To ‘see each other,’ we must look past those who profit from our divisions
Of all the healing challenges President-elect Joe Biden’s administration will face — managing the COVID-19 pandemic, reinvigorating the economy, improving police-community relations, restoring America’s standing in the world — the most daunting is the challenge to, as Biden put it, “put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again.”
There are two reasons for this. First, unless the incoming administration addresses polarization, its progress in addressing the other issues will be limited. Defiance of public health measures as an expression of individual liberty may become more pronounced, a stimulus package for the economy more difficult to pass, antipathy of the Black Lives Matter movement toward law enforcement, and vice versa, may deepen, and continued domestic chaos may hinder efforts to restore America’s leadership of the free world.
But the second and more fundamental reason that “lowering the temperature” so that Americans can “see each other again” is our greatest challenge is that the problem is structural, and will require structural change. In order to “see each other again,” we have to stop talking to one another across algorithmic divides.
If the “grim era of demonization” has been, as Biden stated, “a choice,” it has been a choice carefully curated by cable news, social media, special interest groups and political parties, all of which have an overweening economic stake in dividing us. Demonization has become the coin of the realm in American politics.
Cable news brought with it an abandonment of the principle underlying broadcast news that news is a public service, subject to a requirement of equal time or fairness, and essentially a loss-leader, not a profit center. With the advent of cable news, the so-called “fairness doctrine” was deemed obsolete, and “news” programs came to be seen as profit-making entertainment. Applying niche marketing principles to the American electorate, the cable news channels have carved up their public to shape their audiences. They thrive on the intensity of our divisions.
Social media have taken those niche marketing principles and converted them to consumer surveillance algorithms that drive revenues; indeed, application of those algorithms is the essence of the social media business model. As the late Jim Dwyer put it in “More Awesome Than Money,” his 2014 account of the efforts of independent hackers to create a Facebook-type platform that didn’t curate or steer its users’ preferences: “The online advertising industry argued that the ability to tailor ads … to the presumed appetites of the person using the computer was the foundation of the free internet.”
Applied to consumer choices, the reinforcement of predilections accomplished by commercial surveillance is effective in driving spending; otherwise, the companies wouldn’t engage in it. Applied to politics, however, commercial surveillance acts as a centrifuge, driving every discussion away from consensus, steering people into cul-de-sacs of their own biases, making them ultimately unrecognizable to each other.
For most of our history, commercial speech — defined as speech whose primary purpose is to obtain money or otherwise trigger spending — was considered unprotected by the first amendment to the Constitution. Because such speech is frequently misleading, if not outright fraudulent, regulation was deemed acceptable. But what’s the difference between commercial speech and political speech?
Beginning in the 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court came increasingly to edge toward the answer that there isn’t a meaningful difference. This movement culminated in the Citizens United case, in which the court equated spending with speech and held that spending for political purposes is a protected form of speech.
The result of these converging developments — cable news, social media, the decision that spending is speech — is that political speech has been transformed. It is all commercial speech now, subject to all the chicanery, exaggeration, and misinformation and disinformation that attends the latest workout craze or diet supplement. Our “era of demonization,” in other words, is the direct result of the application of niche marketing principles to the exigencies of political funding. Tell your supporters that your opponent is an honorable person whose opinions differ from yours, and you gain tepid support; tell them repeatedly over Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, on cable TV ads and free media interviews that he is a raging socialist pedophile whose very existence threatens civilization, or that he is a vile racist who believes that cavemen rode dinosaurs to work, and the money will flow.
So what’s to be done to heal our divided nation when every incentive exists to exacerbate division and nothing in our structure encourages unity?
As a start, the Federal Communications Act should be revisited in light of the experience of cable news and the emergence of social media. First, analogues of the “fairness doctrine” should be developed and reapplied to cable news. Second, the development of a “fair and free” platform of, as Jim Dwyer described it, “decentralized, private communications centered on protecting the integrity of human connections” — free, in other words, of commercial surveillance algorithms — should be required to be offered as an option for consumers of all social media companies.
Until that day, however, it will be up to us all to resolve to “see each other,” and to understand that that won’t be possible as long as we’re looking at each other through prisms of news curated to shape our beliefs and propaganda so sophisticated we no longer notice it.
The day that Biden is determined to achieve will happen when the structure of our politics allows it, when we require cable news to be fair, and treat social media companies as guardians of a commodity — our personal data — as fundamental as our water and electricity. It can come sooner only if and when we turn off the engines of demonization and, in the words of the Paul Simon song from another fractious era, “all come to look for America” and see it in the faces of those with whom we disagree.
John Farmer Jr. is director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. He is a former assistant U.S. attorney, counsel to the governor of New Jersey, New Jersey attorney general, senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, dean of Rutgers Law School, and executive vice president and general counsel of Rutgers University.
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