It’s Monday, lunch time – a good time to check the news, especially the sensational politics of the US. My favourite source for a long time: late-night talk shows. It’s not the only source, but often an entry point to ‘actual’ news, at least for US politics. Quite often, the difference between news and comedy is blurry, especially when it comes to my favourite news topic in the past years:
Now that he is out of office, I am relieved. But I also notice that the news is less sensational, and comedians have less fun material. It’s less entertaining. (UPDATE: Trump is back, speaking at a convention of conservatives early March 2021, and the news and comedians are all over him again).
And that’s when I noticed: since when do I want politics to be entertaining? I can’t deny that’s always been the case for me, to some extent at least. I enjoyed studying it at university, not primarily the everyday politics but the underlying principles and mechanisms of political systems and how they change.
Mostly though, I’ve been curious: how politics shapes our lives and how we can shape it.
So something happened along the way. Trump happened: a ‘stable genius’ when it comes to capturing attention. That I am writing a blog post about it, proves the point. At the same time I am writing this to wrap my head around how my attention got captured, and what to do about it. Most importantly, why should I care, what’s wrong with a bit of entertainment?
I am writing this primarily to clarify my thoughts. I am also publishing this because I know I am not alone.
How did Trump capture my attention?
I can think of three angles:
- Trump is a highly skilled messenger – ‘skilled’ in a very different way from his predecessor, but still skilled. He’s been a salesman for 50 years and naturally uses techniques such as repetition (see his nicknames for political opponents) and social proof (e.g. ‘many people say…’ or ‘believe me…’); for a fun, yes: entertaining!, imitation see this video. Trump can also be charismatic. Watch a video (or don’t, you choose) of him that is not of a press conference or a rally, and you’ll see how he works the room and wins people over.
- A key conduit for Trump was social media – and much has been written about how their algorithms favoured his communication style (short, snappy, conversational) and messaging (emotionally charged topics such as ‘nation, protection, the other, anger, fear’ as one Facebook executive explains)
- And the picture would not be complete without the receiver of communication, in this case me: what makes me follow what Trump has to say and how others are commenting on it?
Now, I can get annoyed about and criticize the communicator or the channel of communication. Or I can focus on what I can do, right now, to not have my attention captured – some ideas:
- Understand the triggers that set me off to consuming ‘Trump news’ (for a lack of a better word), e.g. sitting down with the laptop and opening up YouTube (check out ‘The Power of Habit’ by Charles Duhigg, one of my favourite books on habits and how to change them)
- Have a positive alternative to ‘not have my attention captured’ by Trump news: being aware when the trigger is set off, and then do something else instead
- Shape my environment, e.g. deleting social media apps on my smartphone to make it easier to only purposefully (not mindlessly) use social media (see Cal Newport’s book ‘Digital Minimalism’ for inspiration)
Finally, the ‘why’: why should I care to do anything differently, what’s wrong with a bit of ‘Trump news’?
We mistake what is in the news for what is important
Ideally, what is in the news is important. But it’s also no news that political actors believe: to remain relevant, they need to be in the news. Unfortunately, some go to such extremes to be covered by the media that content is secondary, and air time for their name and message is what really counts. And in doing so, they are exploiting our cognitive biases:
- We tend to attach importance to things that we can recall, which tends to be more recent information aka ‘news’ (‘availability bias’).
- We also tend to believe information – even if false – after repeatedly being exposed to it (‘illusory truth effect’).But as citizens we are called to find our own answers to the question: what is important, for me, my family, community, society?
We are giving oxygen to the fire
Trump didn’t just win in 2016 because he spoke to his base directly via social media; he expanded his base using traditional media. At press conferences he would bash reporters, news channels, and the entire traditional media landscape; but secretly, he must have enjoyed their attention, not just to fuel his ego but because he knew it meant more eyeballs and more perceived importance of him and his ideas.
The media are not to be envied, trying to balance their mission to report what is newsworthy, the economic incentives of capturing attention, and their broader responsibility in democratic society. But as consumers we can help them: not by ignoring all news on Trump (some of it, esp. regarding criminal investigations, is important), but being more selective.
At the end, Trump could as well be a placeholder for all those who try to and are good at capturing our attention. And it’s not that politics should not be entertaining, or that comedians shouldn’t make fun of it (there is much to make fun of – and it’s good for our democracy).
But it’s being aware of what it can do to our thinking (e.g. ‘what Trump says is important’), the implications of our media consumption (‘if that’s what they want, let’s cover it’) and how both can spiral up to a point where we must stop and ask: what’s really important here for me and others?