Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Whisper Campaign, Part 4

Disclaimer: this is some depressing shit. Don't read it if you don't want to. Crucial (and depressing) background reading here.

This is my final post in this series.  Thanks for reading, if you've come this far.

I've spelled out my case that viral email campaigns have hobbled and will continue to hobble the Democrats for years to come.  You may ask why I think this is asymmetrical.  After all, negative ads are a big problem for Democrats, but Democrats can use them too, and on balance it's not clear which party they help or hurt.  Why would viral emails be any different?

My answer is that for a variety of reasons the Democratic coalition is much less gullible than the Republican one.  There's an education gap, of course, which is especially wide this year.  But on top of that, I think modern conservatism relies heavily on fomenting distrust of the mainstream media and other relatively reliable sources of information.  To a large extent, gullible people have self-sorted into the Republican Party, and so maybe it should have been no surprise that Trump was able to lie so freely and with so few consequences.  The difference was that this time the victims included not just Democrats but also Trump's Republican primary opponents.

I'm not claiming that Democratic voters are universally well-informed or skeptical.  But if we surveyed 10,000 Trump voters and 10,000 Clinton voters, I bet we would find a lot more misinformation and ignorance among the Trump voters.  This reflects the alternative media universe the Republicans have built for themselves, and the resulting imperviousness to basic facts.

I want to highlight several important consequences of gullible Republican voters and the email/social media attacks that spread virally among them.  First, from a marketer's perspective, gullible people are absolutely the most valuable people to target with ads.  I don't want to dwell on this now, but it helps explain the torrents of money that flow into right-wing media.  Anyone who consumes even a small amount of right-wing media knows that it is chock full of advertisements for things like gold, survival gear, etc.  (It is also full of ads for things like adult diapers, which is maybe the one bright spot in all of this.  Young people do not seem to be nearly so gullible.  One hopes this is a cohort effect and not a function of aging.)  Writing right-wing smear jobs is profitable, and that matters a lot.  See the Buzzfeed story I linked to in my first post in the this series.

Second, consider the ways in which the underground email campaign affects the way news is perceived.  When Clinton collapsed at Ground Zero earlier this year, it inevitably created a negative story for her campaign.  But the story was much worse because it played into pre-existing lies about the state of her health.  People who were suspicious about her health were inclined to interpret the collapse in the worst possible light.  (By the way, email #2 in my original post, which I think was the weakest of the bunch, was intended to show how emails can lay a foundation for later untruths.  Let's say you initially don't give much credence to the heroin story, but then you see the story about her collapse.  In New York of all places!  Maybe the methadone clinic was closed for 9/11.)

I bet the Clinton Foundation was a huge net negative for Clinton by the end of the campaign, when it should have been a positive.  Meanwhile the Trump Foundation was probably a negative for Trump only among readers of the Washington Post—and I doubt the Post is heavily consumed among white working-class people in midwestern states.  This is all a function of the background of steady smears that twisted almost every development into a negative for Clinton, and the absence of any such smears against Trump.  So even a positive or neutral story about the Clinton Foundation would hurt her, while even a negative story about the Trump Foundation would have little effect where it counted.

[UPDATED to add an additional point I had forgotten to include.  My "third" point is the new one, and the point that I previously labeled "third" is now my fourth and final point.]

Third, the mainstream media can be divided into two parts:  those that report enough truth to counter some of the smears, and those that don't.  Anyone who read David Fahrenthold's reporting during this election cycle was well aware that Trump is full of shit.  You could still vote for him, I suppose, but you would do so despite knowing that Trump lies constantly and uses his foundation, which is mostly funded by other people, to feather his own nest, in a way that is flatly illegal.

There is also plenty of reporting that exonerates Clinton from a lot of the smears against her.  But here we come to the crucial role played by Fox News and to a (slightly) lesser extent CNN, both of which filled a tremendous amount of air time with bullshit that did nothing to educate their viewers.  Neither organization broadcast the most ridiculous lies about Clinton, but by providing a "safe space" from any information that might contradict those smears, those networks helped insulate voters from the truth.

So Fox viewers aren't just misinformed by the network, but they are also sheltered by the network, and there is no putting that genie back into the bottle.  The relentless focus on entertainment means that even people who are regularly exposed to "the news" won't necessarily have the facts required to assess the bullshit that comes to their inbox.

