If each half of a society refuses to consume the news sources championed by the other half, the nation enters a death spiral.
What is a nation? We could, in the vein of some American white nationalists, ascribe people based on their religion. But what good is religious affiliation when they don’t see their race or religion as their primary allegiance?
Benedict Anderson sought to tackle this question by postulating the nation as a collectively imagined construct. People are members of a nation because they collectively imagine themselves as part of a larger community much larger than the people they meet day-to-day. This “imagined community”, Anderson postulates, is only made possible by the spread of news media and print culture allowing people to, for the first time in human history, receive the same news reports and engage in the same discourse as the rest of society. We are part of a nation only because we share the same media sources with the rest of the nation.
In the week or so since Donald Trump’s stunning electoral victory, the first rough draft of history has centred around the notion of ethnic nationalism. American Whites, particularly in the swing states of the rust belt, voted as a majoritarian bloc to undermine Hillary Clinton’s electoral college “firewall”. That argument, however, hides a more uncomfortable truth. Yes, it is true that one of the key threads which binds the Axis Powers of World War Two together is their articulation of chauvinistic ethnic nationalism. But simply ascribing the American White working class to a monolithic and bigoted cultural identity is about as useful as using a pen to divide the world into six or seven civilizational groups.
Ethnic nationalism is on the rise, yes. But it manifests itself not by the ideological allegiance instituted by Fascist states, but as a bifurcated media. At its core, a nation derives its cultural identity and political consensus from print culture and discourse, not the other way round.
The quintessential example of ethnic nationalism
Pakistan came into being because the Muslim elites in British India spoke the same language and articulated in the discourses championed by the Muslim League. Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, used the Urdu press to rile up sectarian sentiments throughout the Indian subcontinent, culminating in the “Direct Action Day” during which 4,000 people were murdered. He argued that Muslims were a different nation than Hindu Indians, and successfully negotiated from the British an Indian Muslim homeland in the form of Pakistan.
After independence, the Urdu speaking refugees found themselves alienated from the native Sindhi speakers of Karachi. This lack of a common language led to a bifurcated press; the ethnic nationalism derived from a common religion was insufficient to accommodate Urdu and the five other provincial tongues. The founder of the nation may have decreed “Urdu, and only Urdu” to be the common tongue of Pakistan, but even Jinnah can’t overcome the barrier of a bifurcated press. The easiest road to political power was the articulation of regionalist platforms – Zulfikar Ali Bhutto made his early career with his “Sind for Sindhis” campaign while Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s call for the recognition of Bengali cumulated in the bloodshed of the Bengali war of liberation where 300,000 Bengali civilians were massacred by the predominantly Urdu-speaking Pakistani military.
We must be extremely careful when attributing the label of ethnic nationalism to any political movement. Do White Americans who voted for Trump really see themselves bound more by race than by the democratic ethos behind the founding of the United States? I doubt so – economic frustrations of the de-industrialised rust belt does not automatically translate into a willingness purge the country of non-Caucasian peoples.
We should not be looking at race. Instead, we should look where Anderson points us at – the press. The cost of publishing used to be astronomical – a major city could only support one, if not two, broadsheets. And what these broadsheets would report upon would almost always become lodged in the collective imagination of the nation.
In the first two months of 1953, for example, the two major Chinese Broadsheets of Singapore – the Nanyang Siang Pau and Sin Chew Jit Poh – dedicated more than half of its editorials to the idea of an indigenous Chinese university. This common imagination would capture the minds of the Chinese community in Singapore, right in the midst of the Malayan Emergency. Even during a period when people were being killed for political expediency, this was what stood out in the collective imagination of the Singaporean Chinese. Rickshaw drivers would collectively decide to forgo one day’s earning just to contribute to that collectively imagined university. The University, in the end, was built entirely due to the collective willpower of the Malayan Chinese community winning against the political power of the colonial government. Although the government has never given the green light to the project, Nanyang University – Nantah – broke ground and accepted students.
This type of collective imagination can only occur when people read the same things and engage in the same debates. This type of imagination could not be called nationalism, but it shares all the characteristics of a nation as postulated by Benedict Anderson. The only difference is that people just don’t see that particular identity (“Chinese Singaporean”) as mutually exclusive, or even primary, to the larger national identification of being Malayan or Singaporean. Let’s call this construct the “sub-nation” for simplicity’s sake.
The bifurcation of the sub-nation
What are we to make of the bifurcation of the news media in the internet-centred society? Out of the many confusing threads leading to the results of the 2016 US Presidential elections, one thing is pretty clear: the Americans have a broken news infrastructure.
The two camps now read and watch and listen to news sources only their camp listen to; establishments traditionally recognised as papers of record are seen by the right as just an extension of the liberal mainstream media. CNN gained particular flak and discredited itself in the eyes of the right for using it’s on-screen ticker to fact check Donald Trump. The New York Times, owned by a Mexican businessman, is alleged by Trump himself to be a tool for pro-Mexico propaganda.
