Robot democracy: how smart media can save America

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…” 

– Allen Ginsberg, 1955

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” 

– Jeffrey Hammerbacher, 2011

“We don’t care if you watch the show, we just want you to watch the commercials.” 

– some VP on the A+E Networks trek, 2017

Nationalism isn’t a new idea. It’s back in vogue these days, but even the laziest of Google searches will tell you its roots stretch back, at the very least, to 19th century Europe. In the early 20th, President Woodrow Wilson became its most prominent American booster, advocating against 19th century imperialism and for the right of self-determination. The nationalist order envisioned in 1918 collapsed rather spectacularly in the 1930s, its final death knell sounding in 1945 as most of the world aligned itself with one of two hemispheric hegemons. For the next half-century, nationalism waxed and waned, mixing stretches of peace with spurts of revolution.

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, one pillar of world order disappeared. The other, no longer facing a perpetual, existential foe, could have shrugged. For better or worse, it didn’t. Until now.

As you probably already know, the President’s nationalist “America First” platitude is another recycled trope, a relic of the late interwar period and aviator/spokesman Charles Lindbergh’s campaign to keep the United States out of the conflagration in Europe. Suffice it to say that America in 1940 was a much different place than America in 2017. The year before we entered the Second World War, Jim Crow was still in full swing, and according to the infallible folks over at Wikipedia, the population was 89 percent white. That being the case, it’s not so far-fetched to say that 77 years ago, the concept of “America” was probably much simpler to define. If you were a member of the majority, you could pretty easily look over at the person next to you and judge by the color of his skin, his mannerisms, and his dress that he belonged—that he was simultaneously a product and reinforcer of distinctly American culture.

Fast forward a bit. The 2010 US Census pegged us as roughly 73 per cent white. I’m no stats whiz, but I emailed Nate Silver, and he confirmed** that 73 per cent is indeed a smaller proportion than 89 per cent.

Why is the dwindling percentage of white Americans such a big deal? Well, for one, the thought experiment above gets a whole lot harder. That is, members of the majority look around and see different types of people—people who appear less in the vein of fondly remembered “American” culture.

Second, if we take a step back, we can consider a more foundational perspective. The United States was fabricated from whole cloth. When it came into being, nothing like it had ever existed before. It was a kind of enlightenment paradise—at least in theory, if not in practice. Gone was the divine right of kings. Utterly smashed were the ancient notions of nobility, landed aristocracy, and historical elitism. Of course, in reality, such relics still existed in the nascent society, though perhaps less so than in most of Europe. Yet our very founding documents codified the idea that America was not meant as a land of myth, but rather as one of reason—a stunning notion that redirected the course of history. Therein, however, lay the rub.

Because we proclaimed ourselves devotees of rationality, we explicitly rejected the concept of an arbitrary national myth. As such, there’s no legend to which we can adhere, no single tribe whose descendants have uniformly flourished, and no inch of soil of which we are fated inheritors.

In short, a society that claims a foundation in rationality instead of myth must live on a knife’s edge. Its continuity is a function of perpetual reaffirmation by its membership. So, by necessity, the strings that hold Americans to traditional notions of “American-ness” are extremely thin. Even so, the United States, currently the world’s oldest democracy, celebrated its 241st birthday this past July.

Given the above, we have to consider that something has held us together. Perhaps, even if it went unspoken, America’s historical whiteness may have been one such thread—and a strong one at that. Assuming the preceding is true, then the last century’s patterns of immigration and birthrates have strained that connection. The President, before he was the President, either sensing an opportunity or simply finding himself saying the right things at the right time, issued a new nationalist clarion call that resonated with voters who felt that strand of Americana being threatened.

Don’t misunderstand, though—there isn’t just one flavor of nationalism. In some ways, Bernie Sanders is as much a nationalist as Donald Trump; however, Senator Sanders’ brand has very little to do with traditional (arbitrary) notions of “American-ness.” Trump’s, on the other hand, is explicitly, though not strictly, traditionalist. Much of his appeal is rooted in the propagation of an indiscriminate American cultural myth that could be swapped for Arthurian legend, the Nibelungenlied, or North Korean Juche. All such myths lean heavily on the irrational—thriving in the amygdala and hippocampus rather than the prefrontal cortex.

In Freudian psychology, sublimation is the transformation of an irrational impulse into a rational action. Donald Trump’s nationalist appeal is effectively its opposite—positing a rationally structured society in irrational terms. It works because it’s easy. It’s a shortcut. It skips all the relevant context. And unfortunately for those on the periphery of the President’s notion of America, liberal republican government—in which certain rights are inalienable and authority issues from the consent of the governed—is very complicated.