Fourth, and finally, I think it's fine to contemplate "the Trump voter" with sympathy, and I don't think we should simply retreat to charges of racism.  There were almost certainly a lot of Hispanic Trump voters and a lot of Trump voters who voted for Obama twice.  What I think is fair to say is that these people were gullible to a degree that borders on willful blindness.  Trump's lies were not even a little bit convincing.  He didn't bother to keep his story straight or cite evidence for his claims.  He wasn't even trying very hard.  He didn't have to.

I believe a lot of Trump voters were effectively complicit in their own deception.  They were so eager to swallow his lies that they avoided even the slightest scrutiny of them.  A recurring theme of the election was "LOL nothing matters," which reflected the free pass that Trump enjoyed throughout almost all of his lies and calumnies.  One of his lies would be revealed in all its crudeness and cynicism, and voters would shrug it off.  LOL nothing matters.

Sure, a lot of these people are poorly educated.  A lot are ill-equipped to navigate complicated issues.  (This is true also on the Democratic side.)  But if you're a Trump voter, then you're an adult, and adults must be held to basic standards of responsibility for their own beliefs.  And you have to be extremely gullible to conclude that Trump is anything but a shameless and prolific liar, about matters large and small.  A staunchly pro-life voter need not apologize for supporting Romney over Obama in 2012.  That's simply voting in line with your values.  But the Trump voters bear a lot of responsibility for their eager embrace of his obvious lies.  Treating them like children, who can't be expected to know better, is demeaning and disrespectful.  It is much more respectful to treat adults like adults, and criticize them when they fail at one of the most basic aspects of adulthood.  It is Trump who disrespected his followers, by enticing them into behavior and beliefs that are demeaning for all involved.  I wish we could focus on this instead of their alleged racism or sexism.


Blogger Alan said...

Excellent (and depressing) posts. Democrats must think about how best to confront this shit.

My one offhand thought is it's still important to examine the nature of the lies and why they succeeded. I agree that there's a difference between active, conscious racism and sexism, such as that of the purportedly well-read thinkers who dominate white-supremacist message boards, and the attitudinal racism and sexism that makes one susceptible to arguments that implicate bigotry. I bet a lot of Trump's suckers had plenty of the latter.

I, too, have been making somewhat of an effort to avoid depressing news; I have been directing my efforts towards trying to understand what motivated most of Trump's supporters (which is inherently depressing but not as much as contemplating the next four years). So far, so bad -- what I've read points to vague disaffection with "elites" and "the establishment" that smacks of fundamental tribalism, including some degree of bigotry. Yes, the Great Recession hit the working class hard, globalization lowered their wages and took away their jobs, etc. But what specifically happened in the past 4 years to breed so much resentment towards the status quo, towards the Obama administration? As far as I can tell, Obama basically tried to deliver the goods to the working class but was fucked over by an unprecedentedly obstructionist GOP -- a shrunken stimulus, a morass of a compromise healthcare bill, limitations on redistribution, etc. My dad's counter to this is Obama wasn't enough of a fighter, meaning he wasn't enough of a "real (black) man." I know my dad is an extreme case in a lot of ways, but I think that kind of racist/tribalist response is not that rare -- Obama and Clinton, like the professor in this article, are elites who don't come off the right away to a large segment of lower-class voters. And that's just game over, especially when you factor in Obama's race and Clinton's extreme eliteness. It didn't matter that Trump was a Manhattan "billionaire" pushing a pro-rich tax plan and nonsense about bringing back jobs, starting trade wars, and replacing Obamacare with "something better" -- he was "their voice" and talked like it.

Now this is just my preliminary conclusion. I understand (from your cabernet post, among other sources) that "Trump's base" is not exactly of one mind. And I'm not exactly steeped in the details of what working-class America has gone through recently. A friend pointed me to this George Packer article, which is one of the things I'll be reading.

It just depresses me that irrational tribalism is such a powerful electoral force. I mean, it's not even bad policy arguments or mistaken facts -- it's emotive identity politics. Clinton had the wrong biography, the wrong gender, and the wrong style for a huge chunk of voters, so a guy with the wrong policies for them was able to sucker them hook, line, and sinker. Let's at least hope his administration doesn't tell them to go fish.

12:12 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

The role of Fecebook in facilitating the Wormtongue campaign: http://www.forbes.com/sites/parmyolson/2016/11/09/how-facebook-helped-donald-trump-become-president/

3:18 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home