The early stages of the Trump presidency are seeing the battle lines drawn between formal media organisations and social power. It’s a complex conflict: partly a tension between different types of power, partly a battle between establishment and a newly empowered plebiscite, and partly an academic introspection as to the nature of truth itself. The Warriors in this battle wear different types of armour and wield different types of weapons: some use formal, established, and visible mechanisms of power and communication, others use invisible and socially moderated, reputation-based forms of power and communication. This is one of a series of exploratory articles I’m writing reflecting on, and seeking to understand, the new mechanics of power, and hence new politics, in the Social Age.
Let’s take a visible manifestation of this change: whilst I will discuss the Trump presidential campaign and early days of power, I am doing so not from a political perspective, but rather a reflective one, seeking to understand exactly what is different: how did we get here? I am uncomfortable, or at least think I am uncomfortable, with the notion of a post-truth economy: I do not subscribe to the notion that we have somehow left a golden age of truth and, en masse, abandoned our values, common sense, and ability to discern truth from lies. By contrast, I do recognise that different types of power are coming to the fore, primarily networked versus hierarchical power, and that the communication ecosystem we inhabit allows for the far faster spread of divergent messaging, and that the notion of self-referential and reinforcing echo chambers radically reinforces bias within a system.
But despite all this, I’m uncomfortable with the terms of post truth, or post fact, economy: my concern being that it is a notion cooked up by the establishment to somehow belittle, categorise, and in some way makes safe, those people who believe different things from ourselves. My senses that most people who use the term post truth economy do not believe that they themselves are beyond understanding the truth, or consciously and deliberately propagate untruths.
Perhaps it would be fairer to say that something has definitely changed, and that a discussion about truth and fact is highly valid, but that my fear is that we settle too soon on a comforting new truth, which turns out to be a small iceberg in a stormy sea. Our comfort will be short lived if we make safe, or delude ourselves that we have understood, this new ecosystem too fast.
The infrastructural changes in our communication environment are straightforward: originally our primary model of mass communication was broadcast, where certain formal institutions owned and controlled the cameras, TV channels, printing presses, and distribution networks, and media organisations were the primary entity that gathered news, wrote the story, and shared it out to the network. Whilst many of these news organisations put great effort into validation and fact checking, all the stories that they told were as subjective as any telling of history. It would be a mistake to think that the old world, good as it was, was characterised by fact and fact alone.
In the new world we still have a formal broadcast model, rapidly evolving as it is to be more asynchronous, engaged, and on demand, but alongside it we have a socially moderated communication infrastructure: the rise of social collaborative technology, alongside the diversification and proliferation of the mechanisms of storytelling, has transformed how stories are told. In other words the fact that our citizen journalists, a cadre to which we all belong, now carry in their pockets the video cameras and broadcast mechanism that was formerly the preserve of the formal few. In this new world the flow of information is multidimensional and there is no single bottleneck of a formal storyteller, although it’s a mistake to think that there are no storytellers, no checks and balances within the system.
One thing we have clearly seen in the Social Age is the emergence of nodes within a system: high-value aggregating, sense checking, high reputation individuals who help to filter the strong signal from the noise. These have often emerged outside the formal system, as bloggers and vloggers, who control their own space and validity of their voice. Whilst these are not subject to the same editorial guidance, ethical standards, and oversight, as established formal media, it would be a mistake to think that they have no value and are somehow intrinsically, or inevitably, without value.
The interesting thing about the new Trump administration is how they have chosen to engage primarily through these direct channels of communication, and indeed formally to vilify and challenge the formal established media, or at least those parts of it that tell a story that they do not like. There are some obvious initial tactics here: the first is to introduce ambiguity, to constantly question, and to produce an opposition style single story, around which people can rally, despite a lack of evidence or clarity. The current obsession with ‘fake news’ has something of this ring about it: I’m unaware there has ever been a distinction, some kind of external validation, of whether news is real or fake. News has always been a story told, through cultural and editorial filters.
Certainly we have seen that in social spaces there were deliberate attempts, for humour or otherwise, to create and propagate fake news, but the umbrage of the establishment seems to go wider than this: the term fake news is being used to describe almost any story told by the established media that runs contrary to the story the Trump camp wish to tell. This probably makes good political sense, somehow making the messenger themselves into the story.