Will America return to rationality by itself? Maybe. Knowing what we know now, my guess is that if we got a mulligan on the 2016 election, Hillary would put up Reagan-esque numbers in the electoral college. But that’s wishful thinking. In the real world, the political Left has seen a groundswell of grassroots organization, protest, and legal challenges to the President’s directives. Much of our current political discourse rebuts his very concept of America. Even on the Right, people like Bob Corker, Bill Kristol, David Frum, and Jennifer Rubin have roundly rejected Trumpism.

So, my question, and the actual purpose of this article—almost 1,100 words in—is whether that’s enough. Actors of all varieties—foreign and domestic, state and non-state, centralized and distributed—witnessed the breathtaking success of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign during the 2016 election cycle. But even without Moscow’s help, Steve Bannon, Bob Mercer, and the folks at Cambridge Analytica would have been (or perhaps were) using sophisticated data mining and marketing strategies to exploit swing voter wedge issues more effectively than any campaign in history. This will not stop. Ever.

Their arguments are hotwired to your basal ganglia—meant to distort reality, to eschew context, and to diminish an incredibly complex set of variables to the choice of good or evil (choose good). To be clear, all politicians do this. Campaigning is largely an exercise in rhetorical reductionism. There is, however, a qualitative difference between rationally principled reductionism and irrational, tribal reductionism. The latter remains starkly on display every time the President opens his mouth or gets itchy Twitter fingers. Be that as it may, bank on both of sides of the aisle deploying increasingly sophisticated data operations and strategic communications going forward. As noted above, this is completely inevitable.

To recall a tired simile, we might think of this as a data-driven arms race. The unfortunate thing about arms races is that the “winner” rarely emerges unscathed. Notably excepting the Cold War, most such races—leveraging influence, capital, and technological scale to increase political power—ended badly. The classical “Thucydidean Trap” refers to the historically powerful Athenian city-state waging war on Sparta, which had become a touch too powerful for Athens to stomach. The war lasted nearly thirty years and definitively ended the “Golden Age” of Ancient Greece. In the modern era, we generally think of the Thucydidean Trap in terms of the United States v China/Russia/other. But the concept isn’t limited to state-level conflict. In the case of our political spectrum, the adversaries are domestic; pitted in a violent struggle for our hearts and minds.

Could the polar conflict become so intense that it saps our willingness to work and live together? Maybe so. In that dystopian, McCarthy-esque (Cormac, that is) version of American society shattered beyond repair, we’ll have let the bots play both ends against the middle—replacing rationality with bias-confirming fables. Such an outcome is possible but not inevitable. The way I see it, two institutions are capable of deescalating the tension and cooling popular discontent. The first such body is directly and immediately consequential: news media.

When I say “news media,” I refer only to organizations interested in impartially reporting objective truth. This does not include Breitbart, Gateway Pundit, or other publications of a similar stripe. Even Steve Bannon will tell you that Breitbart is not remotely interested in impartiality. On the other hand, The New York Times and Washington Post, despite reputations as leftist rags (depending who you talk to), are extremely invested in the idea of impartiality. Using the same rubric, Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, and even some Fox News programming qualifies (there are many more that I don’t have space to name here).

So, what can institutional news media do to break the cycle? Well, let’s first consider the fact that the news is a product, but not a commodity. In most cases, news represents a social frame through which current events are deciphered. Depending on your position, the frame is either recognizable and valid or quickly sliding towards propaganda. As such, in our increasingly polar political climate, we seem to have opposing spheres of news. To the Clinton base, CNN and MSNBC represent valid frames while Breitbart and RT are factories of the kind of arbitrary myth that propelled Donald Trump to the Presidency. To the Trump base, the opposite is true. As we’ve seen since January 20th, such a dichotomy poses a massive structural problem. If opposing sides can’t even agree on the terms of debate, compromise becomes an impossibility.

But what if we could broaden an impartial social frame’s appeal—coaxing the ends back towards the middle?

