Early in the morning on January 6, 2018, the president took to the new era bully pulpit, Twitter, to defend his mental stability. In an infamous tweetstorm, one which coined a future book title, he proudly labeled himself, among other things, “a very stable genius.” Like many of his tweets it was met with wide-ranging responses; critics cited its absurdity, supporters defended his overconfidence, but most able-minded people agreed on one thing: this statement was not true. But what if it was?
I’m going to ask you to entertain a thought experiment. It will not be enjoyable or hopeful or comical, nor will it use scientific methods or concrete data. It will be based on perspective and examples with which we’re familiar. As I seek to legitimize a claim many find irrational, I wonder if this framing can help us understand, genius or not, how to counteract easy-to-consume bias and sensationalism.
Recently, the news cycle broke two significant stories amidst coronavirus updates and celebrity scandals. In one, The Atlantic released a damning, if not fully corroborated, report in which unnamed sources describe the president’s disdain and mockery for slain war veterans. It even suggests he skipped a trip to a cemetery in France to avoid getting his hair wet, all while calling dead American soldiers “losers.” Because of the source anonymity, and the fact that top officials are joining the president in discrediting the story, it’s impossible to say whether, or how much of it, is true.
The second story is demonstrably true because we watched it play out in real time. Amidst America’s reckoning with race, the administration ordered the Office of Management and Budget to eliminate spending in government racial bias and anti-racism training. This train wreck required no anonymous sources because, in addition to this remarkably tone-deaf action, POTUS doubled down on Twitter, calling the training “a sickness.” If there was any remaining gray area in this administration’s backwards racial policies, they put it to rest with this one.
Why does this matter? In one sense, it doesn’t; most readers’ initial shock at these atrocities will likely give way higher-voltage horror tomorrow. On the other hand, maybe that’s the entire point.
We humans are bad at processing information, and especially bad at processing a lot of overlapping information at once. Media and technology regularly exploit our attention deficit by rapidly feeding us small doses of bad intel. Through misleading headlines, internet memes, and 280-character messages, we succumb to brief, episodic reactions and then move along. New technologies in the past fifty years have abetted our carelessness to nuance and depth, replacing substance with shock.
So how would one exploit our flawed consumption of information? I’m not saying it requires genius, but I do believe the president has provided a blueprint. Ensure your every word and every action turn heads, disregarding morality or decency. Be the news. If a news cycle lasts an hour, do something significant each hour. If a Twitter trend averages a half day, assure your callous behaviour and shameless insults become instant hashtag material.
I’ve heard plenty of reasoned counterarguments, ranging from narcissism to mental instability. But we must acknowledge that these attention-seeking tactics work. When he talks, people listen. Some listen in suspense, others in indignation. The mavens pounce on the headlines and the rest of the world follows their lead. One could of course argue that these are just asinine presidential whims, but for experiment’s sake, I’m branding it as something not often affiliated with this administration – strategy.
The terrifying manifestation of this strategy is its ability to drown landmark legislation, issues and movements with an inflammatory yet hollow distraction. This might not qualify as “genius,” but there is an undeniable propensity to congest the information market. With so many Tweets to analyze, with so many press conferences to dissect, there’s little room left to publish meaningful stories about mental health, income inequality, climate change, sex trafficking, or racial justice. If your mission is to suffocate these from the airways of the national narrative, here’s the strategy. This is why I think the two examples presented earlier – the salacious article about the military overlapped with the removal of anti-racism training – lend some credence to the thesis. We can focus our energy on one of these issues or even both, but a day after publication there will be new national headlines that leave our heads spinning. Reflecting and revising this a week after the initial onslaught reminds me how angry I was but also how quickly my attention was diverted.
