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The expert who predicted Trump’s 2016 win says we’re living in a “manufactured reality”

Four years after Sarah Kendzior forecasted Trump’s win, the bestselling author reflects on the rise of online propaganda, the need for transparent algorithms, and why social media is more dangerous than ever.

The expert who predicted Trump’s 2016 win says we’re living in a “manufactured reality”
[Photo: courtesy of Sarah Kendzior; ExpressIPhoto/iStock]

Sarah Kendzior was a lone voice in the wilderness predicting the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. The St. Louis-based journalist had been reporting for Al Jazeera on the socioeconomic pain of a part of the country that’s often overlooked in national political discussions—the industrial Midwest. Kendzior eventually published her reports in the bestselling essay collection The View From Flyover Country.

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Now another critical election approaches, and the question on the ballot, in a sense, is whether the America that Kendzior documented is still Trump’s America. As in 2016, that conflict is playing out on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. In a recent interview, she discussed the Democrats’ tough choice of a nominee, disinformation online, and the destructive nature of social media in politics.

Fast Company: I’m hesitant to say that social media has been all bad for the political conversation. But is it changing the way we talk about issues?

Sarah Kendzior: Absolutely. I got my PhD studying authoritarian regimes in the former Soviet Union and in particular Uzbekistan, and my dissertation was on how the internet affected opposition movements. What I found is that if you have a preexisting political culture that’s defined by paranoia and distress, and a sense that you’re constantly under attack, it’s really hard to forge an effective opposition, or just communication in general, between different parties.

It’s been very jarring for me to see the same kind of pattern unfolding in the United States or the U.K. or other western countries that proclaim themselves to be democracies and immune from this trend. And I think part of it is that America has always had paranoia and has always had vitriol. It’s not like we were living in some paradise before technology. I think social media does bring out some of the worst aspects of political discourse, and it’s compounded by the mainstream media. There’s a lack of context and a lack of nuance. That makes it really easy to weaponize other people’s words. And then it’s very advantageous for somebody like Trump who will use something like Twitter as a one-way media where he tweets out the message. He doesn’t hold press conferences. He doesn’t have any kind of real interaction with journalists.

It’s not like we were living in some paradise before technology.”

Sarah Kendzior

I do want to say that I think it’s very good that social media expanded the range of who gets the platform . . . So this gives people a voice. It gives them an opportunity. I don’t know if that will last forever.

FC: In the 2016 election, we saw that our personal data could be misused in a way that had historical implications for the country. Do you think that we’re facing the same thing in 2020?

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SK: We’re all seeing things through an algorithmic filter. We don’t know that we’ve been targeted because we’re not all seeing the same information. When you can’t have a baseline acceptance of what reality is—not your view of reality, not your view of the facts, but IS this a fact, did this event happen? Did this person say this?—that makes it really hard to have a functioning civil society. And I think that’s just as much of [the base’s] ambition as is trying to promote Trump or Trumpism. They want the very concepts of truth or integrity in politics to be destroyed. I think that many, many different political actors are going to take advantage of these social media networks to continue to do that. It makes it very hard to trace precisely who is responsible when there’s often no accountability from the platforms themselves.

FC: A lot of people were really blindsided by the level of misinformation on social media in 2016 and the scope of the campaign. I hope that people are at least a little more skeptical now, a little more ready for what they might see leading up to 2020.

SK: I think now we’re a little more savvy as Americans, about how we deal with this and how to spot bad actors, but not as much as we should. There are other countries like Estonia, for example, that have been dealing with this for a long time, and they’re much better on cybersecurity, better at educating the public about propaganda. When I went to Germany shortly after the [2016] election, I was speaking with college students. You know, they have a very good understanding of this propaganda because they know their own country’s history, and they know how you can get lured down this slope. And I’m not saying either of these countries is perfect and that everybody had amazing grasp of it. But at least it’s emphasized that this is a civic problem. This is something we have to actively get on top of and be proactive about in order to solve it—in the U.S. it took us forever to even admit that these troll and bot networks were there.

We’re all seeing things through an algorithmic filter.”

Sarah Kendzior

FC: I recently spoke with Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, and he thinks that because big tech companies like Google and Facebook are showing everybody a slightly different view of the Internet, they should at least expose the algorithms they use for doing that. Do you agree with that?

SK: Yeah, I do. Is it interesting for me to watch Hawley and some of his causes, like taking on Big Tech or supporting the protesters for Hong Kong. It’s very ironic because he is just so entrenched in a very corrupt universe within the GOP. He’s one of the largest recipients of NRA money, a lot of which was dark money, probably Russian mafia money. So I’m glad on one hand that he recognizes the corruption and the baseline threat to democracy posed by giant social media monopolies. I think it’s good that he’s taking them on. I just wish he’d focus that mirror on himself, and on who he has ingratiated himself with, and maybe work on those things as well.

FC: When we look at 2020, the Democrats are trying to make this hard choice between people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who want fairly quick systemic change, and people like Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, who seem to want more gradual change. Politically, what is the best answer for the Democratic Party?

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SK: When you have a systemic breakdown, you need systemic change. It is interesting to me that economically, both Sanders and Warren are sometimes categorized by the media as some kind of radicals. Really they’re just trying to go back, in some sense, to where we were during the New Deal, or during a time when income inequality wasn’t so vast and where wealth wasn’t hoarded by such a tiny group of people. So Warren wanting a wealth tax on billionaires actually is a very common sense approach. It’s kind of the bare minimum in terms of what these billionaires should be doing. I think Sanders’s arguments for a higher minimum wage are part of the same policies he’s been talking about since the Reagan era. It’s just common sense. It’s not particularly radical. And I think it’s practical. It will help stimulate the economy.

We have a manufactured reality.”

Sarah Kendzior

FC: Your new book, Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America, is coming out in April 2020. What’s your thesis in the book, and how does it differ from Flyover Country?

SK: It’s a history of the social and political conditions in the U.S. that produced Trump, starting at the beginning of his career in the late ’70s. It’s also about how he and the people surrounding him, people like Roy Cohn and Paul Manafort, created this corruption and helped make it an entrenched fixture of American life.

I tried to link him to the decline of American institutions, to what Mueller, our failed hero, said in 2011: that we have this nexus of state corruption and corporate crime, white collar crime, that’s become entrenched in a way that we have an entirely new kind of threat. And it’s been compounded by changes in technology, like changes in high finance and digital media. So the book traces the evolution of all those trends and gives Trump as one kind of example.

It talks about this inability to recognize that a crime is a crime, or a lie is a lie, and call it out. We have a manufactured reality. It’s like the claim that Karl Rove talked about in the lead up to the Iraq War, where he just blatantly said, we create reality now, we control reality now, and you are our actors. I think that’s the mindset Trump and his cohort have taken in their rise to power, and we as ordinary people have had to fight back.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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