“Sit down and read. Educate yourselves for the coming conflicts.” — Mother Jones
If there is one thing a divided nation shares in equal measure today, it’s anger at Facebook. The social media giant has been hauled into the dock of both public opinion and the United States Congress to account for its lamentable breaches of privacy. As is now well known, data research firm Cambridge Analytica, a paid consultant to the Trump campaign, acquired the personal data for upwards of some 87 million Facebook users. Condemnation has been fast and furious, and even the usually cocksure Mark Zuckerberg has admitted that he, and Facebook made a “huge mistake.”
A mistake it was, but rage at Facebook for sharing information on its users is akin to raging at porn for titillating its viewers: that, after all, is what it was created to do. Investors have not valued the company at half a trillion dollars because it permits you to like Aunt Gertie’s picture of her dinner. Whatever the Pollyanna pretensions to global communitarianism mouthed by Zuckerberg & Co., Facebook is a business, and a damned successful one. Politicians and their campaigns, seeking as they are to sell products far less respectable than consumer goods, have simply determined to open the information spigot for their own wares. If selling products is accepted by its end users, one wonders, why not sell politicians?
Our moral sensitivities appear to draw a distinction. Yet the focus on privacy, relevant as it is in a philosophical sense — may I take a privacy interest in that which I joyfully place into the stream of digital engagement? — is not the only lens through which to view the Cambridge Analytica scandal (the latter a word that may yet drop dead of exhaustion). It is rather our susceptibility to the weaponization of the self- our own self- against us which requires a pause of introspection. Americans went into voting booths by the millions influenced in the most sacred duty of the Republic by targeted social media ads developed to target their most granular, even subconscious, fears and likes alike. Christopher Wylie, a former Cambridge Analytica employee, claimed that the information acquired, comprising people’s names, locations, genders and things users have “liked” on Facebook was used to, as he euphemistically put it, exploit “the mental vulnerabilities of people” with targeted political messages.
The most urgent question isn’t what happens to the data we willingly place into the ever-replicating stream of the internet, but rather why our “mental vulnerabilities” leave us so wide open to manipulation in the first place. And that, in turn, requires looking closely at two interrelated factums: where we get our information and what we’re taught to process that information.
Cambridge Analytica claims to have built detailed profiles on some 240 million Americans, using those profiles to create a psychographic marketing campaign to influence voters: as CEO Alexander Nix once explained in choosing its targets, “a neurotic person may be more swayed by an ad depicting a home break-in.” In this open doorframe of modern customization stands the silhouette of age-old hatred. By permitting Steve Bannon to oversee its early Facebook collection efforts, Cambridge Analytica foretold the short step from “neurotic” to targeting the guts of psychological tribal affiliation. In testimony to Congress in May, 2018, Wylie confirmed that Bannon’s goal was to weaponize information to fight a culture war, with the first battle the suppression of African American voters. Speaking in the fall, before the scandal was apparent, Cambridge Analytica’s CTO Darren Bolding said, without any hint of self-reflection, that “Algorithms will find the worst in us if you let them go nuts. “ All too true, and particularly if those controlling them have a twisted sense of what the “worst” really is: Nix was suspended from his CEO role months later for allegedly using the n-word to refer to prospective African American clients.
The full story of how ads were microtargeted has yet to be revealed — as Sheryl Sandberg candidly admitted on May 28, “To this day, we still don’t actually know what data Cambridge Analytica had,” — but the dim outline already in view is problematic. Hatred and propaganda have always sailed on the breeze of American political lore, but never as hidden from mainstream view. Within the microtargeting revolution, ads can be endlessly customized to reach the mental vulnerabilities of individual voters without fear of offending those who will never see them. The hatred served to one voter remains mostly hidden, working its wicked will in the private recesses of individual thought. That the breach of privacy works its most deleterious effects in the shadow of concealment is surely just one of the dyspeptic paradoxes of the modern age.
