By Daniel J. Rogers – In October 2019, the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was asked what she thought historians would see when they looked back on the Trump era in United States history. Justice Ginsberg, known for her colorful and often blistering legal opinions, replied tersely, “An aberration.”
As President Biden’s administration settles in, many feel an enormous sense of relief, an awareness that the United States dodged a proverbial bullet. But how do we ensure that Justice Ginsberg’s prediction becomes reality? This is not an academic question; Trump’s recent speech at CPAC all but announced his desire to return in 2024. Only by recognizing the underlying reason he succeeded in the first place and by making the structural changes necessary to prevent someone like him from succeeding again can we head off this eventuality.
First, to understand what we must do to prevent the return of someone like Trump or even Trump himself, we first need to define what Trumpism really is and how it came to be. The seeds of Trumpism in America have been analyzed to exhaustion, but something specific emerged in 2016 that holds the key to Trump’s rise to power: Online disinformation.
Modern online disinformation exploits the attention-driven business model that powers most of the internet as we currently know it. Platforms like Google and Facebook make staggering amounts of money grabbing and capturing our attention so they can show us paid advertisements. That attention is gamed using algorithms that measure what content we engage with and automatically show us more content like it.
The problem, of course, emerges when these algorithms automatically recommend and amplify our worst tendencies. As humans, we evolved to respond more strongly to negative stimuli than positive ones. These algorithms detect that and reinforce it, selecting content that sends us down increasingly negative rabbit holes. Resentful about losing your job? Here’s a video someone made about how immigrants stole that job from you! Hesitant about the COVID-19 vaccine? Here’s a post from another user stoking a baseless anti-vaccine conspiracy theory. Notice, of course, that truth is nowhere in this calculus—the only metric the algorithm rewards is engagement, and it turns out that disinformation and conspiracy theory make the perfect fodder for this algorithmic amplification. more>