The new United States president, Donald Trump, used his inauguration day speech to repeat a large number of the divisive themes of his election campaign. Authenticity was one of Mr Trump’s strengths during the campaign so it makes some sense that he has continued on this path. The less charitable would argue that his thin-skinned personality and prejudiced worldview does not allow him to communicate any other way. More so than most global leaders, Trump says what is on his mind and is largely unconcerned about the consequences.
No surprise then that Trump has begun his presidency with a bizarre battle with the US media over the size of his inaugural crowd and a promise to fight them “tooth and nail”. Given that the president has struggled to bury the hatchet with another perceived enemy, the Central Intelligence Agency, the US media should not feel singled out.
While part of this is the nature of Mr Trump and his inner circle, most of them who come from outside mainstream politics, it also reflects a broader dilution of the media’s perceived role. The days of large media organisations acting as filters and interpreters of government policy for the wider public are coming to a close, thanks to the impact of social media and other communication technologies.
Trump represents the most extreme example of this development with the deliberate use of “fake news” to mobilise support during his campaign and brazen hostility to mainstream media once in office. However, the Barack Obama administration was hardly the epitome of transparency. It implemented an “Insider Threat Program” within every government department to track down sources of journalistic sources and secretly subpoenaed and seized the telephone and switchboard records of over 100 Associated Press journalists. What the two presidents have in common is a sense that information power is today tilted in favour of officialdom, that social media gives the executive a means to go around and even confront newspapers and televisions with impunity.
The real threat is less a President Trump’s rants than the willingness of a wider public to believe whatever comes their way on instant messaging apps or obscure websites. In the US this partly reflects the deep-set class polarisation that afflicts that country and the belief that mainstream media reflects only the views of a metropolitan elite.
But there is a broader issue of public gullibility. A Stanford University study of senior school and college students found over 80% were unable to tell the difference between sponsored content and real news and measured credibility by parameters other than sources. This indicates that a fundamental reorientation of education, both at home and in the classroom, towards the differentiating between fact and fiction is needed. Something, it can be argued, education used to be all about in the first place.