It’s gotten quieter since the election. Why aren’t people talking?
Over the past month in the delirium that is post-election, the MIT Confessions page on Facebook has brought into light unpopular political opinions and viewpoints from anonymous members of campus. Rather than view these unpopular perspectives as an opportunity for conversation, many MIT students have instead attempted to close discussions with supporters of President-elect Donald Trump with Facebook comments such as, “I’m sorry buddy but your support for Trump is indefensible. Nice try tho.” Social media is but one of many battlegrounds of political debate, or lack thereof. MIT students have admitted that some of their professors have publicly mocked the President-elect and his followers in their classrooms, and that others in the class do not speak up to challenge the remarks. In a survey of the MIT College Republican Club conducted by The Tech, one member wrote:
Once, in a focus meeting with select graduate student leaders, a liberal student proposed to create a “safe space” to discuss politics and frankly express one’s opinions about certain politicians and their proposed reforms. I immediately said that all my Republican friends would love and welcome such a space, that they are afraid to come out, and afraid to be persecuted for their ideas. Immediately a female graduate student stood up and said “That’s because there is no space for such people and such ideas on campus. They are right to be afraid, and they are afraid of people like me and my friends. I will do everything to expose them and remove them from our campus, because MIT has no tolerance for people like them.” Several people at the meeting echoed those comments.
Indeed, this brings into question to what extent shunning unpopular opinions makes them inaudible. Apparently, some MIT students and faculty live within their own parallel universes. The parallel universes are “safe space” echo chambers, whispering back self-gratifying beliefs. No one group is to blame; nearly all of us are guilty of being reluctant to open our echo chambers’ doors. It just so happens that on the MIT campus, the left-aligned universes tend to be larger than the right-aligned ones. However, we share the same MIT. Our universes cannot be parallel.
Media outlets are the facile scapegoats for our deep divisions of thought. A pre-election survey by Rasmussen Reports shows that almost 90 percent “of voters who support Trump in the presidential race believe news organizations skew the facts.” Indeed, in the golden age of mobile news where 62 percent of Americans receive news from social media, only truncated, secondhand, and easily inaccurate news can both placate Americans’ fleeting attention spans and fit into their personal schedules. NowThis, a left-leaning online news source, has been scoffed at for taking many newsworthy stories out of context. To this end, The Daily Caller, the self-proclaimed “alternative to the liberal The Huffington Post,” pointed out that NowThis supposedly spliced President-elect Trump’s speeches to defame the candidate during his campaign. “Real” news exists on the other political end, though: Breitbart News, in chairman Stephen Bannon’s own words, serves as “the platform of the alt-right.”
How does “syndicated” Breitbart News keep everything “real” in the minds of so many voters? It turns out that Breitbart News has a reputation for recycling its own articles in its newer ones. (If their article recycling were a reflection of how environmentally friendly they were, then perhaps Breitbart News would not inexorably decry climate change as a “conspiracy” against the taxpayer.) Digressions aside, in a Breitbart News article published around the beginning of November regarding German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Obama’s post-election meeting, Breitbart News’s Liam Deacon manages to, in less than 250 words, regurgitate five articles from the very same news site. Disseminating information thus becomes a giant game of telephone—the “facts” become more and more phony.
It feels good to live in our own narratives and to be validated for our beliefs, so we do just that: follow news sources that allow us to live in our own narratives and validate our own beliefs. Does media drive this? Not quite.
Sure, the “filter bubbles” on Facebook and Twitter compound the problem, but we are at the burden of proof for placing blame on news outlets and their algorithms. In fact, we should be the ones standing trial for our selective news collection. A study published on May 2015 in Science concludes, “On average in the context of Facebook, individual choices more than algorithms limit exposure to attitude-challenging content.” We are too quick to reject narratives that don’t align with ours. When news comes from another perspective, we swipe and swipe and swipe until, aha, an article from XYZ News dawns on us. We can seek out primary sources of information, but instead, we loop through the same and same and same news articles that cite the same and same and same newspapers and websites. Media is not to blame. In fact, media is responding to our own choices and preferences.
This is the cost of technology. We witness people unable to simply turn off their phones while at the bathroom, while at the dining hall, while at the lecture, while at the party. We see ourselves doing the same – Our reflections on our cellphone screens stare back at us, maliciously whispering, “You have a bit of time. Go through Facebook—now, while you can.” We resort to secondhand and self-gratifying news because we have no patience for objectivity. At the end of the day, we must ask ourselves, “Which is better: a lot of downright fake news or some deeper, fairer news?” The choice is ours, but the old adage offers helpful guidance: “Quality over quantity.”
Steven Truong is a member of MIT's Class of 2020.