Written by Amina Amdeen.
Originally published as part of the Spring 2017 “Power” issue.
“Turns out, once you go black you can go anywhere else.”
The audience erupts with laughter.
“For the first time in American history they’re asking the black man to stay,” Trevor Noah continued.
Trevor Noah is not a political commentator, pundit, or confirmed expert. He is a stand-up comedian, and as of early 2016, the host of The Daily Show, which airs on Comedy Central. As I sat amongst the packed auditorium, watching and listening to him speak, I couldn’t help but ask myself why the likes of Trevor (or Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, to name a few) don’t run for office. They’re often more well-liked, trusted, and relatable than the myriad of politicians they criticize.
But that’s not the job they signed up for- they’re comedians, not politicians. Even so, the average age of the Daily Show’s audience is 36 years old, and though it’s nowhere near the top source of news for Americans in general, it is extremely popular among young people (who are surpassing baby boomers in numbers).
The rise in popularity of comedic and satiric news is compounded by the fact that social media is replacing cable TV as the primary news source for young Americans. The most notable example is Facebook.
Facebook comment sections are notorious as breeding grounds for polarized, dirty “debates” riddled with insults, personal attacks, and misinformed arguments. At 4:24PM on December 22nd of the year 2016 I got into another Facebook comments argument. I tried to stay out of it- but I knew that my classmate was extremely intelligent and I wanted to engage with him. I challenged his preconceived notions but remained respectful while doing so, in an effort to exemplify the kinds of civilized discussions between differing opinions I admire. I was extremely satisfied with my classmate’s last comment on the thread: “Good point.”
The role of social media in our generation’s consumption of news, the formation of our political ideology and the opinions we form about ourselves and each other cannot be underestimated.In a study conducted by the Media Insight Project (a collaboration between the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research), young Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 cited Facebook as the number one gateway to learn about 13 out of 24 major news and information topics. It was the second-most cited gateway for seven others.
Since its rise in the early 2000s, Facebook has been a ubiquitous aspect of our digital lives.
In and of itself, the website is not a threat to our access to information. Rather, it seems to facilitate it, given the way news spreads like wildfire within the vastly interconnected social circles of its users.
But if you couple that with the increasing popularity of comedic news shows like the Daily Show and the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, it becomes clear that the line between entertainment and information is more blurred than ever before- which results in individuals, especially younger ones, who cannot identify credible news. A study conducted by the Stanford History Education group that found that less than a third of students were able to fully explain how the political agendas of various organizations can influence the conclusions they represent on Twitter.
This startling observation and its devastating implications can be summed up by Michael Lynch, a modern philosopher who studies technology and the changes it brings about within society. Lynch noted in a New York times piece that the internet is “both the world’s best fact-checker and the world’s best bias confirmer—often at the same time.”
While we have a metaphorical informational “Garden of Eden,” in that we have more information at our fingertips than we ever have, most of us don’t have the time, energy, or dedication to read every single factoid on the internet or hunt for credible sources. Instead, the wealth of knowledge available is more likely to back up every single claim in existence, no matter how outrageously false.
The question becomes: who shoulders the responsibility for the spread of false information? Is it the manufacturers of false information, the entities that twist facts and figures to fit a fabricated narrative? Or is it the common citizen that fails to view headlines with a critical eye, that fails to search for the truth?
The interesting thing is that while internet-users are learning to be critical of digital headlines, they are even more distrusting of politicians. As Aditi Shorewal, the editor of a student paper at King’s College, London told the Economist on Jan 23rd 2016, “My generation has a huge interest in political causes but a lack of faith in political parties.” In the US, this trend is most validated by the rise in the number of Americans identifying as Independents, rather than Democrats or Republicans. According to Pew Research the beginning of the Reagan administration saw 27% of Americans identify as Independent, compared to 39% in 2015, a higher percentage than either party.
This change in identification is more than political. “Independent” has come to mean independent of news consumption, fact checking, and policy. Although the distinction between entertainment and politics has blurred, and our politics occasionally descend into absurdity as a result, there is no doubt that our generation is more than prepared to take the reigns from our predecessors.
Hasan Minhaj, a correspondent for The Daily Show noted on the December 15th Yearly Review show, “We’re going to be begging for fake news, because the real news will actually be unbelievable.” Our job as young citizens is clear: no matter where we choose to consume our news, we need to ensure that we are getting the truth. The tools are there, we simply have to utilize them. Only after we learn to push back against the attempts of political parties to make our decisions for us can we truly be in control of our own country and our own destiny.