- by Shea Angus

I am writing this on January 6th, 2021 as the Capitol building has been stormed in Washington, DC.

Many of you are asking “How did they get to this point?” and I am going to do my best to provide you with some answers.

First, I want to state that what I am exploring here will focus more on the failure of important institutions than the choices of bad-faith actors that fueled what we are seeing happen right now. So, to be clear, Trump and his lies about election fraud are directly responsible for what is happening here. To date I have seen no evidence that widespread voter fraud occurred in the United States during the 2020 election. Certainly not at a level that could overturn the election results. Anyone who has spread misinformation and lies about such things should feel responsible for what we are seeing today. However, this is not news to many of you. This particular topic gets plenty of coverage which is why it is taking a back seat in this piece. I just want to be clear that despite it being less of a focus in this op-ed, it is just as, if not more, important.

There have been many things that have been worsening over the years. Most of my criticisms target the media and the role they played in fueling these issues. I also want to be clear that my critiques of the media come from a place of disappointment. I want and value a free media. As a self-described Classical Liberal, I think checks and balances on power are imperative and I think the role of the media and of a free press is one of the most important checks that exist on power. The American Founding Fathers clearly felt the same way as free press protections were guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Constitution. That’s why it pains me to see how they have eroded their own value and lost the public trust.

First, the media has worked at normalizing the idea of political violence & downplaying the significance of it. I first noticed this during the Republican nomination when the popularity of the idea of “punching Nazis” was first gaining steam. It should go without saying, but Nazis are some of the lowest forms of human scum, and anyone that claims the superiority of any race over another should be condemned, confronted, and challenged whenever they spew their evil message. That confrontation though should not include any violent acts. I can remember having conversations about this topic with my friend Leigh on my old podcast. Back then I was warning about the risks of normalizing political violence. You can still find a clip from Real Time with Bill Maher, where a guest says they would 100% support someone punching someone dressed as a Nazi on the bus while the crowd erupts in applause at the concept. The New York Post has a video posted of a man with a swastika armband getting knocked out after likely spewing hateful rhetoric, but not initiating any violence himself. That video has over 10,000 likes and top comments that read “He's lucky he just got punched! Not too long ago, we were shooting at Nazis.” and “I could watch this guy getting floored all day”.

Where has this gone since then though? Well it is perhaps best captured by our friends at CNN who were ridiculed as an image went viral of a CNN reporter standing in front of burning buildings, vehicles, and general destruction while the chyron read “FIERY BUT MOSTLY PEACEFUL PROTESTS AFTER POLICE SHOOTING”. Downplaying the significance of the events taking place at the time, Rolling Stone published an article titled, “9 Historical Triumphs to Make You Rethink Property Destruction.” Further you had people like Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones saying on CBS News that while it was “disturbing” to see property destruction, “destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence.” There are countless other examples of this as well, but clearly there has been a concerted effort to downplay forms of political violence and even normalize it.

The next important factor is how the mainstream media eroded the public trust they had built up over time. I wrote an article prior to the election about how the media and social media companies were damaging their own credibility by pushing false narratives and seemingly trying to protect the Biden campaign from a story that has since proven to be true.

It’s also no secret that trust in the media has continued to fall year over year since basically the 1970s with it dipping regularly below 50% in some polls taken in the last decade. There are a variety of examples on this. Have you wondered why the Russian Collusion narrative was hardly mentioned during the 2020 campaign after being endlessly discussed by cable news for nearly the entirety of President Trump’s first term? Perhaps it was because the Mueller investigation resulted in ZERO charges related to the collusion narrative. To quote the report itself, "the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities".

In my previous article I also mentioned examples like when CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale, following the second Presidential debate, tweeted that Biden was “Imperfect from a fact check perspective.” While in the same tweet admonishing that “Trump was, as usual, a serial liar.” Or when the Washington Post put out an op-ed with the rather stunning proclamation that "We must treat the Hunter Biden leaks as if they were a foreign intelligence operation — even if they probably aren't."

