The Social Media Outhouse

This is not an essay about American foreign policy.

This is not an essay about racism.

This is not an essay about what is proper in social discourse.

I will tend to ignore comments about the above, because this is instead about how the White House has made an Outhouse out of social media — and by extension, mainstream media.

The following is a screen capture of the front page of CNN from the other day. (CNN has a very useful text-only low-bandwidth page.)

What I find interesting is just how much of that limited bandwidth became a referendum on the use of the word Shithole, and the implications of its use.

Look at the markup below — solid red lines are direct references, dotted blue are tangential references.

Down here at the bottom, barely above the scroll, is a link to “quickly catch up on the day’s news.” I didn’t bother to click to see how many more sidebars were buzzing around the front page cesspool.

Agenda-jacking

This particular explosion of outrage came from a leak about what President Trump had said, maybe in closed quarters. Again, that doesn’t matter. The reaction does, because it is entirely a reflex and response that Trump’s team has employed to devastating effect.

Do you believe his early morning tweets are an accident? (Do you even believe that he writes all of them?)

What he accomplishes with those “genius mad tweets” is a hijacking of that day’s news agenda and narrative. If he can swing headlines away from his policy matters, that’s a win. If he can absorb enough attention that the audience actually consuming those stories is smaller, that’s a big win. And if he diverts newsgathering resources to his Tweet du Jour, that’s the biggest victory.

No “Less Than Zero”

As polarizing as Trump is, there is very little room for anyone to change their opinion about him. The number of people convinced that “Shithole” is the last straw is very small indeed. Losing a handful of supporters every day is not a sustainable strategy. But his time in office is finite, so it doesn’t matter. The tiny losses pale in comparison to the advantages of diverting coverage and attention — and of actually being in position to drive the agenda.

War Games

We were never asked the question, “Would you like to play a game?” We were never invited to play Global Thermonuclear War on that old computer. Yet here we are, diving through a vast field of variables and computations, trying to avoid the end of the world. But you know who is winning? The staff in the Oval Office.

While we all get spun and bothered, actual governing is happening. And we really don’t know what all of that entails. (I would say that with the implosion of journalism jobs and the decay of trust, we’ve been in this dilemma for about 30 years — but this only makes it worse.)

Team Trump is #winning on Twitter, because they are among the few who know what is smokescreen and what is smoke-from-fire. How can we join them in “winning?”

By refusing to play.

Silent Victory

The next time you see that outrageous thing he tweeted, don’t get sucked into the game. When you give oxygen to the diversion flame, you just make the smokescreen that much stronger. And his team writing these tweets? They are doing nothing but using the analytics to iterate, and get even better at it.

If you want to defeat the tactic, recognize it for what it is, and stop replying. Stop responding. Stop giving traffic to articles about What Trump Tweeted. (perhaps we can find a way to share them “in the dark,” where the tracking doesn’t follow.)

Ultimately, we are trying to retrain our houses of journalism to reorient themselves to real things, and not to intentional diversions. We all benefit when reporters and editors are in control of their agenda. (If you happen to be a huge fan of Donald Trump and his policies, be aware that there will be a Democrat in office again one day, and you’ll want a strong media to not be swayed by President Winfrey’s Facebook posts.)

Houses of journalism were once built in solid fashion — one might say like brick shithouses. Better than the shitholes they may become, by chasing smoke signals.

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