Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Corporate Masters?

‘Skynet Is A Private Company, They Can Do What They Want,’ Says Man Getting Curb-Stomped By Terminator
 —Headline on the satirical newspaper web site The Babylon Bee, January 18
So which is it? Does democracy work because society has some kind of collective wisdom that leads it, over time, to elect good leaders who mostly rise to meet the challenges of the time? Or are citizens basically sheep who are led by slick charismatic politicians and campaigns with manipulative marketing techniques?

This question has been turning over in my mind since viewing the fascinating 2012 Chilean film No by Pablo Larraín. (That movie has already been fodder for my other two blogs, so why not a third go?) A fictionalized account of the 1988 referendum campaign that ultimately turned Augusto Pinochet out of power, the film tells its story from the point of view of a mostly apolitical advertising executive. It caused some controversy in Chile because it implied that the No side won mainly because of its slick campaign messaging, that a sober and serious debate of the issues was not sufficient to sway sufficient voters. Critics pointed out that the movie downplayed—if not outright ignored—the major voter registration drive organized by the political opposition.

Usually, it is the losing side in an election making the argument that voters are easily led and manipulated by campaigns with big budgets. When Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, many of his opponents sought to explain the inexplicable by blaming his victory on disinformation disseminated on social media, mainly Facebook. Internet bots and strategic Russian advertising buys had swayed politically unsophisticated voters, they suggested. As a result of reporting on Russian election meddling, a lot of Americans were actually under the impression that the voting was or may have been tampered with and that the results were not completely legitimate.

With Joe Biden’s victory in November, the tables were turned. Trump insisted stubbornly—without producing any actual proof—that he was the victim of some kind of massive fraud and that he had actually won. The more rational among his supporters made a more cogent argument. They insisted that the election was essentially unfair because of media suppression of negative stories about Biden and social media companies’ newly aggressive approach to “fake news.” Exhibit A in their argument was suspension of the New York Post’s Twitter account just as it published a front-page article about information found on Hunter Biden’s laptop. The rationale was that the story was unverified and possibly Russian disinformation. Only after the election did the FBI validate the Post’s reporting. (That was in accordance with longstanding FBI policy, something it had disregarded four years earlier in James Comey’s pre-election discussion of Hillary Clinton’s email server.)

Did bias in the establishment media and among social media companies sway the election for Biden? While I think those players did show amazingly extreme bias, I doubt their favoritism tipped the balance. After all, details about Hunter Biden’s dealings with Ukraine and China were well known to anyone who was interested. They were a key revelation out of last year’s impeachment trial. I think voters just didn’t care about the younger Biden’s corrupt but apparently legal dealings—just as they didn’t care about all the salacious revelations about Trump’s dealings in business and with women four years earlier. Still, it was kind of jaw-dropping when a post-election survey showed that significant numbers of voters claimed to be ignorant of the Hunter Biden story and said it might have made a difference in their electoral decision-making.

If the people who believe that citizens are easily manipulated by the media are correct, that presents a huge problem for democracy—especially in a country as large and diverse as the United States. It would give a huge advantage to the side with the most money. In the 2020 election, Democrats (who once campaigned on election finance reform but never talk about it anymore) outspent Republicans by $6.9 billion to $3.8 billion. And those numbers do not include what many Republicans consider a virtual “in kind” donation—biased coverage by all the major corporate-owned media outlets (with the obvious exception of Fox News).

Is the lopsided coverage of the 2020 election an anomaly caused by the unprecedented nature of the Trump presidency? Maybe, but Republicans have been complaining of biased coverage for many, many election cycles. If you are a Democrat, of course, you do not see it as bias. It’s just that reality has a liberal bias, as some people like to say. Still, if big corporations have definitely picked a side and that side has a permanent significant funding advantage, what does that portend for democracy?

It means that we better hope that money and the power of corporate media are not completely determinative in election outcomes. Yes, you may have been quite happy with the outcome of the most recent election, but what about future elections when corporate interests and deep pockets go against what you think is right? Let’s hope that well-reasoned arguments and grassroots organizing still work. Let’s hope that corporate whims cannot silence your voice summarily.

After all, if the president of the United States can be banned from Twitter for all time, what does mean for you when your beliefs are not consistent with the agenda of major corporations?

No comments:

Post a Comment