Of course these are only a handful of recent examples and it doesn’t take much to find more examples from outlets across the political spectrum. But that is part of the problem. Long-gone are the days of objective journalism as narratives have become intertwined with “facts”. Part of this is on the general public as well. Condemnation greets any who refuse to be involved or are disinterested in politics as we know them. Silence or indifference are conflated with complicity for the worst acts committed by your political opponents. In many ways, the media is only reacting to what gets them the most attention.

So what, exactly, does this have to do with what is going on today? The consequences of the failures I have outlined are being laid out for all of us to see. This weakened public trust has allowed for bad actors to manipulate people who have nowhere else to turn for truth. Trump and his surrogates have crafted a deep and deceptive narrative that can, in theory, be easy to debunk, but who do we trust to debunk that?

The brilliance, if you can call it that, of the Trump narrative is found in the depth and quantity of these allegations. Maybe someone finds a source they trust to dispute one of the allegations of fraud, but there are still seemingly hundreds more from many different States. The average person doesn’t have the time to make all of these determinations themselves, but there are no more places for us to go to find information we trust.

Lastly, I have to mention one other important factor in this failure: social media companies. Generally speaking when you browsed any social media platform you would be shown content that was either popular, relevant to you, or some combination of the two. The idea, in theory, was that social media outlets were to be content neutral platforms where any legal content could be shared. But this has not been the case in recent years, particularly following the 2016 election. Many calls were made following the 2016 election for social media companies to be more active in policing the content posted on their sites. Eerily enough when researching for this op-ed, I struggled to find right-wing sources that debunked these fraud claims. Not because they weren’t out there, but seemingly because the algorithms deployed by Google, Facebook, and Twitter are suppressing that content. Popular right leaning American figures like Ben Shapiro and Tucker Carlson have expressed doubts and concerns about the voter fraud narrative, but unless I used their own platforms (The Daily Wire or Fox News), I struggled to find their content. Not only does this feed into a sense of mistrust, it could also be preventing people that could be persuaded by these commentators from finding the truth.

Glenn Greenwald had a great example of why this was a mistake when he used the American telecom company AT&T as an example. He said, “Like if somebody calls someone on AT&T telephone lines and plans a neo-Nazi rally or spreads Holocaust denialism, nobody expects AT&T to intervene and terminate that person's service or cut off the call. AT&T is a content neutral platform. They just say we provide the ability for human beings to communicate and we don't control or censor or monitor. And that's better for AT&T. They don't spend the money to monitor, censor… The reason why they [social media platforms] ended up censoring is because mostly liberal activists and journalists demanded that they did so.”

So to further compound the problem with the lack of trust in mainstream media institutions, we’ve also lost the content neutral places for ideas to be shared and discussed. The mere act of censoring content is a political position in and of itself that ruins the trust between users and social media platforms. In combination with the failings of mainstream institutions, this has pushed people further into their own “bubbles” as they seek out less popular platforms that tend to be filled with people that think like them, or look for “news” sites that are more generous to their political tribe - hence the rising acceptance of increasingly ridiculous conspiracy theories.

I understand how reading this op-ed that one could think I am trying to deflect blame away for these horrible acts we are seeing today from President Trump. I want to assure you that is not the case. Many words have already and will continue to be written about the role the President has played in this. My concern is that by focusing on Trump alone, we are missing the forest for the trees. The groundwork for something like this has been laid and built over years and years. Trump is merely the first to really capitalize on this weakness. The void that was created due to the lack of trust in these mainstream institutions has existed for some time now, and these Trump surrogates have simply been the first to fill it.

What we are witnessing is another low-point in American history. However, there are lessons here for Canada as well. Our trust in the media is also trending downwards. Alternative social platforms and media outlets continue to develop and grow. We are vulnerable to the same problems here. We can’t stop this from happening through bans, censorship, or legislation though because those methods will only add to the problem. Our institutions must earn back the trust of the people they serve. There needs to be a fundamental shift away from opinion news. These outlets have to acknowledge and address this openly, but the onus is not just on them. We as a people need to seek out and support outlets that seek to do this. We need to check our own biases, and seek out things that challenge our views. Maybe our minds will be changed. Maybe we will become more sure of the positions we hold.

Ultimately though, we will be more informed and our country and the world will be better for it.




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