Facebook Is the ‘Mainstream Media’ Now
The election proved that social platforms are the new gatekeepers
For half a decade, debates have simmered as to how the news media should cover Donald Trump’s candidacy and presidency. Recall the Huffington Post consigning his GOP primary campaign to its entertainment section in 2015; the New York Times’ 2017 handwringing as to whether to call his lies “lies;” the AP’s 2019 disavowal of “euphemisms for racism;” and the ongoing questions of whether his speeches and rallies should be covered live.
An implicit assumption in these critiques was that established media juggernauts could impact how the broader electorate understood Donald Trump. If they failed to cover him with sufficient bluntness and urgency, critics warned, his misdeeds would go unchecked and voters would fail to punish him at the polls. While not every warning was heeded, it’s safe to say that by the end of his term, no one who regularly read and believed the New York Times, watched CNN, or listened to NPR could fail to grasp that he was a liar, a bully, and a threat to American democracy, among other seemingly disqualifying traits.
And yet: He received some 7 million more votes in 2020 than he had in 2016. Even as Joe Biden edged past him in critical states by week’s end, a conclusion that circulated Tuesday night remained inescapable: The Trump that the titans of traditional media had exposed ad nauseam as a dangerous buffoon did seem to be the same one that 70 million Americans voted for.
Which raises the question: Where were those 70 million people getting their information? To be sure, some portion of them probably did get the mainstream media’s message and voted for him anyway, for various reasons legitimate or otherwise. But it also seems clear that the big legacy media outlets simply don’t control the national narrative the way they once did. As to where that influence now resides, we can find some clues from Nielsen ratings, Pew Research, and other recent media studies — and in the starring role that platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have come to play in politics and elections.