The Three Paradoxes Disrupting American Politics

They didn’t start with Trump, and they won’t end with him.

A broken window
Oleg Popov / Reuters

In their “hot mic” moment last week, Senators Susan Collins and Jack Reed gave cold bipartisan voice to a deep fear: The president of the United States is stunningly unprepared for his job and just may be—to use a technical political science term I learned in graduate school—two cans short of a six pack. Between the Senate’s late-night “damn the torpedoes” voting frenzy to repeal something, anything, from Obamacare, and the president’s early morning tweets proclaiming his “complete power” to pardon himself and his relatives, what used to be business as usual in Washington never looked so good.

It is comforting to think that Trump is the only thing standing between us and the good old dysfunctional ways of Washington. But I have my doubts. The president’s disruption engine is powered by three paradoxes. Each was made possible by technological innovations. All will endure long after this ringmaster moves his circus to another town.

Paradox #1: More information, less credibility

Trump’s cries about fake news get receptive audiences in part because we live in the most complex information age in human history. The volume of data is exploding, and yet credible information is harder to find. The scale of this information universe is staggering. In 2010, Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, noted that every two days, we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up to 2003. Today Google processes close to 62,000 search queries a second. That’s more than 5.3 billion queries a day.

Information is everywhere, but good information is not. Why? Because the barriers to entry are so low. In the Middle Ages, when paper was a sign of wealth and books were locked up in monasteries, knowledge was considered valuable and creating it was costly. To be sure, there was some flat-earthy nonsense locked up in those tomes and religious and political rulers used their claims to knowledge as political weapons. Today the challenge is different. We now live at the opposite extreme, where anyone—from foreign adversaries to any crackpot with a conspiracy theory—can post original “research” online. And they do. Telling the difference between fact and fiction isn’t so easy. A few months ago, one of my graduate student researchers included information in a paper that I found oddly inaccurate, so I checked the footnotes. The source was “RT”—as in the outlet formerly known as Russia Today, a propaganda arm of the Kremlin. Stanford students aren’t the only ones struggling with real fake news. In December, the Pakistani defense minister rattled his nuclear saber in response to an Israeli tweet. Except the Israeli tweet wasn’t real.

Meanwhile, attitudes toward traditional information sources like the mainstream media and universities are souring, particularly among Republicans. Confidence in newspapers has declined by more than 20 points since 1977. Last month, a Pew survey found that for the first time, a majority of Republicans had a negative view of American universities.

The antidote to bad information used to be more information. Not anymore. What good is more information if people don't trust it—or if the traditional methods of sorting the good information from the bad (including the weighty brands of certain news organizations) don't work anymore? The marketplace of ideas is experiencing market failure. When information proliferates and credibility shrinks, reasoned argument suffers and democratic society decays.

Paradox #2: More connectivity, less civility

Today nearly half the world is online. By 2020 more people are expected to have cell phones than running water. But civility has not accelerated in tandem. In earlier times, it took some effort to deliver hurtful messages. In the U.K.’s Parliament building, seating in the House of Commons is designed to space the opposition at least two sword lengths apart from the ruling party—just in case.  Distance has its benefits. Years ago, I got a letter from a federal inmate claiming I was part of a 9/11 conspiracy and the murder for which he had been convicted. He went to a lot of trouble to write me with all that multi-colored ink. He even had to pay for the stamp. Now, I can get anonymous vitriol on Twitter, or in my email, or in the comments section of something I write—instantly, for free.

Sure, connectivity has created tremendous positive changes, including new markets in developing nations and new bonds among kindred spirits across vast distances. But connectivity has also made nasty discourse more convenient and socially acceptable. The step between harmful speech and chilled speech is a small one. Civility is not a convenience. It is a cornerstone of free speech in a liberal society. Trump may personify America’s descent into coarse discourse and amplify its spread. But it didn’t start and will not stop in Trump Tower or the White House. The root causes lie deeper.

Paradox #3: The wisdom of crowds, the duplicity of crowds

Technology has unleashed the wisdom of crowds. Now you can find an app harnessing the experiences and ratings of likeminded users for just about anything. The best taco truck in Los Angeles? Yelp. The highest rated puppy crate? Amazon. Youth hostels in Barcelona? TripAdvisor. Researchers are even using the wisdom of crowds to better predict which internet users may have pancreatic cancer and not even know it yet—based on the search histories of other cancer patients.

But the 2016 presidential election revealed that not all crowds are wise, or even real. The wisdom of crowds can be transformed into the duplicity of crowds. Deception is going viral.

On social media, one person can masquerade as hundreds, even thousands, with fake personas. Thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, it’s also possible to create armies of automated social media bots to develop, manipulate, and spread deceptive information at speeds and scales unimaginable before now. Facebook is so concerned about the duplicity of crowds, in April the company issued a “call to arms” report about what it’s doing to stop bad actors from manipulating public discourse and deceiving people.

Disruption used to be a good word, signifying creativity and innovation—shaking up things in a good way. The Founding Fathers were disruptive, imagining a nation ruled by laws and not kings. Their great American experiment inspired generations and helped transform half the world into democracies. NASA was disruptive, pushing the frontiers of science to land a man on the moon. Silicon Valley tech companies have disrupted all sorts of industries to become the engines of the global economy.

But disruption often has unintended consequences. More information, connectivity, and crowdsourcing are also shrinking credibility, eroding civility, and empowering the duplicity of crowds. These technological chickens are coming home to roost, and they’re likely to stay here even when Trump is gone.