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Bull Moose: Talking to the Person Seated Next to You

Alternative Realities…

Among the least discussed, but perhaps most important influence of the Digital Age is our tendency to live in bubbles. We no longer have to be rich to live in the equivalent of gated communities.

TV, radio, and the internet provide echo chambers for our beliefs. Sophisticated algorithms deployed by Facebook and Google generally only exposes us to what we agree with. Friends with different opinions? Don’t worry, Facebook has it figured out. You won’t find them on your feed any longer. An article in Google News about Sudan? Not a chance. Google determined that based on my geography and preference for inane sports news this is unlikely to appeal to me.

This is important, not least because we spend hours each day glued to our smartphones. What we see is curated for us and controlled by a handful of corporations.

I was reminded of this recently on a flight to Atlanta from Chicago, when I struck up a conversation with a man sitting next to me, a doctor, who, despite holding very different world views to my own, made for a great travel companion.

We shared stories, asked questions and even argued about the nature of America’s divided politics. It was entirely refreshing. As we left the plane, he thanked me, noting he hadn’t had such a meaningful chat with a stranger in years, despite being a regular traveller. Why? Because most of us hardly look up from our smartphones, even to say hello.

Politics today is an extension of these echo chambers. We hear what we want to hear. That is nothing new – we have long preferred to block out whatever hurts us, or flies in the face of our world view. What is new is that we no longer need to block out anything ourselves.

Were I to listen to talk show radio, turn my TV to Fox News and read articles on Breitbart, supplemented by Google or Facebook curation, I am likely to agree with Trump’s reality. There, immigrants are invading our Southern border and taking our jobs; liberals are down with killing third trimester babies; global warming is a hoax; the economy has never been better; and we’re making America great again.   Who is to say I am wrong? It is my reality.

If I listen to NPR, switch to CNBC/CNN and read the Washington Post or the New York Times, with a little help from social media, I am likely to see Trump as a mean-spirited bully, who is out of touch with reality, my reality. There immigrant children are needlessly torn from their families; conservative men are taking rights away from women; the environment is being destroyed; the economy is pumped up on steroids by virtue of a tax cut for corporations; and only the next election can save America. Who is to say I am wrong? It is my reality.

These alternative realities are borne out in poll numbers, which have been remarkably consistent over the last few years. Trump’s approval rating hovers around forty-percent, no matter what he does. Why?  Mainly because in this ‘alternative reality’, the truth is hard to distinguish.

Fake news does exist – except its not fake. It is real news written from a point of view that serves the interest of their owners/advertisers, and, yes, the consumers of news. It is only fake because it is not unbiased, objective news. Instead of fake news we ought to call it biased, lazy news.

I include lazy as well as biased, because news such as a natural disaster occurring doesn’t have an agenda, nor is it always mean-spirited. Often what we get is simply lazy journalism, jumping on immediately apparent realities that gets more eyeballs today, even if it will not stand the test of time.

A case in point. For those who read the previous edition of Bull Moose, what about this for an attention-grabbing headline ‘GOP Equates Abortion to Holocaust,’ which, for anyone who took the time to read the Bill, is what they did. Except journalists rarely read a Bill, they merely see its news value, and talk about how restrictive it is.

By being constantly in the news, Trump has attained mastery over media in today’s America. Rather than blame him, however, journalists, and the public, should look themselves in the mirror. Being informed is a choice we make, no matter how difficult it is. This requires us to be citizen journalists, on a continuous quest for truth, and discerning about who and what we believe.

It should also involve talking to our neighbors. Engaging in free and open dialogue is a hard-earned democratic entitlement. Let’s step out of comfort zones and try talking to the person sitting next to us.

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