The Politics of Failure: Of Memes, Misinformation and Mudslinging

This year’s US Presidential election has seldom been about what has been best for America and its people. This election isn’t about whether President Barack Obama or challenger Mitt Romney’s vision for America will be better for the country going forward. It’s largely been a referendum on whether people like President Obama or if they want any alternative that is provided.

As a result, very little of this election has been about the issues. The majority of campaigning is about why the opposing candidate is worse for the Presidency and America. Discourse in this election has come to a virtual standstill as neither side attempts to engage the other over issues. It’s all parroting talking points and slinging mud at anyone who does not agree with you.

While the 2012 Olympics saw some coverage discuss the influence of social media on the Games, there has been a surprising lack of discussion in the news media about the influence of social networking websites such as Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr on distribution of election news. One of the more obvious ways that social media is changing political discussion is through the proliferation of memes.

Both the Democrats and Republicans seem to have foregone any sort of meaningful political discussion for talking in memes. Rather than discuss what Barack Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comment in the correct context of infrastructure, Republicans turned it into a meme about government taking over the American dream. Rather than discuss what government’s role should be in helping people reach the American dream, Republicans made a joke out of “you didn’t build that.”

The Democrats are worse for blowing opportunities to score points by making a Romney gaffe into a meme. For example, the recent “binders full of women” statement became a meme rather than a discussion of Romney’s inability to name a qualified cabinet appointee without having a list of them compiled into a binder despite being a successful businessman or how Romney doesn’t support pay equity for women through the Lilly Ledbetter Act. Romnesia should have been about Romney’s ever-changing policy positions but it just trended as a joke on Twitter. And I’m not even sure who to blame horses and bayonets on.

With pointless memes and trending topics dominating the discussion on social networking sites, any opportunity for the discussion of facts, policies and which candidate would be a better choice for the American people seems to have been lost. People are more interested in the instant gratification of a like, retweet or favourite than trying to facilitate meaningful discourse on the issues that matter to Americans. Memes dominating the online discussion crowd out the important information that voters need to make an informed decision.

That being said, other than the creators of memes, the group that has grown the most during this election cycle is fact checkers. While both candidates claim that they will be able to create jobs if elected President, all political candidates are creating jobs for fact checkers who are trying their best to ensure that any lies or exaggerations being made by candidates are not taken as facts by the electorate.

However, fact checkers are fighting a losing battle. How many times have you read about what Romney or Obama will do or have done that isn’t true? Candidates and the electorate are parroting talking points without any concern for facts that are supposed to back up those talking points. Whether its fact checking the Presidential debates, convention speeches or just the stump speeches on the campaign trail, fact checkers have been busy trying to get the real story out.

The problem is that people who have made up their mind don’t seem interested in reviewing any facts unless it supports their side. It’s bad enough that people are willing to accept the lies trumpeted by their preferred political party. The state of political discourse can not be improved when people reject reality and substitute their own.

That statement even applies to issues which have been proven untrue. The Republicans and Tea Party have insisted that President Obama wasn’t born in America despite the fact that he has an American birth certificate. Sarah Palin was the most prominent Republican to say that the Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare) would introduce “death panels” that would dictate care when no such thing was planned or now exists. And let’s not talk about Obama’s religious beliefs apart from saying that he’s not a Muslim despite assertions to the contrary.

This brings me to the intriguing case of I won’t link to that website because it isn’t interested in the facts as it claims to be. It’s a website that seeks to prove the old adage of there being three types of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics. However, Unskewed Polls just make up statistics by “correcting” an alleged sampling bias in polls. Worse still, the allegedly “fair and balanced” Fox News touts these polls as correct. Opinion polls already have a built-in margin of error but using this as a disclaimer wasn’t enough prior to the first debate for Republicans who were convinced that Mitt Romney wasn’t getting annihilated.

What and Fox News are doing is attempting to balance political news coverage as if it was a see-saw. They feel that most media is on left side of the political spectrum so they sit on the right. What they are doing isn’t properly fair and balanced. Sure, they’re balanced if you’re a Republican or Tea Partier. They are creating balance for the sake of balance by being the media voice of the right. Balance is what the real news media does. They’re interested in facts. They don’t spend four years trying to get the sitting President to lose the next election. Fox News and their ilk are to the actual fair and balanced news media what Tim Tebow is to passing quarterbacks. They just don’t belong in the conversation.

Between the increase in use of social networking websites since the last election and the biased media spreading a biased message, it feels as though this election has seen an increase in mudslinging between the two sides. When I say that neither side is interested in discourse, I mean that any attempt at discourse quickly degenerates into partisan mudslinging. Both sides accuse the other of being stupid, hating America and so on.

The constant bickering and mudslinging is what is most interfering with any attempt at civil political discourse. Sadly, this is also the hardest to fix. While social media influencers and the media can stop giving attention to memes and attempt to pivot possible memes to actual issue discussion or the media to shove facts down our throats until we choke on the truth, it’s almost impossible to kill the internet troll that will react with vitriol to anything related to politics.

I know that the most common way to end mudslinging trolls is to ignore them. However, not everyone can stand idly by while someone else engages in a lengthy diatribe of name calling, bullying and lie spreading in the comments of a blog post, for example. When somebody replies to a troll, whether in kind or with a well-reasoned argument, it only serves to help things spiral out of control further.

It’s not just anonymous people who are mudslinging and trolling the electorate. Tea Party media darling Ann Coulter called President Obama a “retard” during the third Presidential debate. If you click that link, you can see she managed to rile up the Democratic base with that comment. If you tune into Fox News, you can see further disrespect of the President. If America was as much a “socialist paradise” as the right thinks, they’d probably all have been arrested for their comments.

On Twitter, I’ve lamented the lack of any meaningful discussion about any important issues and the relevant facts and policies during this Presidential campaign. That might have been the first thing about politics that I said that didn’t receive a series of angry replies in return. Maybe that’s because the lack of actual discussion is the one thing that both sides can agree is broken. (It was probably because the trolls didn’t see it because I didn’t mention Obama or Romney but I like my spin better.)

As long as the voters are only interested in proliferating memes, spreading lies and continued mudslinging online, the future will hold less interest and emphasis on the issues during a political campaign. If no one online cares about the issues, the candidates and campaigns don’t need to worry about addressing them. Actually, I’m not sure candidates are even worrying about the issues and policies in this year’s election.

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