I think that this new presidency is one of the first instances of mainstream power deliberately attempting to colonise and utilise new forms of power, specifically the socially moderated type. This is a typical feature of formal systems: they are subverted by new types of power, they seek to understand them, then they try to exploit them. There was a time when the first bands were able to utilise social media and achieve commercial success outside of, and subverting, the model of the music industry. But it did not take long for the music industry to catch up, and now most new bands have street teams, supposedly informal social media presence, and yet often, deep behind the scenes, they are as corporate as my high street bank. The formal system attempts to exploit and utilise new social channels.
Trump gained his power as a networked type of power, through the sheer mass, momentum, and engagement of his audience: at every point of contention he simply through new grenade into the mix, ensuring that at every stage, no matter what the conversation, he was at the heart of it. He imparted momentum into the system. That won him the battle: he exploited a network type of power rather than a formal hierarchical one. We are now into the next stage: now he has become the establishment it remains to be seen how successful this new battle will be.
My sense is that the attempt to bypass and vilify established media outlets will become bogged down quite fast. Not that it won’t be successful, but it may not be a growth strategy. With a network type of power it is likely to be self reinforcing within the network, so those people who view Trump as the outsider bringing reform, will be reinforced and continue to believe that he is the outsider waging war against the corrupt establishment. Those people opposed will be reinforced in their opposition by the continued strategy of bypassing the formal media. One key reason for this is that by turning his ire upon the formal media is unintentionally changing their type of power.
Trump won by building a networked type of power, in opposition to a supposed establishment. By attacking formal media, he may well grant them their own reinforced type of network power: I do not believe that he is an ideologue, but neither are the media channels. Victory for the mainstream media is not in getting one particular truth out there: it is in selling more advertising, attracting a large audience. So the very conflict that it is engaged in now is, in itself, great news. Already we are seeing the battle lines drawn, with CNN, the New York Times, and others positioning themselves as stalwarts of established editorial practice and quality. Trump himself is evolving their form of power: whilst originally their power came from their control of broadcast channels, he is reinforcing a reputation-based authority, indeed, he is almost imposing it upon them.
This is an interesting development, and it’s possible that both sides will win, at least in the short-term. Established media will win because there is going to be no abandonment of the stories they tell: whilst people consume great quantities of news through their social networks, much of it originates, or references to, formal broadcast stories, and as the reputational power increases, so too this will increase. So the formal media, claiming an opposition power to Trump, will win. And those elements of the formal media that align themselves with Trump, who will be supported by the formal establishment, will also win. And Trump himself, by reinforcing the views in the Echo chamber of his own community, reinforcing his credibility as the great Knight, battling a corrupt establishment, will also win. He won’t win at scale, but he doesn’t need to. We will likely end up, rapidly, in a newly defined space of opposition, where everyone wins to some degree, or possibly everyone except the community itself.
I suspect this is only the start: whilst we will see a new battle space to find, indeed we are almost there, I sense that this is transient. The communication ecosystem itself is key, alongside an understanding of new types of power and the other wider changes of the Social Age: the bigger change we will see is the emergence and reputation-based authority of new, fully socially moderated, sources of highly valid news.
We see the foundations of this: the normalisation and reward of whistleblowers, people who step outside the system to share truth, as well as the emergence of outsourced fact checking sites like snopes.com. Elements of validity already emerging within the system.
The biggest risk we face is becoming too comfortable, too fast. If we settle into the easy arguments, the easy framing of Trump versus the establishment, we run the risk of missing the wider picture. We would do well to remember that those in power, and those who own the media, are often one and the same: it is perfectly easy to fabricate a battle that builds a reputation and sells papers, all the while obfuscating the real changes occurring in the communication ecosystem behind-the-scenes. We would do well to stay alert, to remain curious, and to understand that the true change we see is only just beginning, and that neither political authority, industry power, nor history, will own or control this change. Social Age is about communities, and a rebalancing of power. It’s about transparency, Social Leadership, and reputation that is earned. We are at the start of a long journey, a new Renaissance, facilitated by technology, but ultimately, about people.