Outrage subsides over time. How outraged are you today about America’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, the June 2018 upholding of the revised Muslim ban, the Transgender military benefit elimination and children locked in cages at the border? Yes, they are callous and yes, they are unthinkable, but on a given day they’re so far down the list of hot news topics. When these stories originally broke, like the initial travel ban or immigration crackdown, my reaction was visceral anguish. But that anguish had a shelf life. With unfettered Twitter access and off-the-rails press conferences, the president severely clogs the media pipeline, and these issues lose their power over time. “Modern presidential” tweets highlight our leader’s brazenness and repugnant character, but they draw disproportionately strong reactions to unimportant messages. We miss the powerful, systemic forest for the shiny, distracting trees. Maybe it’s dumb luck. Maybe it’s strategy. Maybe it’s genius.
So, what can we do about it? We cannot change the president’s personality or insensitivity, we cannot change the news media’s inability to pinpoint good information, and we alone cannot change trends on Twitter. Right now, especially, information, messaging, and policies are extremely important – and opponents should not run of the platform of disdain for the most recent tweet. I have a couple of thoughts on how we can better react – or not react – based on the situation.
- Prioritize the issues critical to you. Doing so will help weed out distractions and aid you in messaging your stance more concisely. If climate change is your top priority, arm yourself with information on climate justice and specific policies, like the Paris Climate Accord, which will strengthen your focus and message. If it’s income inequality, read about historical inequity and how the Republican tax bill, as well as disasters like COVID-19, have exposed America’s wealth gap. I think when we apply careful thought to any issue, whether the climate, racial justice, income inequality, or anything else, we can avert constant despair perpetuated by ever-changing news by sticking to a thorough and concise message.
- Be mindful of what you share. On social media, there is a tendency to overshare recycled memes and video clips which, even if met with agreement, erode their significance over time. Memes are often generated in tandem with news cycles, so you’ll likely subconsciously share content that is reflective of the most recent tweet or statement but fail to construct a strong case for any real issue. Additionally, avoid sharing content that is either doctored or bereft of meaning. Sharing a caricature of the president as a crying baby not only proliferates the political divide, but the knee-jerk incendiary posts actually advance the craft of exploiting meaningless media and evading critical issues.
- Question and challenge media. Understand that headlines are crafted specifically to drive intrigue and outrage – it’s the most lucrative approach for these outlets. Vet articles and ask whether the story is worth its attention or holds extreme importance and needs to be shared. Scholarly articles, nonfiction works, and journal publications should always surpass news and social media for the lion’s share of our consumption. Although this is rarely the case, proper vetting can help fight the onslaught of irrelevance.
- Don’t fall victim to angry impulses. No one exploits the disastrous 24-hour news cycle than the president. When we label a tweet “breaking news,” real breaking news loses its power. I’m not saying that we cannot be outraged by outlandish, offensive, and provocative language from the Oval Office. But if you are focused on the issues most important to you, you might better filter these distractions out and, by sticking to message, refuse to let every minor outburst detract from the bigger picture.
- Join in the change efforts. The absolute best way to combat manipulative and exploitative media strategies is to ditch your phone and get out in your community. Go advocate for local causes, invest time and money into organizations that promote equity, justice, political mobilization, poverty alleviation, whatever your preferred cause. I truly believe that if most people shift their primary focus from media to movement, we can see drastic societal change.
As much as it made for an intriguing title, it’s very unlikely the president is a sta. But whether the patterns of distraction and exploitation are intentional or not, what matters most is that we’re aware of our vulnerability to these impulses. If we can take anything from this thought experiment, my hope is that it would be a message of a better future, one in which we don’t normalize outlandish and condescending remarks, but also do not let these gross tweetstorms dominate a much more important narrative. Stick to key issues, turn off the news, and live out the values and principles you expect of yourself and others around you. The movement towards progress doesn’t start in Washington, on CNN, or on Twitter but rather with your efforts and your communities’ drive towards change. With the right focus and commitment, it won’t matter whether the president is trying to garner attention with unpredictable gripes and insults; that should always play a minor role if your energy is devoted to the right, honorable, and just causes.