Viewpoints

How digital media put our politics in reverse

A series of fake public service announcements about voting online circulated on Facebook. Joe Mathews says what’s worse than fake news was the deluge of old news.
A series of fake public service announcements about voting online circulated on Facebook. Joe Mathews says what’s worse than fake news was the deluge of old news. Facebook

As long as Silicon Valley and its futuristic technologies dominate our politics, we’re doomed to be stuck in the past.

The big story of the poisonous 2016 elections was how new digital-media tools ended up crowding out two big topics from our conversation: the present and the future.

This phenomenon went way beyond the controversy about “fake news” on Facebook; the problem wasn’t just media quality, but excessive quantity. We were deluged by digital tidal waves of data and information from years and decades ago.

Many of these were dredged-up clips or records of the candidates and their associates. There were endless emails from old hacks and investigations, followed by all the historical echoes, which kept us refighting the Cold War, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, the Clinton impeachment and 17 waves of feminism. Donald Trump and his acolytes polluted the media with old, bogus ideas – that President Barack Obama wasn’t born here, vaccines cause autism, immigrants add to crime.

Because these waves never stop, those who have some interest in the truth are left to correct the record over and over again. That leaves no time for conversations about the present (How to take advantage of rising employment and wages to invest more intelligently in infrastructure?), much less the future (How is this aging country going to make itself more economically competitive?).

With the past crowding out conversation about today or tomorrow, the stakes of the election were never made clear.

All of this is bad, but the really bad news is that, in four years, we’re likely to look back at 2016 as the good old days.

The digital media world is growing so fast that ill-conceived regurgitations from the past could be even more destructive to our democracy. New virtual reality technologies will allow us to invent out of whole cloth whatever past serves our purposes, and make it impossible for our brains to separate fact from fiction.

The more political noise, the less political understanding. The digital age is not just the “post-fact” era; more dangerously, as Politico recently warned, it’s the “post-narrative” age of democracy.

We’re clinging too much to the false hope that digital pollution is somehow self-correcting. The free-speech folks say you can fix inaccurate speech with more speech, but that actually makes the problem worse.

Instead, we should think about giving people more tools to stop the flow. Should we allow people to sue and recover damages more easily for sins visited upon them on the internet? Do we want to regulate social media platforms more extensively?

I find economic approaches the most intriguing. Is it possible to create financial consequences for constant past-sharing and social tweets and Facebook posts that pollute our civic culture?

Sam Lessin, a former Facebook vice president writing at The Information, suggested a tax on political coverage. If CNN, for example, wants to spend 50 percent of its time on elections, it should give 50 percent of its revenue to the government.

“That would basically say that you can’t profit off the public discourse at all,” wrote Lessin. “We the people own it.”

Or we could create incentives for companies to change their designs to reduce the information pollution around elections. Could our smartphones be designed to keep us from constantly picking them up? Could social media sites be reshaped to require people to slow down before hitting send?

Somehow, and soon, we need to raise the costs of deluging us with the past – if the present and the future are ever to have a fighting chance.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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