Sure, sounds great, but what the hell does that actually mean? Well, consider rhetoric—the art of discourse—on its own. In the Western tradition, it goes back to the Sophists of Ancient Greece, Plato’s Socratic Dialogues, Aristotle’s Ethics, etc. Even 2,400 years ago, it was roundly recognized that an argument’s packaging is just as important as the argument itself (if not more). Those earliest of rhetoricians tailored their speeches not just to the content, but to the audience. Yet today, we live in an age of mass media. The modern journalist’s task is herculean—appeal to absolutely everyone with a single piece of content. Case in point: there’s only one canonical version of everything that goes up on nytimes.com. That individual piece of journalism—a reporter’s blood, sweat, and tears—should be readable, understandable, digestible, and relatable to everybody who reads the article. That said, the truth is that people are different. Not everything registers with everyone. Still, maybe we can do better.

As I’m writing this, thousands of hyper-local pieces of news content are being algorithmically generated. Millions of advertisements, visuals, and user interfaces are being A/B tested to boost engagement and maximize click-through rate (CTR). These are basically marketing tasks, the point of which is to generate clicks and to get you to open your wallet. Now I know this is business school, not “normative good for the world” school, but what if instead of revenue, the goal was to get you to change your mind? Maybe it doesn’t even need to be that ambitious. Maybe it’s just to get you to consider the possible validity of the frame on which the reporting is based.

You can probably see where I’m going with this… What if impartial, fact-based news organizations harnessed the power of data not just for targeting, but for custom content generation?

To be clear, I’m not suggesting we let robots write everything. I am suggesting that we teach robots to edit everything that qualifies as news. Humans will still decide what to say, but computers will help us determine how to say it.

In practice, I think this can work even if you retain the old-fashioned, single canonical piece of content on your organization’s homepage. The assumption there is that someone who navigates directly to nytimes.com probably already accepts the relevant frame. For those linked in from elsewhere—especially via social media—the data-driven content engine delivers the same fact set, but in a style tailored specifically to the inbound reader. This might mean using different vocabulary, rearranging portions of the article, or occasionally calling out additional background information. In short, the custom content engine is a real-time, digital Frank Luntz—a savvy Republican pollster and communications expert who famously said, “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.”

How might it actually work? Well, take this quote from Ashley Parker & Greg Jaffe’s October 16th piece in the Washington Post: “Several people who have met with Trump in recent weeks said he has a habit of mocking other officials in Washington, especially fellow Republicans.” While this sentence may be factually correct, a partisan reader will undoubtedly sense an implicit criticism of the President’s behavior. My unscientific, undergrad English major explication suggests that the most inflammatory word here is “mocking.” As it’s commonly understood, mocking is something kids do on a playground—not behavior befitting a President. “Aggressively challenging” on the other hand, is what Cato did to Caesar in the Roman Senate. Substituting in favor of the latter, I’d argue the sentence still says basically the same thing, but that its framing is more amenable to a Trump acolyte.

On top of a targeted lexicon, we add a science like heresthetics. If you’re wondering what the hell that is, you’re in good company. In brief, a 20th century political scientist named William Riker (not the guy from “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” I promise) demonstrated that it was possible to change an interviewee’s answers to a series of questions simply by changing the order in which they were asked. That makes some intuitive sense on its own, so I think it merits special consideration here. If the reporter’s task is not only to write the truth, but to make sure it’s understood, then it’s crucial to consider the fact set that preceded the reader’s experience of any given article. Thus, by starting an article with a few short, targeted statements that speak not only to the immediate context, but also to the logical foundation of the reporter’s conclusions, we solicit the reader’s buy-in. We might be providing publicly available statistics, historical trend information, or even embedded tweets in order to lay the foundation. Whatever the content, the relevant context is determined algorithmically and targeted to individual visitors based on their browsing patterns.

In 2017, a program like this one might not be practical. The question of feasibility is better answered by people like Professor Provost than by people like me. But assuming it is possible, guess what? If more readers accept that your news frame is valid, you get more clicks, more eyeballs, and more revenue. Oh, and you might save the Republic from hyper-partisanship while you’re at it.

Now, the obvious drawback is that if we assume creating custom news content is feasible, well-funded partisan organizations will utilize the same strategy, possibly leaving us with the status quo. Ultimately, the shortcomings of such an approach could undermine the benefits, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a shot. Because in the end, it’s incredibly shortsighted to be ambivalent about your content’s ability to reach beyond a specific tribe.

Since we’re pretty much at the conclusion of this unnecessarily long article, I’ll just mention the second institution capable of bridging the partisan divide: public education.

Its effects are indirect and generational. If we fixed public education tomorrow, it might not pay dividends for many years, but we’d have taught our children to reject what’s easy, reductive, and base. For the time being, Secretary DeVos continues to do her best to destroy what equity remains in the system. But my fingers are sore now, so we’ll save that for another day.


**No, he didn’t.

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