Clay Shirky Talks Media, Elections, and the Liberal Bubble

The media plays an important role in today's society, and Professor Clay Shirky sits down with students to discuss the impact in the context of the U.S. elections.

On Nov. 15, Professor Clay Shirky presented a media-oriented perspective on the U.S. Elections. Shirky provided NYU Shanghai students and guests with the relationship between the media and the elections, creating a unique link which explained several of the elections’ fuzzy misconceptions. The discussion lasted around forty-five minutes, and sparked a considerable amount of questions from the audience. It was evident that the seminar opened the eyes of many, and provided confirmation for the media’s influence on the election’s results.

One of the major issues during the campaign, according to Shirky, lay in the fact that the media failed to create an ideological consensus. Due to the overflow of information citizens received from other platforms rather than the mainstream news—CNN, The New York Times, etc.—the media failed to establish a homogenized belief among its viewers.

In regards to the image the media portrayed of Donald Trump, there was a controversy present throughout the entire campaign. Shirky mentioned how Trump, the President-Elect, during his campaign was “a media darling” while simultaneously “running a war against the media.” Many networks saw Trump as “free money” because of the amount of people who tuned in on Trump rallies. The issue lay in the fact that liberals viewed him as a mere icon of fun, while disregarding the idea—at least until very deep into the campaign—that many American citizens were agreeing with Trump’s principles. There was a barrier between liberals and conservatives that was unseen for most people until after the election results: the famous liberal bubble.

In an attempt to break away from this liberal bubble, Shirky decided to conduct an experiment through twitter. Starting roughly at the beginning of 2016, Shirky would retweet racist and conservative tweets with the objective of evaluating how his followers reacted. People were enraged. As Shirky explained, “the idea of being exposed to people who think differently from you drove everyone mad”. This is why Facebook as well as Twitter both have specific algorithms which fill your feeds with personal-oriented interests. They are platforms which work for their users while the media tends to rely on providing their viewers with bad news instead.

After a period of time, his Twitter feed began to gradually switch into one of a Trump supporter per se, which allowed him to see Trump’s true impact on the American people.  It was through this experiment that Shirky realized the likelihood of Trump becoming America’s new president.

Mainstream media ignored the pre-mentioned likelihood. As Shirky explained, whenever left wing ideas circulated in a right wing context they became content for mockery. However, contrary to general understanding, the election’s results were not the media’s fault. In his lecture, Professor Shirky claimed that “early on, the media noticed Donald Trump was a transformative figure, but the people did not listen”. Despite the reporter’s realization of Trump’s true impact on American society, the media was still unable to accurately calculate the outcome of the polls. Shirky described the media’s evaluation of the election’s turnout as simply “catastrophic”.

The reason behind these miscalculations of the projected polls, specifically in regards to the New York Times, was due to the lack in diversity of opinion amongst their staff. The New York Times in particular “before anything else stands for professionalism. Trump did not have this professionalism; Trump is an amateur”, explains Shirky. Such association for professionalism meant that The Time’s inside staff had scarcely any affiliation with Trump voters. Even the “conservative” op-ed writers disagreed with Trump’s politics. In other words, they also got caught up in their own little bubble!

Shirky’s final point during the discussion raised the issue of “What will happen to the United States’ two-party system?” During the campaign, it seemed as if the parties were transitioning into a three-party system, perhaps the media having enough power to support a candidate. Shirky dismissed this idea. He regards the debate on whether or not it is possible for the U.S. to have a three-party system as “a waste of time. There is a constitutional design issue which goes against the idea of a three-party system”. What is more, Shirky described the U.S. political system as a two-power-coalition system instead of a two-party system. The parties are power-seeking and will change their ideologies if they begin to lose too many elections. Shirky clarified that the only way for a party to change is if the party falls apart from the inside. Since 1792 there has always been Democrats and, as its opposite, three other parties which have risen and fallen. After the collapse of a party the amount of parties will not increase, but a new party will rise to power in order to replace the collapsed party.

The points raised during the discussion were all explored in depth, yet the amount of factors that influenced this year’s elections were simply too many to fit into an hour-and-a-half long lecture. From catastrophically miscalculating the polls, to unprofessionally writing biased opinion pieces, it is evident that the media had a clear toll on how the campaigns finished. Despite their influence, it is unwise to completely blame the press for the absolute outcome. As much as we might hate the idea, most of us were also caught up in our own cozy liberal bubbles.

This article was written by Ori De Angelis. Please send an email to to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Interactive Media Arts Facebook Page

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