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Don’t be divided and conquered

How to spot and reject anything that’s artificially divisive — from news to politicians to algorithms.

May 19, 2022

5 Min Read
local political mail flyers
OUTRAGE: Following outrage news, outrage politicians and outrage social media can make you think America is burning down. She’s not. At least not yet. Holly Spangler

Check your mailbox. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Tucked between bills and magazines, there’s an 80/20 chance you found a campaign flyer — because it’s Illinois and it’s primary season.

Odds are also pretty high that it is pretty ridiculous. And not the kind of ridiculous that makes you wave your hand and say, “Oh, these politicians!” The kind of ridiculous where you realize they believe you’re an idiot because the lies are so outrageously, obviously false. The kind of lies that take four layers of footnotes to track shady sources, but you’re still supposed to believe it.

Related: Beware the rural outrage cycle

Then, turn on your TV. Find a cable news channel.

Tucked between Lipitor ads, you’ll find somebody yelling at somebody else. They’re outraged. You should be, too. It’ll go on for 24 hours a day.

Enough of that. Now check your social media.

Scroll a little. You’ll come across that guy. The one who shares apocalyptic stuff with just enough truth to make people wonder. This week it’s about gas prices. Next week, it’ll be the school board. He’ll throw in a Bible verse. The other side is evil and they’re out to get him. You’re next. Obviously.

Aren’t you tired?

I am. I’m exhausted of people creating division to get what they want.

The mainstream

For a lot of us, that starts with the media and a simple question: Why is it so terrible? An ironic place to start, given that I’m a member of the media. But hear me out.

We used to pay for news. A lot of us had newspaper subscriptions. Then the internet came along. And about the same time, cable news expanded. It was all free. The 24-hour cable news cycle became a beast to feed. So cable networks fed it, loading it up with lots of folks who give you their opinion and call it news.

Now we have unlimited access to news. We can watch cable news all day. But is that the right amount of news? Is 24 hours the correct increment for news consumption? I don’t think so. Remember when we got 30 minutes at 6 p.m. and 30 minutes at 10 p.m. and you’d darn well better be quiet during the weather? Otherwise, Dad would turn on the weather radio? It was tough, but 30 minutes of news felt better than 24 hours of news.

So now we have folks sitting with their face pressed to cable news all the time, consuming it. How can a cable network get you to stay fascinated and to keep watching? They have to keep you outraged: “If you’re mad about this, wait til you hear THIS!” Then you’re driving down the rabbit hole of rage and how dumb this person is. You can’t believe it. Meanwhile, they’re fueling their business with your anger, outrage and fear.

That’s not good for you, and it’s not good for the country.

Race to the bottom

Too many politicians are doing the same thing. The Republican primary race for governor is a dumpster fire, which is where most of these mailers ought to go. Out of five viable candidates, Richard Irvin has too much money and no incentive to talk; downstaters Darren Bailey and Jesse Sullivan are getting pummeled by money and the aforementioned ads. And Gary Rabine and Paul Schimpf are so far down in polls, it’s hard to call them competitive at this point.

Strategists say the most important votes at the state and national levels are suburban voters. They make up half the electorate, and research shows they are the most educated and affluent, which makes them the most likely to be a swing voter. They’re the most persuadable.

In the 2018 GOP primary, the 11 Chicago area counties accounted for 52% of the votes cast. That means any successful candidate in this primary has to win the suburban vote. Cue the mailers that claim candidates hate us, that the other side is evil. If a candidate can divide the base, they might get the vote.

It’s the definition of creating artificial division.

Fed by algorithms

Maybe you see the pattern here?

Maybe you see it in your social media feed, if you have one. The algorithm figures out what people like and comment on, and it gives them more of it. Before long, people have a fine echo chamber going. They see a meme that says the other side hates them and hates America. The other side is evil! They might even be Cubs fans! People click and read a story from an obscure partisan website. They’re outraged. They like and comment. They get more of it.

And all those messages are free because Facebook makes money off your eyeballs. Fake pages and foreign agents and the crazy lady that shares all that stuff can fire up your outrage in a heartbeat, and Facebook has little incentive to make it stop.

Friends, when you follow outrage news, outrage politicians and outrage social media, you’re more likely to think America is burning down. She’s not. At least not yet.

Be aware of who wants you to be outraged and how they benefit from it. Stop relying on free news for 100% of your information. Subscribe to a local newspaper and a national newspaper, if you can afford it. We like the Wall Street Journal, The Illinoize, our county newspaper and our town newspaper.

And yes: Many of you may receive Prairie Farmer for free. I get that. But trade publications like ours have a business model that doesn’t traffic in outrage.

It’s tough to be an informed citizen in a republic. It takes so much time and effort and, sometimes, money. But no one’s going to make you be a better news consumer. No one will make you go to the gym. Or make you be a better parent. Or make you love your neighbor. It’s an inside job. It’s up to you to seek out a variety of news sources, beyond the algorithm.

Paying for high-quality news is an important thing you can do. But rejecting news that’s artificially divisive is just as important. Including the mailer.

And if the news tells you that Cubs fans are evil, remember: They’re not evil. They’re just wrong.

Comments? Email [email protected].

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