CLEVELAND — New media has contributed to a more fractured electorate this presidential cycle, which may not be a bad thing, panelists said at a Mississippi Today conversation hosted by Delta State University.
The main theme of the 45-minute conversation was the role “new media,” which panelists defined as social and digital media, is playing in covering the 2016 presidential election between Republican nominee Donald Trump, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and third-party candidates.
The wide use of social media – both by regular citizens and the candidates themselves – was a focus for panelists Walter Isaacson, CEO of the Aspen Institute, and NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack, who is the founder of Mississippi Today. The session was moderated by Jim Barksdale, president of Barksdale Management Corp., who serves on the Mississippi Today board.
Isaacson noted that with a plethora of politically slanted media outlets for Americans to choose from today, the tendency for those outlets to express opinions are more evident than in previous presidential elections.
“The sea change that has happened is that we’re becoming a little more fractured and polarized as a society,” Isaacson said. “Unfortunately, the discourse has become more poisonous. But the upside to it is that you can find the person you like, and the information from all sides is out there.”
Lack noted that “social media is presenting a different set of facts (in this election cycle).”
“People are raising legitimate questions,” he said. “What’s really up with Donald Trump wanting to build the wall? What really happened with the Clinton Foundation when Secretary Clinton was there?”
Despite the rise of new media, Lack noted that more people still watch the NBC Nightly News than the combined audiences for cable shows from hosts like Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow.
“I don’t think having a choice is necessarily a bad thing,” Lack said. “Democracy suffers when people are uninformed … People are hungry for a diversity of opinions, and they want both sides. The great thing about our democracy is that those people can get whatever they want from different outlets.”
Barksdale mentioned the conversation to the record low favorability polls of both Trump and Clinton, asking the panelists how media organizations may have influenced those numbers.
Isaacson said the combination of the natural vitriol the candidates themselves have created and the anonymity of social media have contributed to the low favorability ratings for the candidates.
“We need a system of authenticated identification,” Isaacson said. “I would say more than half the problem (of the candidates’ low favorability ratings) is the anonymity of social media … It can be dangerous.”
Isaacson added: “Let me argue that it self corrects. That’s the beauty of American democracy. It’s a self-correcting moment. Einstein writes that American democracy is like a gyroscope. Just when you think it’s going to fall over, it self corrects.”