We are not, however, unwilling prisoners of the worst of ourselves. So why has the American voter become so easy to manipulate, so willing to accept and consume the constant flow of bullshit that is continuously served up in bite-sized nonsense? The gap between what people know and what they think they know has become a roaring gulf. A proper civics education and honest, vetted news are elemental to closing the ignorance gap in which charlatans flourish. We have consumed the patina of propaganda because we have become unmoored from the basic nuts and bolts of hard news and inquiring education that previously served as the concrete floor of our mental grounding. Knowledge is power, as it always has been. But we have ceased to arm ourselves for the rumbling battles against ignorance, fear, and abuse, and in such failure, have willingly acquiesced in our own manipulation.
All news is not created alike, and therein lies our first problem. The systemic glitch in social media is not that it sells our information to the unscrupulous; that, we should expect. It’s rather that we have handed over not only our personal information but also the role of chief educator to entities who might charitably be described as information exploiters par excellence. Facebook has travelled far from its dusty beginnings ranking the looks of collegiate socialites. Today, some forty-five percent of the nearly 5,000 Americans surveyed by The Pew Research Center in 2017 said they “often” or “sometimes” got some of their news from social media, mainly from Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube. Just under 80% of Americans under 50 got news from social media. Blind trust in social media sites to play latter-day Cronkite is a role such sites neither foresaw for themselves nor are prepared to adequately deliver.
Social media, superb at its chosen mission, fares worse as a news provider. Facebook describes its news feed not as hard-hitting journalism but rather a curated outgrowth of its central connectivity feature: “Posts that you see in your News Feed are meant to keep you connected to the people, places and things that you care about, starting with your friends and family.” Meanwhile, a propaganda provider operating in the guise of a news advisor could as recently as September 2017 target extremists with “news” carefully calibrated to ingrained hatred: A ProPublica investigation discovered, somewhat horrifyingly, that Facebook’s algorithm “enabled advertisers to direct their pitches to the news feeds of almost 2,300 people who expressed interest in the topics of “Jew hater,” “How to burn jews,” or, “History of ‘why jews ruin the world.’”. Cambridge Analytica, and those like it, simply clothed the wolves of ancient hatred in the gauzy sheep’s clothing of modern social integration.
Youtube, meanwhile provides its news through curated channels. The most-watched news channel on YouTube is RT, with over 5 billion combined views based on its 20 or so channels. RT is owned by the Russian government — “RT” stands for “Russia Today” — and was identified in a January, 2017 report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence “as a primary source of propaganda in the US that was intended to advance Russian interests.” Yet until February of 2018, Youtube did not identify RT, or any other source for that matter, as coming from a state funded broadcaster, let alone a hostile one. Even non-state owned channels are cause for grief. In 2017, YouTube was forced to change its search algorithms to display more reliable and trustworthy sources after the Las Vegas shooting caused a spike in misinformation and hateful content. Yet one of its trending videos after Parkland was a conspiracy-theory video claiming student David Hogg was a “crisis actor” — there, a phrase uniquely suited to the current American experience. As a Polygon article describing Youtube’s “trending” section titled it, “No one knows how YouTube’s trending section works.” As for Twitter, it’s best suited as a digital Borsch Belt, not a modern repository of diligent journalism: whatever can be adequately, robustly, and completely conveyed in 140 characters, surely in-depth news is not among them.
In each case, even absent the obvious issues of sourcing, all of social media is compromised by the same virtue which attracts people in the first place. The ability to customize your own experience is useful in choosing friends and cat videos, but far less helpful in getting a well-rounded view of important and relevant news. We have called these self-selective groupings of individuals, experiences, and views “bubbles”, but bubbles are ephemeral and easily popped. Instead, we have created pleasant, unchallenging dungeons of the mind from which we electively refuse to push against the boundaries of discomfort and difficulty. The American citizen refuses to parole herself into the news of the unpleasant no less in social media than in life outside of the screen, and in doing so deafens one ear against the world.
