Approximately thirty-six newspapers were in circulation during the American Revolution; the Gutenberg press was 300 years old. Using the established technology of the era, the Founding Fathers rhetorically expounded the virtues of their thinking in The Federalist Papers via numerous pamphlets and newspaper articles. They rhetorically engaged the American colonists in intelligent discourse; first, towards revolution, and, second, towards a federated republic.
By the early 1900s, radio, movie theaters, and color magazines began to appear. In 1926, the Radio Corporation of America, NBCs forefather, was born. Between the 1920s and 1950s, the predominant disruptive communication technology was the radio. With radio and movie theaters, a relatively few people were empowered to disseminate a single message to the masses, resulting in a homogenization of American culture and news. During the World Wars, all belligerents engaged in the dissemination of propaganda using these new technologies of radio and propaganda reels. In this article, we label the rise of radio, color magazines, and moving picture movie theaters as the First Disruption to the established order of newspapers and pamphlets.
The Second Disruption occurred when television became mainstream in America, sometime in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1955, half of American households had a television and by 1962, over 90% of households had a television. By this time, ABC, CBS, and NBC dominated both the radio and television airwaves. This domination represented a mass consolidation of propaganda power. If the United States government needed to get “news” to the people, all they had to do was release the information to one of the major networks. The network that most faithfully presented the government’s view would get the “scoop” on the story.
By 1965 the American people trusted what Walter Cronkite said with absolute certainty. There weren’t any competing voices. In the decades that ensued an order arose in Washington where the government carefully managed access and gave scoop stories to a very select few journalists. Information was power and access to information was money. For those journalists who held good relations with government officials, access coupled with a scarce technology of radio and television broadcasting made them very wealthy from corporate advertising revenue. For government, it gave officials a powerful propaganda tool to shape American opinion. These media entities began to arrogantly refer to themselves as the Fourth Estate, a reference to a caste system from Medieval Europe where people were broken into three social castes: nobility, clergy, and peasantry.
News networks were dependent on advertising revenues from major corporations. Advertising revenue was driven by ratings. Ratings were driven by whether a news channel had the right news at the right time, whether they “scooped” the story. Government elected officials relied on campaign donations from major lobbying groups, which were also funded by large corporations. A convenient mechanism to shape American opinion was in full force. Government officials managed access to information by speaking to only a few media entities, nobody else had “the story.”
In his farewell address, President Eisenhower warned the American people of the Military Industrial Complex. Nobody warned the American people of the Media-Government-Business Establishment. After all, who would dare tell the American people of such a ghastly creation? Certainly, the media would never utter such an incriminating phrase.
In the decades that followed, America saw an obliteration of small newspapers such that even some of the largest media newspapers weren’t profitable. As local newspapers failed, power concentrated even further to the major broadcasting networks. Nobody questioned what Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw uttered in the evening news. Their reporting was considered sterling, but was their reporting objective and unbiased?
The rise of cable television saw a loosening of the power that ABC, CBS, and NBC wielded. Fox was founded in 1985, and, later, America saw the broad entry of foreign news services like BBC, Russia Today, Al Jazeera, Reuters, and others. Even the most reputable news organisation had to make decisions about what story to emphasise or in how to cast a controversial story. The internet brought blogs and other foreign websites like the Guardian, Telegraph, Le Monde, etc. The result of so many entrants with slightly different presentations of the news led a significant subset of the American people to wonder about the degree of bias present in news coverage. The entry of cable news and the early internet heralded the beginnings of the Third Disruption. When the Internet came of age and blogging became popular, established news commentators mused about the chaos and disorder that the internet could bring to the established order, but nothing would prepare the world for the social media fueled 2016 election of Donald Trump.
The biggest election stories from the 2016 American election went largely under analyzed. The first story was when Megyn Kelly, a Fox News commentator, aggressively challenged Mr. Trump during the first GOP debate. Her actions exposed Fox’s loyalty to a group of Establishment Republicans that did not include either Mr. Trump, nor Mr. Rand Paul. If Fox had never attacked Mr. Trump, Mr. Trump might not have become President. Mr. Trump was attacked because he represented an outside entity who was not a real part of the governing Media-Government-Business Establishment.
The second major story that was under analyzed was the collusion between CNN and the DNC to suppress Mr. Sander’s candidacy. CNN went so far as to give Mrs. Clinton’s campaign the debate questions ahead of a prominent democratic debate. The actions of CNN and the DNC represented a clear agenda to destroy Mr. Sanders’s candidacy. Mr. Sanders, like Mr. Trump, and Mr. Rand Paul, were not an accepted part of the Media-Government-Business Establishment.
The Media-Government-Business Establishment wanted to shape an orderly campaign where the American people were given a choice between two very carefully groomed candidates who understood the rules of the governing establishment, two candidates who would adhere to the establishment rules: Mrs. Hillary Clinton and Mr. Jeb Bush. Meanwhile, the true populist groundswell for the election lay with Trump and Sanders. In the case of the Democrats, the establishment and Mrs. Clinton prevailed, but something unexpected happen with Mr. Jeb Bush and the Republicans. The Republican establishment lost control. The Third Disruption manifested with a vengeance.
