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 post-millennial 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 short-attention 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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