One might ask gently why we should receive our news from the same sites whose specific expertise lie in videos of squirrels who can skateboard. Yet that is too cute by half. It is both unrealistic and unnecessary to assume that new technology should play no role in the dissemination of news — surely, at some time, a radio operator lamented the rise and of television as an inadequate substitute for the assumedly superior virtues of the existing enterprise. Social media has a role to play, but its infancy as a news provider has revealed severe growing pains.
Despite it failures, social media has stepped into an open void. Yesterday’s empire, traditional media, is itself suffering from a different, but no less lamentable malady. If the news provided by social media if self-selected and increasingly difficult to discern as legitimately sourced, that provided by traditional media suffers from the homogeneity of corporate overlordship. Writing in 1983, veteran journalist Ben Bagdikian expressed alarm that conglomerates had absorbed so many media enterprises since the ’60s that roughly half of the 25,000 American newspaper, magazine, book-publishing, and broadcast enterprises were controlled by just 50 large companies. The consolidation which concerned Bagdikian sped ahead at breakneck pace in the ensuing 35 years. Today, 90% of our news, whether we read, watch or listen to it, is dominated primarily by six media giants (Comcast Corporation/NBC Universal, 21st Century Fox, Walt Disney Company, Viacom, Time Warner, and CBS Corporation ) which each own an array of media venues, from TV and radio stations to newspapers and magazines to film and production studios. Consolidation has bred homogeny, and as with many industries, is a result of a choice of political action. During the Golden Age of American news, the FCC reigned supreme to enforce disparate ownership, on the theory that use of the airwaves was a public trust. Abuse of such airwaves could be radioactive to the honest consideration required of the citizenry. As recently as the 1970s, an entity could not own both a newspaper and a television station in the same market; as late as 1981, an entity could own no more than seven television stations in the same market. But the Reagan administration began a deregulatory push, and in 1996, President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act, which greatly loosened the straitjacket keeping mass consolidation at bay. Diversity in news had once been an American hallmark belief; writing in 1945 in blocking a merger between newspaper publishing companies, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote, “The widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public.” Yet with consolidated media, the dictates of the national and profitable override the local and the work of hard journalism. Only 1 in 4 local TV stations produces its own content, and accordingly, the simplest conclusion holds: if uninteresting, challenging, or threatening to the mass consumptive audience, it’s unlikely to run.
A cavernous gap has opened. Traditional media serves up the bland helping of homogenized news gruel, while social media permits the preservation of the closed mind, often weaponized by the unscrupulous to microtarget propaganda in constant bombardment. Truth in news has become a rare oasis in a raging sea of disinformation. Having won the republic’s longevity on the continuous pursuit of knowledge, Americans have sailed to the shores of willful ignorance and burned the boats behind them.
At precisely the time we need to be pushing the accelerator on giving citizens an advanced helping in contextual facts within which to ascertain the truth or falsity of that which they consume, the American education system has ceased to provide the necessary factual predicate. The humor derived from man on the street interviews revealing the depth of basic historical and civic ignorance (“Q: When was the Civil War? A: Uh…1982?”), is ill recompense for the harm done to the most basic building blocks of our society. Mass public education, particularly in the liberal arts, is intended not only to engage with the past but to contextualize the stream of information blasting by in the present. Americans cannot separate wheat from chaff nor fair from foul because they no longer have a sturdy handle on the underlying meaning of either their current reality nor their own shared past.
Public education has always been inextricably tied to the maintenance of the American Republic. As early as 1778, when the Revolution itself lay in doubt, Thomas Jefferson proposed in Virginia a large scale movement to educate the populace, arguing that only an informed electorate could preserve even a victorious American democracy against a swift descent into tyranny: the nation must collectively “give [the people] knowledge of those facts, which history exhibiteth, that, possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes.” The Common School movement which implemented mass education in antebellum America had a similar goal. Horace Mann, the Massachusetts native who played the central role in orchestrating the rise of the common school, was unabashed in his tying of mass education to political health, arguing that “[e]ducation is our only political safety. Outside of this ark all is deluge.”
