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How to build an authoritarian regime — and how to stop one

First, we have to understand the internet. Then we have to understand the audience.

Timothy Snyder: It's normal that when a new medium comes along, a new communications technology comes along, that this is very disorienting to our own hardware. The same thing was true when the book came along. I mean the book, as compared to the manuscript, was a very powerful technology, and one could even say even in our 21st century world, where we claim that everything is so new and everything has transcended everything, where everything transcends everything every 15 minutes, the book is still a pretty powerful technology even when stacked up against all the things that it's stacked up against now.
But think back to say the 16th century when the printing press is beginning to make hay, what happens is that people are overwhelmed by new ideas, specifically religious world views are challenged, and religions fracture, and people fight wars, and a third of the European population is killed. So we think about the book and we think "That's Enlightenment," but Enlightenment happens 150 years after the printing press, and in the meantime an awful lot of Europeans killing off a lot of other Europeans. So I like to take that as the starting point—that new media are going to be destabilizing.
And so the assumption that the Internet was going to come along and just take a basically good world and make it faster and more connected and cleaner and so on—that was something that we should have been skeptical about from the very beginning. And now we're seeing why we should be skeptical about it.
So does the Internet allow new things, or does the Internet create a channel for old things? I would say it's rather the latter. We know, because this is something that people have theorized about since the Enlightenment, that in order for there to be a democracy there has to be something between you and me and our fellow citizens, something between you and me and our leaders, which is: a factual world. We have to have this thing called the public sphere where you and I and our fellow citizens and our leaders agree that there are certain realities out there, and that from those realities we draw our own conclusions, our own evaluative conclusions about what would be better or worse, but we agree that the world is out there. And that it's important for you and I, as citizens, to formulate projects, but it's also important in moments of difficulty for you and I, as citizens, to resist our leaders. Because if we're going to resist our leaders we have to say, "On the basis of this set of facts, this is the state of affairs; it's intolerable; therefore we resist." If there are no facts we can't resist, it becomes impossible.
So there are a couple of centuries of Democratic theory which make that argument in one form or another. That's an old argument. And what follows from that is that if you want to build an authoritarian regime you try to make that factual world less salient, you try to make the world less about the facts that are between you and me and more about the emotions that will either divide us or bring us together, it doesn't really matter which.
Authoritarianism depends upon people getting used to hearing the things that they want to hear, and what it does is it takes that public sphere and dissolves it.
It says, "There aren't really truths out there, there aren't really experts out there who can tell you those truths, it's really all about how you feel about the world." And that's true in old authoritarianism and in new authoritarianism.
So Germans in the 1930s who were no less educated than we are, probably more educated than we are, more literate—they got themselves believing all kinds of things that they wanted to believe, and they believed in, many of them, right down to the bitter end, and they got themselves convinced that truth was not a matter of constant evaluation of evidence, but truth was a matter of some larger truth, something that made them feel like they were together and that others were against them. That's all old.
The technique that the Internet permits is that it allows anonymous distant actors to reach directly through our pupils into the parts of our brains where the action really is. That's new. And then there are other things which might be new, like machine learning. I mean having to deal with quadrillions of gigabytes of computing energy directed against my lonely cerebrum, that's something new, and that's probably only going to get worse. But the pattern is old, because what a social platform does (or what a Google search does) is that it learns what it is that you want to hear, and it gives you more of that thing and thereby slowly changes you. I mean it shifts you away from a person who thinks there are facts out there and more towards a person who just gets used to hearing the things that he or she wants to hear. You shift from being a person who could function in the public sphere—in a democracy—to a person who can't.
So the shift is old, it's familiar, but some of the techniques though are a little bit new, which doesn't mean that they are inevitably bad; it does mean that we have to recognize, as with the book, that you have to get a handle on these things. Tech is neither good or bad on its own, but you have to realize what the potential is and start to get a handle on what the negative possibilities are, because I think we're only beginning to start to see them.
People want there to be an easy answer, and that there ain't.
So until very recently people were still arguing, "Well Silicon Valley is going to somehow automatically solve this, incentive through the nature of technology is somehow automatically going to solve this." That's not true. That's the politics of inevitability. And then there are the doomsayers who say, "Yeah humans are basically irrational; this is how it always ends; there's nothing we can do about it except wait for some calamity." And that's the politics of eternity, and that's also very tempting, but they're both tempting in the same way, which is they say, "It's not our fault, we can't really do anything about it, we don't have responsibility."
And of course we do. So going back to the book, it helped to do things like establish authorship, it helped to do things like have a page of table of contents so it was clear what was being said. This may seem all totally boring now, but it really mattered to get the technology of the book under control.
We can get the technology of the Internet under control too, provided that we decide that that's an issue. Like looking at it from the point of view of the larger economy, why can't we think about the Internet the way that we think about other resources? Or why can't we think about our mind the way we think about other resources? If there's pollution we treat that as an externality and we internalize it. The destruction of factuality we could also treat as an externality; we could tax big companies, and we could use what we get from those big companies to support local news.
Because factuality isn't just a matter of being a crusader for it, it's a matter of producing facts, it's a matter of producing them not in DC or New York or Los Angeles or Beijing or Moscow, it's a matter of producing them where people actually live. And that has to be done, that has to be done by people, it has to be done by local reporters.
The trick is not to just say, "social platform bad! Internet bad," the trick is to say "how do you produce factuality in people's lives?" Because the way the destructive process goes is that first the local news goes away, and this was true in Russia a little before it was true in America, but in both cases you see basically the same pattern.
First the local news goes and then people start talking about "The Media". Instead of talking about reporters who they know, they're neighbors, they start talking about the media as something distant. And once that step is made, once people distrust they start looking for other things to trust, which are big conspiracy stories. Because if the media is far away from you anyway, why not believe something which makes the world makes sense?
So part of the answer has to be: how do we recycle some of these enormous profits back from these huge companies into the production of local news? Or to take a slightly different analogy, it's a little bit like reforestation: if you're going to make huge profits from clearing timber, okay; but after a while you realize you have to reforest. If you're going to make huge profits from driving people towards an us/them version of politics, maybe at a certain point you have to reforest, you have to replenish, you have to take some of those huge profits and actually educate people again by, for example, supporting local news.
So I think it's not technically that difficult to do things like this, and there are other ways to think about it economically, like for example, that fake news has an unfair competitive advantage over real news because, for example, you don't have to employ reporters—and you can try to correct for that.
So there are lots of things that one could do. I mean you could reclassify—which I think we should do, really—you can reclassify investigative journalism as a public good, which deserves positive public support from the state. I think that would be an excellent thing to do.
So these things can be rejigged, there are technical means, but I think the fundamental answer is we can't say "it's going to sort itself out" or that "it's not going to sort itself out," we have to think "Yeah, if we like democracy and freedom and the rule of law, those things depend on factuality. If we want factuality we actually have to go out there and find ways to recreate it in the 21st-century."

That's what I mean by history, is that history can define the problem for you, and then you have to say, "Am I going to take responsibility for it or not?"

  • People are overwhelmed by new ideas brought upon by new technologies.
  • Could new media—like the internet—ruin the world before rebuilding it?
  • Get ready for a rocky century: there was 150 years after the book was invented before the Great Enlightenment.


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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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//This will actually fire event. Should be called after consent was verifed