The Wall Street Journal has an extremely sobering real-time webapp which shows how differently someone who subscribes to left-leaning Facebook groups and personalities sees news of the same topic differently from those subscribed to right-leaning news sources. It’s a surreal experience – both sides are not addressing each other even in the slightest. Both sides are simply drumming up anger against the other.
There’s a name for that phenomena: co-evolution. As articulated in this academic paper and made bearable by YouTuber CGPGrey here, ideas compete evolutionarily for your head space, and angry ideas are better able to bypass your mental immunity. Some part of their mutation and evolution is due to the idea fighting desperately to overcome your brain normalising the anger-inducing idea (thus providing immunity). But most of it is the meme (memory gene) cooperating with its diametrically opposed cousin to ensure people continue to get angry and keep the meme in their head.
In short, the more people in the conservative sub-nation support the meme of the building of the wall, the more the liberal sub-nation doubles down on the meme that President-elect Donald Trump is a racist. In turn, the conservative sub-nation develops even more anger-inducing memes (both the dank and the idea type) which trigger even more “libtards” to fight back.
The two diametrically opposed ideas are not enemies; they mutually benefit from each other evolving into something even more anger-inducing. They are not the zebra and the lion; they are the clownfish and the sea anemone. Both evolve traits conducive to the other so the other can thrive and support the other.
Through this lens, the perceived partisanship of paper-of-records in the form of the New York Times and CNN must be biased against conservatives because the collection of ideas which make up the conservative movement has moved so far to the right that they don’t see the centre, or truth, as unbiased.
When the media bifurcates, the discourse bifurcates, and thus the nation bifurcates. There is no longer a collective print culture from which a nation can engage in discourse; everything is about brinksmanship and “winning”. The political culture which allows a country to overcome the prisoner’s dilemma by getting everyone to compromise on political issues breaks apart. Both sides are left playing not to be the sucker.
Singapore’s media bifurcation
For all of their flaws, Singapore is lucky to have a cadre of veteran journalists capable of articulating, with credibility from both sides of the political discourse, objective arguments on what is happening, why it is important, and what people should do about it.
We are tremendously lucky, for this cadre of professional journalists to stand up after their failings in the 2011 General Election to establish themselves in the online sphere and set up credible “middle ground” news sources in the form of Yahoo news, Mothership, The Middle Ground, and others. Whatever your opinion of them is, these sites have been perfectly willing to criticise the government line when they believe it is worth criticising.
But openly partisan sites, enabled by the dominance of Facebook in Singapore’s social media landscape, have taken root and continue to grow. Partisan, in this case, is defined very simply as a group whose sole intention is to engage in politicking and not informing; to win the fight but not understand the fight. Fabrications Against the PAP is the largest pro-PAP Facebook group. On the other side are The Online Citizen and All Singaporean Stuff whose claims of being an “alternative news source” is not too different from the justifications behind the “alt-right” – because the mainstream media will always be biased we will make our own press which support our stances.
The rise of the personal pages of politicians have exacerbated the problem. Partisans can now get their news right from the mouth of their favourite horse; no need to read opinion pieces mediated by a third party. Although we like to mock the press for being PR firms for ministers, they fulfil an important role as independent mediators who have the power to fact check or even publish counterpoints together with the minister’s message. As you imagine, it would be schizophrenic for a politician to rebut his own points… on his own Facebook page.
We need a solution.
The fracturing of our nation is worrying. We need to find a way to reach out and engage people from across the aisle – in engineering terms, we need negative feedback mechanisms keeping brinksmanship and partisanship in check.
The simplest answer would be for us to try to read what other people are reading, even if we find the information it contains repulsive. At the very least, our society can start our discourse from a common set of facts. But like the environmental movement, the collective action dilemma reigns. Although it would be in all our best interest to cooperate and understand the viewpoints we disagree with, each of us would prefer to take the low-cost option and stick with what is comfortable. Why would we do something if no one else is doing it? A structural solution may be needed.
What about Facebook? They are, however you put it, enablers of this democracy destroying pattern of behaviour. For all their faults, Buzzfeed News published a powerful expose arguing that blatantly “fake news” meant entirely to get clicks and revenue outperformed real news on Facebook in the final months of the US election.
Facebook and Google have started to take steps against “fake news”, but what does that mean for satire and The Onion-esque “Fake News” which provides the satire which greases the wheels of a democracy?
Despite Facebook being over a decade old, due to the lag time implicit within all sociological changes, Facebook’s impact on society may not have fully crystallised yet – much less studied academically. There are a million moving parts, but one thing is clear: social media is tearing apart societies built on open discourse – democracies.
The only thing we could do as citizens is to start reading the news sites we find biased or even bigoted. Not necessarily to agree with them, but to understand the issues other people have with our own political stances. It’s little, but that’s all we can do as citizens of a democracy. One more person reaching across the aisle is one less person needed to overcome the little problem of our nation being destroyed.
About the Author
While not buried under books, you will find Reuben digging the depths of Wikipedia and Reddit for the most obscure of trivia facts. He is majoring in Geography, and has previously written for The Middle Ground.