Did our news feeds betray us into thinking Brexit & Trump couldn’t happen?

Wednesday 9 November. The world wakes up to another political disaster. President Donald J Trump. After the charade of Brexit, which hardly anyone thought would happen, even fewer had expected Trump to be President. Yet here we are, with two almost unthinkable outcomes from two of the seemingly most forward-thinking nations in the world. But did the majority of us shelter ourselves from the prospect of the double-whammy of Brexit and Trump because repression is more favourable than depression? Did we choose hope over fear and ignore all the warning signs?

Both votes had two possible outcomes; one reasonable and one bizarre. For months leading up to each event, the media told us what to expect, the analysts told us what to expect, and the exit polls told us what to expect – Britain would remain in the EU, and Hillary Clinton would become the first female President. Yet on both occasions, the reality was way off the mark. Instead, the status quo was defeated and those flying the flag of change came out victorious – seemingly scare-tactics and scapegoating now speak to more people than common-sense and liberalism. What we saw on both sides of the Atlantic was ‘the forgotten people’ coming out in droves to vote against the current system – all in the name of change. Those people who felt betrayed and let-down by their leaders banded together and followed one common ideology, no matter how dangerous it may have appeared to be. After years of being failed by their governments, the anger and despair had reached a point where anyone selling a dream could take win their vote. Enter Nigel and Donald. When somebody comes along and proclaims to be on your side and fight for your cause, you take it. It almost doesn’t matter what the change that’s promised is, it’s the promise of change that makes the difference. It’s the thinking that ‘things can only get better’.

Yet all of the stories and the polls, almost unbelievably, seemed to, well, forget about the forgotten. Those who had insisted all along that they’d go against the grain and vote for the lunatic’s option were cast as being too few to worry about, too extreme to take notice of. Perhaps we perceived their views as being dangerous and thus unworthy of being listened to, and instead we chose to take cover in our happy little bubbles where everything would stay the same and no insane decisions would be made. Sitting upon our liberal pedestals, we thought ourselves as too forward-thinking and educated to even entertain the legitimacy of the thoughts of those crying out beneath us.


But perhaps the signs were there all along and we chose to ignore them – Leave and Trump didn’t fit the narratives of the modern world, after all. There was no logical reason that the UK and US would choose such options. Perhaps, however, many of us didn’t even get to see the signs. Was it possible that we chose not to believe that either of these possibilities could become reality because we, subconsciously or otherwise, have more control than ever before over what we read and hear?

There is no denying that the primary way to consume news nowadays is through the internet, and whilst there is still a need for newspapers and news broadcasts on television, news consumption online is king. It’s undeniable that a majority of clicks onto news sites come from Facebook and Twitter rather than the direct source. Indeed, our friends’ status updates and sharing habits provide us, most of the time, with ample snapshots of global affairs too. That we can tailor what we read on these platforms so intrinsically and powerfully means that we will generally only read and interact with things that we agree with or hold belief in, far more than those that go against our ways of thinking. Such is the power of these channels and their algorithms that, in return, they will only dare to show us news articles and links that they know we will harmonise with. If Facebook suddenly started showing you things on your news feed that you had no affinity with, you would lose interest and switch off – it’s entirely within their interests, and yours, for your landing page to be entirely full of things you like.

In that respect, perhaps many of us actually do shelter ourselves from both sides of the stories – or perhaps we’re being sheltered from both sides by our social media overlords. For example, a news feed filled with stories about Trump winning the election being terrible will likely influence its reader into believing that Trump being elected is indeed terrible. On the contrary, a news feed filled with elation at the result will perhaps make its audience think that such a result does have its positives. And so the cycle continues, and we drift apart. Whenever we like a friend’s post with #ImStillWithHer attached to it, Facebook’s menacing data mine plays out and concludes “OK this person supported Clinton so get rid of all the positive Trump spin”. If we rely entirely on one platform as the main source of getting news, as we do with Facebook, the less of the entirety of such affairs we become to learn. Our news feeds are there only to serve and please us, and they’ll only tell us the things we want to hear, like a disillusioned slave to its unforgiving master. Yet the master in this scenario is Facebook, and it holds an immense amount of influence and sway on us than we may like to suspect.


What Brexit and Trump have undeniably shown us, is that there is perhaps more of a divide in the way we as nations see things than we had once hoped. The rise of the right has been happening all over Europe for the past decade, and so hindsight will tell us it was only natural that it would reach over to the States too. Hindsight will tell us it was coming,  yet reality will not. Perhaps surrounding ourselves with similar friends who share the same political alignments, coupled with those dastardly algorithms gave us the idea and hope that the worst option wouldn’t come to pass. If, after all, we only see agreeing stories over and over again then why would we think there was an alternative?

One thing that is now clear, however, is that many amongst us now realise that they can say no to the establishment. No to old politics. No to the status quo. But it’s heartbreaking to realise that the system is set-up so that we can only say no when the others say yes. There is no in-between but such is the nature of democracy. Rather than work together and push for a common goal, we have become more divided and conflicted than ever before. The next few years may see the world in unprecedented territory, but there remains an air of optimism that the continued struggle for rights and equality will not be undone – at least on my news feed.


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