Internet political campaigning: A walk through ‘The Shallows’

The millennial generation, raised on a steady diet of sound bites, must be approached in new ways, ways often beyond the ken of older politicians.

Some popular social media logos.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., October 1, 2016 — In her column in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan references a book called “The Shallows,” by Nicholas Carr. She observes, “If you get your information mostly through the Web, you’ll get stuck in ‘The Shallows,’ which is the name of a book … about what the internet is doing to our brains.”

“Media, Carr reminds us, are not just channels of information, ‘They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought.’”

Noonan and Carr claim the internet is chipping away at our capacity for concentration and contemplation. “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words,” writes Mr. Carr, “Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Noonan describes the inheritors of such brain flash dictums:

They have received most of what they know about political history through screens. They are college graduates, they’re in their 20s or 30s, they’re bright and ambitious, but they have seen the movie and not read the book. They’ve heard the sound bite but not read the speech. Their understanding of history, even recent history, is superficial. They grew up in the internet age and have filled their brain space with information that came in the form of pictures and sounds. They learned through sensation, not through books, which demand something deeper from your brain. Reading forces you to imagine, question, ponder, reflect.

In this uniquely topsy-turvy election year, presidential candidates, whose existence depends on their ability to communicate and convince, have had to come to grips with the march of time and its impact on voters. The millennial generation, raised on a steady diet of sound bites, must be approached in new ways, ways often beyond the ken of older politicians.

It’s clear in 2016 that both the Establishment, right and left, and its champions in the media have become calcified remnants of the pre-internet era. As the television industry, another partial casualty, grapples with emerging social media, daily print newspapers—the real dinosaurs—fight to hang on by making tentative forays into evolving and largely unprofitable web versions of themselves.

Regardless of how you feel about them, new-age populists Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump succeeded in reaching the internet- and device-obsessed young. Trump, in particular, tweets with abandon. Both have taken advantage of Facebook and YouTube. Millions of young followers, in turn, have caught their successive waves and turned their backs on establishment politics.

In her battle with Sanders, Clinton defined these young voters crudely. Reporting on a hacked Clinton fundraising recording, ZeroHedge’s pseudonymous Tyler Durden reports she mocked them even as she attempted to define them.

As children of the Great Recession … they are living in their parents’ basement. They feel they got their education and the jobs that are available to them are not at all what they envisioned for themselves. And they don’t see much of a future.’”

Durden notes:

… and with an entire generation unexpectedly finding itself in a dead-end economy, it provides a perfect incubator for what according to Hillary is an army of Bernie supporters: ‘if you’re feeling like you’re consigned to, you know, being a barista … then the idea that maybe, just maybe, you could be part of a political revolution is pretty appealing.’

The punchline, according to Tyler:

… was what Hillary, who has been scrambling to secure the much-needed Millennial vote in recent weeks, truly thought about the millions of young people whose vote she is trying to win: a diatribe of mockery, in which she describes the concept of a political revolution as a ‘false promise’ which has attracted all these disillusioned and disheartened young people ‘living in their parents’ basement’ … she desperately needs their vote, even if behind the scenes at generously paid private functions, she mocks them …

Tor good or ill, Trump must get the award as champion political tweeter. Just this week, his predawn tweet-storm about former Miss Universe Alicia Machado prompted obsessive coverage by the MSM. But according to the Wall Street Journal’s Aaron Zitner, “many people got the news right where it started: on social media.”

Zitner cited a September Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll that “found that 19% of voters rely on Twitter, Facebook and other social media venues as their primary sources of political news … young voters … rely heavily on social media.” He followed with some interesting stats:

  • “Some 32% say Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites are their primary political news source.”
  • “Some 62% of voters cite television as their primary source of political news. That includes 83% of seniors but only 42% of voters under age 35.”
  • “Social media outlets, by contrast are the main source of political news for only 5% of seniors.”

But the big losers, Zitner verifies, are newspapers:

Only 23% cite [them] as their main source of political news, down from 32% in 2012. The use of television was fairly stable, while the 19% who consider social media their main source of political news was up from 7% in 2012.

In a now two-year old article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Carr aired his thoughts on this phenomenon:

Over the past few years, I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

Whether or not the evolution of contemplation, ideation and philosophical thought has benefited from the internet revolution, one can see the process that arguably began with sound bite television in the fifties has been moving farther and farther away from involvement with deeper knowledge.

Certainly, cogent summaries and digests may on occasion provide a useful winnowing of “big data.” More likely, however, the steady erosion of careful study and even precise—as opposed to politically correct—language will continue to badly serve democratic organizations.

Noonan’s latest column duly notes the current downward trajectory of public communications, summing up the impending end-game.

The 24/7 news cycle and the million multiplying platforms with their escalating demands—for pictures, video, sound, the immediate hot take—exhaust politicians and staff, and media people too. Everyone is tired, and chronically tired people live, perilously, on the Edge of Stupid.

More important, modern media realities make everything intellectually thinner, shallower. Everything moves fast; we talk not of the scandal of the day but the scandal of the hour, reducing a great event, a presidential campaign, into an endless river of gaffes.

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