The deluge has come. Public education has begun to wobble as the legs upon which it steadies have been systematically dismantled. The American people are accordingly woefully unprepared to deflect the dauntless forays of misinformation hurled headlong into the informational ether. For all the current angst about immigrants, in 2011, when Newsweek administered the United States Citizenship Test to over 1000 American citizens, 38% of Americans failed.
Inequality wraps its icy fingers around every aspect of American decline, and so unsurprisingly, the widening of inequality has drained the educational capital accorded our poorer citizenry. Widespread education was a lodestar of the early republic: in a letter discussing the soon-to-be-held Constitutional Convention, John Adams wrote that “the Whole People must take upon themselves the education of the Whole People and must be willing to bear the expenses of it.” The people did just that, using education in the late 19th century to amalgamate the influx of immigrants and tying them to the American creed. Yet the drain on public finances by the steady drumbeat of anti-tax, anti-government activism has cratered both the societal belief in educational investment across classes and the social capital it once created. Average state support for investment in higher education has plunged to55% of what it had been in 1980. Primary schools fare even worse. The recent tax bill capped state and local tax deductions- the very taxes which usually fund schools- costing some $17 billion in funding. A little observed provision in the bill permits 529 plans to be used for K-12 education, giving wealthier parents a parachute to land their offspring in private schools while starving the public schools even further. Teachers, meanwhile, find themselves potentially armed with guns and mass shooter training rather than textbooks or living wages. The national teacher shortage is expected to reach 100,000, unsurprising perhaps after teachers and their limited political power have become identified as a public enemy; in 2004, Rod Paige, then secretary of education, called the country’s leading teachers union a “terrorist organization.” U.S. spending on elementary and high school education declined 3 percent from 2010 to 2014 even as its economy prospered and its student population grew slightly by 1 percent, boiling down to a 4 percent decrease in spending per student. Certain states, often driven by big state tax cuts, have systematically divested from public education in a more comprehensive manner. Of the states who have cut spending by student by at least 10% since 2008, all are reliably red states. Four of the biggest- Arizona, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma (which leads the way at 28%) are suffering mass strikes by fed-up educators pushed to the brink of revolt.
The problem is not one only of dollars but of direction. Assumptions as to the permanence of the edifice of our system, flush in the triumphalism of the so-called end of history bestowed by Communist collapse, have effectuated an invidious undermining of basic civic knowledge. Democracy, eve in the eldest of democracies, is not genetic. It must be taught, but the rush to accord math and science as the gateway drugs to the jobs of the future has sacrificed civic education on the altar of class anxiety. Civics and its fellow traveler, history, make for an easy piñata: attacked by left as triumphalist, the right as a progressive Trojan horse, and disdained by parents anxious for their children’s economic future. Choice follows clash: in 2011, all federal funding for civics and social studies was eliminated. As state and local funding dropped, too, many cash-strapped districts chose to prioritize math and English — the subjects most prominently featured in the standardized tests by which students are now judged. Deprived of educational oxygen, civics knowledge, and with it the Republic’s bulwark against the roaring torrent of false or incomplete news, is suffocating.
A July 2016 study found that only about half of the students at the top 50 colleges and universities could identify the purpose of The Federalist Papers, and only 22 percent knew that the phrase, “government of the people, by the people, for the people” could be found in the Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. You cannot learn what you do not study; that same report found that of more than 1,100 liberal arts colleges and universities surveyed, only 18 percent required students to take a course in American history or government; that may well be while a tenth of college graduates in that same study believed that Judge Judith Sheindlin — Judge Judy- was a member of the Supreme Court. Ignorance among the wider population unsurprisingly fares even worse: a 2017 study from the University of Pennsylvania revealed that 37% of the population could not name a single freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment. 33% could not name a single branch of government. For all the bleating about the importance the Constitution, we cannot meaningfully defend nor honor what we do not even deign to learn.