To understand what happened, it’s useful to understand how social media had changed the traditional business of information dissemination. In 2016, a single person with 10,000 twitter followers and the right message, could get his message, in the form of a meme, in front of 350,000 people in a matter of minutes and if the message went viral, that meme could, and did, reach millions. That kind of power washed away the stranglehold that the establishment media had on shaping stories and disseminating their version of “news.” Distrust among the GOP electorate grew along with every media attempted to shape the election.
GOP electors began gathering in Closed Facebook Groups, on Twitter, and on Instagram. The actions of Foxnews during the debates created a strong sense of distrust for what they were being told by the media. The vastly different reporting and emphasis from CNN, MSNBC, Foxnews, Russia Today, BBC, and other news outlets further amplified distrust and drove the electorate into the shadow world of social media, where citizens compared notes and chose to get their news from different venues.
Mr. Bush spent $40 million in New Hampshire and another $40 million in South Carolina on traditional advertising to stop Mr. Trump. Mr. Cruz spent $40 million in Indiana to stop Mr. Trump. In total, Republicans spent hundreds of millions of dollars to stop Mr. Trump. On the other side of the isle, Democrats spent hundreds of millions of dollars to stop Mr. Sanders. In the end, Mrs. Clinton spent $1.2 billion to stop Mr. Trump, but the people were not listening to the media stories nor to those advertisements.
The citizenry was on social media, deliberating and comparing notes in Facebook Closed Groups, streaming the actual words of the candidates and deciding for themselves who to believe. The electorate was pumping out memes on Twitter and posting actual pictures from rallies on Instagram. It was citizens who showed the world that Mrs. Clinton scarcely drew 200 attendees to some of her rallies. It was citizens who showed the world that some of Mr. Jeb Bush’s rallies featured a poster-board cutout audience. The establishment media would have never reported such “alternative facts.” They were too busy “shaping” the candidates for the election.
In 1965, very few citizens could view a full interview from any candidate. They had to trust Walter Cronkite’s reporting at the evening news. Today, virtually every citizen can stream any candidate interview, at their convenience, and make up their own mind about the interview.
This access to the raw materials makes media bias and spin easy to identify. Not only can the average citizens make up their own minds, they can publish their interpretation to 10,000 people on Twitter in short order and if their reasoning is compelling, that one citizen’s interpretation can cut through to millions of people. The average citizen who belongs to a dozen Closed Groups on Facebook can personally put his post in front of 150,000 like-minded people. Fifteen years ago, that kind of power to disseminate information only existed in the hands of media elites.
After the election, the Media-Government-Business Establishment fought back by labeling uncorroborated interpretations as #fakenews. The opposition countered that they were simply presenting #alternativefacts, facts that one media entity simply ignored because those facts did not support a particular “narrative.” The reality is that the American people had already figured it out: it’s always been #fakenews; it’s all propaganda. It has always been propaganda. The world has moved into the era of #UncontrolledNews.
The American people are tired of “news” minted as sterling by willing Armani-clad anchors heading expensively produced shows. Now, each individual can interpret a story, and pump it out to 10,000 twitter followers & 150,000 Facebook Closed Group friends. If their audience agrees, the message will echo through cyberspace, reaching millions of people. It’s not #fakenews, it is just #uncontrollednews. It’s no longer state propaganda.
This Third Disruption represents nothing less than a fundamental break-down of established mechanisms of control that states have employed for generations to shape the will of nations. The world was perhaps exposed to the first shockwaves when people coordinating through social media were able to bring about the Arab Spring throughout parts of the Middle East. Unfortunately such populist uprisings were not always for the betterment of the people from those countries. In other parts of the world, social media is being used to expose government sponsored sectarian genocides and other atrocities. Views into immigrant camps are not carefully controlled by a few media outlets. Every cell phone coupled with social media is a window into the world, itself creating a candid narrative that is compelling and difficult to disprove.
In the United States, populism has ushered in a Trump Presidency. In Britain, Brexit is quickly becoming a reality. In Europe, anti-immigration fever is causing even Germany’s Chancellor to question whether her government will survive for much longer. In France and Italy, the establishment trembles under the countenance of its social-media-enabled masses. Even in Russia, citizens complain on social media that to watch an evening newscast is to listen to “lie, after lie, after lie.” In a social media fueled world even absolute dictators won’t be able to get away with the types of crimes that Hitler and Stalin committed.
The world is in the midst of a fundamental upheaval that is tearing down the established mechanisms of control that world governments have relied upon for generations. The question that remains is whether the world devolves to aberrant forms of government like anarchy, fascism, democracy, or fanatical theocracies? Can the world’s people find it in their will to shelter themselves in constitutional republics, or will the knowledge of the classics be drowned out by the populist mob?