What’s left when you go beyond the soundbite?
As a media studies student in the 1980s, our professors lamented that quotes from interviewees on the news were getting shorter and shorter resulting in what they called “sound bites.” By the year 2000, nightly news coverage of Presidential candidates famously shrunk to an average of just 7 seconds per quote, down from well over a minute in 1968.
Marshall McLuhan famously uttered that “the media is the message.” We now consume tiny bits of information on our phone, 140 characters at a time on Twitter, and one image at a time on Instagram and Facebook. A friend showed me a study that said digital formats may increase consumption but comprehend far less. It follows that brevity determines the contours of our political discourse and the lack of comprehension leads to a reliance on pure emotions – like fear and anger – rather than reason.
As the dust clears from the 2021 fall elections, I would argue we are no longer in the age of the soundbite. Instead, we are in the age of sounds that bite.
In political discourse and the political entertainment media, we’ve entered an era where opposing sides simply shout one word at each other. That word is often so loaded and so laden with meaning that it represents an entire ideology. To repeat such a word in public or online is to be welcomed into a tribe or belief system that is based solely on this word.
The birth of the American experiment was represented by written treatises and lengthy debates on individual liberties and government tyranny. America’s origins were built on decades of philosophy, religious and civic debate. Today, political enlightenment and nuance are replaced by a buzzword loaded with emotion, shouted across the internet or a coffee shop table.
Think about the 2020 presidential election. For Trump opponents, simply labeling something as Trump or Trumpian represented a stand against naked power grabs, demonization, racism, and a tilting of the scale for Wall Street instead of Main Street. For Trump’s supporters, invoking the word meant thumbing one’s nose against a rigged system. There is even an entire sub-strata of religious iconography built around Trump.
For 15 years, the word “Obama” was similarly loaded on either side of the debate. His political opponents fueled by a network of political entertainment providers saw to it that the name Obama stood for everything that was anti-American as they saw it. Today, the political entertainment media can also just invoke the word “Squad” to mean a menacing threat from the far political left that some fear is not only Marxist but Anti-American. What lengthy narrative jumps into your head when you hear Hillary?
What’s missing from these worldviews is not just any sense of subtlety or compromise, but often an understanding of just what words mean.
In the 2021 election, nowhere was this as evident as in the Virginia gubernatorial election. The initials “CRT” and the phrase “Critical Race Theory” became a stand-in for a debate on the role of race and history in America’s classrooms and whether America would hold up a bright light to its past and current efforts toward universal equality and equity.
Virginia supporters of the GOP candidate bemoaned that CRT was taking over classrooms across the state. Highly motivated by this noisy “Sound,” they turned out to vote in droves but were unable to define CRT when asked or pushed. A realistic conversation about CRT requires nuance, but instead, it was named as a dangerous, imminent, urgent threat to children and democracy.
The fury is reminiscent of the conspiracies we’ve seen driven by the Q-affiliated sites on the internet. “Pizzagate” became synonymous with the nefarious nexus of democratic officials, Hollywood celebrities, and child sex trafficking. The guttural “Stop the Steal” became code for a rigged election system that, to its adherents, demanded a violent response resulting on January 6, 2021’s Capitol insurrection.
A decade ago, Eli Pariser warned us that the increase of a “Filter Bubble” around the information we consume, would drive us apart. He recognized that in an age where algorithms help shape the news we see, it was inevitable that to keep us coming back to the social media platform and to drive revenues, social media companies would serve us only the information we agreed with. As such, our circle of information would become smaller and more rigid. Our political and ideological isolation would be impenetrable.
Much like a family that tells the same stories among themselves so often, that just a word can signify an entire episode, so too for media consumers stuck in a right or left-wing filter bubble.
Where does this leave us? The costs are clear.
The filter bubble delivering COVID misinformation has left 1 million Americans dead. Far too many Americans were surrounded by anti-vaccine information on social media and in political discourse at every turn which led them to act against their own best interest. While the vaccine benefits were clear and the risks minimal, opponents simply turned the word/sound “vaccine” into an entire conversation loaded with conspiracy theories, cries for personal liberty, and screeds against government overreach. The anti-vax movement bit back…and it worked.
The time has come to hold the political entertainment media complex to account. Looking forward, I see three possible remedies.
The Hammer: It may be time to reign in the unlimited influence of the social media companies and their algorithms that deliver ever-more isolating and insulating content. Step one may be to require any posted political opinion piece to have easy-to-click links to opinions that are in stark contrast. Let’s get real – consumers cannot curate news on their own if the deck is stacked against them.
This new approach might generate additional views and ad revenues to help smaller, more diverse news platforms survive (on both sides). Ending the “Fairness Doctrine” unleashed the era of political entertainment and Walter Cronkite was replaced by Rush Limbaugh. Restoring even a small portion of “fairness” may also give birth to an industry, like Taboola, that thrives on delivering contrasting content. This may not prevent radicalization, but even limited exposure to differing opinions may begin to moderate opinions.
The Honey: If and as COVID wanes, it may be time to incentivize the IRL (In Real Life) revolution. The seminal sociological studies in “Bowling Alone” and “What’s the Matter with Kansas” foretell our challenges today in a world where there is a great loss in social capital. Perhaps we can use the moment of the reopening of society to push for more opportunities to mix and mingle. Maybe we incentivize individuals and families to re-engage in community-centered activities and to listen to diverse points of view. Maybe we reinstate the push towards national service for young people.
The Nuclear Option: Shut it all down. Turn off political entertainment and give us a break. Maybe for an hour, then for two. During the Pandemic, we saw that when streets are closed to traffic, there was an explosion in community-centered activities in streets. Safe streets let parents send their children to ride bikes or play sports in what used to be public space reserved for speeding automobiles. Restaurants expanded their seating capacity and stores welcomed new clientele that discovered their neighborhood for the first time by foot. To that end, why not experiment with safe streets in political entertainment media? If we can’t ween ourselves off divisive and mind-numbing content, then maybe we should have some help?
A modest proposal would be the closing of all social media and electronic (TV/Radio) political-centered entertainment and social media content platforms for one hour each week. Pick an hour, any hour. The goal is to offer a moment of serenity for a fully-connected society. Some might use this hour for family time. Others for a long walk. I recognize this idea is insane when standing against a tsunami of political entertainment content. However, if we don’t give ourselves a moment to chew on, process, and digest the endless political entertainment media we already consume, we risk choking our democracy away.