Even what history and civics remains is caught in the jammed doorframe of factionalism. In 2015 Oklahoma’s legislative committee passed a bill to ban teaching AP History. Policymakers in Georgia, Texas, South Carolina, North Carolina and Colorado have demanded scrapping the class. In a time of scarcity, fools remain in ample supply.
A phrase often heard today is apt: “it wasn’t always like this.” A report by the Center of Civics Education notes that
“ Until the 1960s, three courses in civics and government were common in American high schools, and two of them (‘civics’ and “problems of democracy’) explored the role of citizens and encouraged students to discuss current issues. Today those courses are very rare. What remains is a course on ‘American government’ that usually spends little time on how people can — and why they should — participate as citizens.”
Without our history, we have no future. Nothing grand ever came from removing the rigging of generations past and sailing blindly towards the distant chasms steeped only in ignorance. The American people have no ingrained desire for the murky depths of illiteracy, but that is where they — we- find ourselves today.
Hope often comes from an unlikely place. It both accurate and uncharitable to say that the same state which prompts headlines such as “Elderly Florida Man caught masturbating in McDonald’s parking lot, claims his privacy was invaded,” may indeed hold that hope. Dismayed by the decline in civic virtue, and driven by bipartisan zeal of Democratic Senator Bob Graham and Republican Congressman Lou Frey, the University of Florida and the University of Central Florida established the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship in 2006 to improve civics education in Florida. The Joint Center got a shot in the arm when the Florida legislature passed the Sandra Day O’Connor Education Act in 2010. The law mandated civics courses in 7th grade, starting kids earlier, and required civic education content in the K-12 reading language arts curriculum. To ensure action, the Act requires a comprehensive civics test at the end of 7th grade. And perhaps most importantly, the Act funds the Joint Center to provide assistance in areas such as professional development and curriculum development. Buttressed by the Act and O’Connor herself, who created iCivics, a computerized platform which hosts free games and lessons plans that can be used by teachers and students to “make the subject come alive,” Florida’s youth have flourished: the percentage of students who passed the state’s 7th grade civics exam has gone up from 61 percent in 2014 to 70 percent in 2017. Why are Parkland’s teens seemingly born for the moment grim fate has thrust upon them? Behind their preternatural grasp of political action lies the work of diligent civics education: a 2017 report revealed that more than 2/3 of Florida civics teachers discuss current events in the classroom weekly, and a majority of them use teaching simulations such as debates or mock trials. Recall that the first words of Emma Gonzalez’s iconic “We Call BS” philippic were “this may seem like a lot, but these are my AP Gov notes.”
It’s working. 89% of Florida students in a recent study say that they discuss what they study in civics at home, further broadening the engagement into the proverbial dinner table discussion wistfully recalled by older Americans. Better, there is ample low hanging fruit; as of this writing, only two other states have a pre-high school civics requirement. The early evidence from Florida suggests we can do substantially better with even a modest effort. Of course, because this is 2018 and America can apparently no longer have nice things, even this pleasant story is in danger: having seen the success of its actions, the Republican-controlled Florida legislature voted for $168 million in tax cuts, and in doing so, eliminated all of the $900,000 of the Joint Center’s funding. It’s as if having discovered a promising treatment for a malignant form of cancer, doctors consigned it to the garbage in favor of golf outings for wealthy donors.
We will not be saved by traditional media nor by elective disassociation from social media. Nor does education magically morph the dark undercurrent of prejudice into enlightened reason. But investing the time and resources to teach the bedrock of history and civics to students embeds them into the tapestry of liberty. Better yet, it can provide the intellectual weaponry to both pop bubbles and deflate fake news and in the end, give us more kids like those in Parkland. In them, and in so many other promising youngsters who would embrace the wonderful ideals of American history if only we’d spend the time teaching them, we can plant the truest seeds of hope. Arming our young with the knowledge to consign propaganda and fake news to the discard pile is key to reestablishing democracy’s breakwater. Writing in 1822, James Madison lamented that “A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both.” Whether we are currently in farce or tragedy shall be left to the historian, but whether we can wrest back the future toward the resplendent uplands of propitious imagination remains with us.