Imagine you grew up in New York or London. Where ever. You graduated from Harvard, or Oxford or another university. Doesn’t matter. It is 1870 and the transcontinental railroad, completed a year earlier drops you off in Dodge City, Kansas. Looking around, you immediately realize the social order in Dodge is determined by bullets and bucks. Welcome to the state of politics in the beginning of the new millennium.
The evolution of the digital age, compounded with other factors, have led to a unique moment in the nation’s history. If the country can survive the forces ripping apart the fabric of our society depends on what happens in the next three to six months. Will the rule of law find the support it needs? If not, the great experiment that is the United States will undergo a transformation into something darker than has been seen before.
When the Industrial Revolution upended western society, appalling abuses came with it including child labor and horrendous working conditions. Eventually society caught up and began a balance was struck between human rights and the progress the assembly line made possible. The creation of unions took decades, violently resisted by the factory owners enjoying the fruits of unorganized labor. The institutionalization of workers rights is illustrated by the creation of the U.S. Cabinet-level Department of Labor in 1913 as well as the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) in 1970 by Presdient Richard Nixon.
We are in the same moment in the Digital Age and the revolution it has created in the creation and consumption of media. It is Dodge City with bullets and bucks determining social order. The only difference is there is no train back to an orderly society. Until balance is struck, we are in an era of “anything goes, and does.”
Once upon a time, journalism was recognized as the fourth branch of Government, representing we, the people. Ostensibly, journalism was unencumbered by vested interests common to the Congressional and Executive branches. No longer the case, journalism is now perceived by many as just another business trying to improve its bottom line.
Once upon a time, owning a television channel was almost like being a “public trustee.”
And then, starting in 1980, came deregulation by President Ronald Reagan. The end of the Fairness Doctrine and a shift to a highest bidder mentality for television station licensing. At the same time, in Switzerland, Dr. Tim Bernard-Lee invented the world-wide web.
This social media timeline is a compelling reminder of how early we are in the Digital Revolution. It may be argued that the reactions to the Facebook-Cambridge scandal may be a parallel to other moments in Industrial Revolution, when scandal drove reform. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a scathing novel slash expose of the meat-packing industry comes to mind.
Published in 1906, The Jungle portrayed the horrific working conditions so vividly, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote "radical action must be taken to do away with the efforts of arrogant and selfish greed on the part of the capitalist." Within the year, public pressure would lead to the creation of the Meat Inspection Act as well as the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, establishing the Bureau of Chemistry (in 1930 renamed as the Food and Drug Administration).
Will the power of social media be reined in, like with the meat-packing industry? Most likely, not in one fell swoop but the nature of institutional change is evolutional, not like the revolution instigating the need. Will partisanship slow down the pace of reform? Undoubtedly. Nonetheless, it appears that enough members of Congress recognize the risk untethered data represents.
Without regulatory oversight, the opportunity to manipulate messaging to the masses has been productized and evidently sold to the highest bidder, in 2016, by September, according to an indictment filed by Robert Mueller, Russians were buying 1.25M in online advertising with one goal, “to provoke discontent and unrest.”
In addition to the Wild West World of journalism where the distinction between fact and opinion have been blurred and rendered virtually impossible to distinguish, the U.S. Supreme Court added to this perfect storm in the form of the infamous Citizens United decision in 2010. This infamous case capsized the fundamental tenet of campaign finance ending the Federal Government’s ability to restrict expenditures for political communications by nonprofit corporations, for-profit corporations, labor unions, and other associations.
Thanks to Citizens United, virtually anyone can influence U.S. social media in complete anonymity. For example, take the NRA. The special interest group, or any other group, can spend millions of dollars supporting some candidates, sabotaging others, all the while, using “dark money” which is virtually impossible to link back to NRA.
To quote E.J. Dionne, in the Washington Post, “Two years ago, Citizens United tore down a century’s worth of law aimed at reducing the amount of corruption in our electoral system. It will go down as one of the most naive decisions ever rendered by the court.”
Various efforts have been initiated with the goal of repealing Citizens United, which, with the successful appointment of Neal Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, could only be accomplished through a Constitutional Amendment.
With Citizens United around, the taming of the Wild West World seems to fall on Congress’ shoulders. The question is, do they understand what is at risk? Do they recognize the Republican Party is led by a man who instinctively leads by division, who is gifted at identifying cultural rifts and creating schisms between neighbors whose communities were founded on peaceful co-existence, tolerance, and respect?
Or will they stay the course until the mid-terms rock the political landscape as many predict will happen? With the pace of shots and volleys between the embattled administration and Special Counsel Robert Mueller, November seems a long way off right now. Regardless, the anarchy that accompanies the transition from one age of man to another, seems insurmountable in the moment but eventually gives way to law and order. What that will look like is undecided, and impossible to predict.
Political Journalist (Washington, DC)