This task is, in the present social climate, as important as ever. It is crucial to understand the ways in which media may mislead, contributing to a distortion of how we view social life. Understanding this is a useful place to begin if we are to avoid quick judgment of others who see the world differently and with whom we may disagree.



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