In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, the media has worked itself into a panic about the rise of fake news on social media. Reporters have examined the subject from dozens of angles — profiling misinformation peddlers from California to the Caucasus, analyzing how hoaxes spread, raising red flags about media literacy, and much more.
You can understand why journalists are so worried. For one thing, most reporters genuinely want the public to be well-informed. For another, there’s a matter of self-interest: Fake news undermines journalists’ authority as arbiters of truth. Also — and I’ll let you in on a little secret here — most mainstream journalists probably preferred Clinton to Trump, so the idea that fake news swung the election is a tantalizing story.
But all this focus on fake Facebook news obscures a much bigger story about the way social media — the endless public opining and sharing of information — is reshaping politics. Even if you’ve never given much thought to its meaning, you’ve probably heard someone say “the medium is the message,” the famous dictum of media theorist Marshall McLuhan.
But what does that mean, and what does it mean specifically for the 2016 election? A possible answer can be found in the work of Walter J. Ong, a Jesuit priest and a former student of McLuhan’s at St. Louis University. In his most famous work, “Orality and Literacy,” Ong examined how the invention of reading and writing fundamentally changed human consciousness. He argued that the written word wasn’t just an extension of the spoken word, but something that opened up new ways of thinking — something that created a whole new world.
The easiest way to grasp the difference between the written world and the oral world is that in the latter, there’s no way to look up anything. Before the invention of writing, knowledge existed in the present tense between two or more people; when information was forgotten, it disappeared forever. That state of affairs created a special need for ideas that were easily memorized and repeatable (so, in a way, they could go viral). The immediacy of the oral world did not favor complicated, abstract ideas that need to be thought through. Instead, it elevated individuals who passed along memorable stories, wisdom and good news.
And here we begin to see how the age of social media resembles the pre-literate, oral world. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and other platforms are fostering an emerging linguistic economy that places a high premium on ideas that are pithy, clear, memorable and repeatable (that is to say, viral). Complicated, nuanced thoughts that require context don’t play very well on most social platforms, but a resonant hashtag can have extraordinary influence. Evan Spiegel, the chief executive officer of Snap Inc., grasped the new oral dynamics of social media when he told the Wall Street Journal: “People wonder why their daughter is taking 10,000 photos a day. What they don’t realize is that she isn’t preserving images. She’s talking.”
In “Orality and Literacy,” Ong laid out several key differences between the oral and literate worlds, and through these, you can see why someone like Donald Trump would thrive in this new oral context. Here are a few examples:
In the oral world, thoughts and expressions were, in Ong’s words, “aggregative, not analytic,” — which is to say that language was formulaic. Ong, who studied ancient oral epics like “The Odyssey” as well as pre-literate traditions that survived into the modern age, wrote that old masters of the oral tradition preferred to speak of “not the soldier, but the brave soldier; not the princess, but the beautiful princess; not the oak, but the sturdy oak.” That sounds familiar, right? Thus with Trump, it was never “Ted Cruz,” “Marco Rubio,” or “Hillary Clinton”; it was “Lyin’ Ted,” “Little Marco” and “Crooked Hillary.” These endlessly-repeated epithets packed extra information into small, instantly-memorable packets.
Oral culture rewards redundancy, because when an audience can’t go back and consult a text, speakers must guard against distraction and confusion. Repetition is one useful technique, and Trump is a master of it. Consider the remarks he made during a March debate: “I’m a leader. I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.” Oral traditions are all about hammering the point home.
Because all communication in a pre-literate culture takes place face to face, there’s a greater emphasis on verbal jousting. As Ong puts it, oral communication often resembles a “polite duel, a contest of wits” — in contrast to literature, which promotes abstraction by severing the link between author and text. Jeet Heer at the New Republic has made this point as well. Of course, aggression and argumentativeness are key to Trump’s communication style.
None of this is totally novel in politics, of course. Politicians have always had slogans. Repetition is a standard rhetorical technique. And in general, the political world has always valued the ability to make a good speech.
Furthermore, the world is still an extremely long way from eliminating classical, written literacy. We can still look up something in a dictionary or Wikipedia. You can still experience solitude, getting lost in the deep stacks of a library, meticulously poring over authoritative documents word for word. But as information gets more social — taking on the immediate, short-form characteristics of Facebook and Twitter — it acquires more qualities of the oral world. And that lends itself particularly well to politicians who think and communicate like Donald Trump.