Influence Lost | Private Eye | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly
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News » Private Eye

Influence Lost

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Back in the good old days, the days before social media and the internet, it was fairly easy to stay on top of current events. All we had to do was go to our front porch, wave at all our neighbors in our jammies, then take the morning paper to our kitchen table for a read—often as not, cover-to-cover. That trip was later amended when our papers started being tossed on the lawn, in our driveways or onto the sidewalk after The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News started cutting distribution costs.

Reading was once a thing—real reading, that is. Now we just peruse or make a snap judgement based on a Twitter comment, Facebook meme or headline (clicking links to read a full story or column is so yesterday), or we just say "yum, yum" when looking at the 10,000th picture that week of a local hamburger on Instagram.

None of the above is original or new. But what is new is that as more years stack behind us, particularly these past two COVID years, the consequence of America becoming more stupid becomes more obvious. And yes, our country is more stupid now than it has ever been. It's also sicker—the whole world is, really. Half of the world is making up crap that passes as authentic news. Millions are dying while quick answers to conspiracies take precedence over dull science.

I was formerly a frequent visitor to store magazine shelves to see what Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report were touting on any given week. I never see those magazines today unless I happen through an airport and buy them, mostly out of habit. Such magazines go on vacation with me since I seldom pull them out during the flight, feeling so out of sync when everyone else is using their laptops and earbuds. I bring unread magazines home after every trip.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, I would have been drooling all over the magazine shelves, reading one headline after another, flipping pages. I would have known the topical storylines of the week right then. So, forgive me that I'm referencing a story that I saw for the first time this morning. Published by U.S. News (which is no longer printed but available online at usnews.com), it's from July 20, 2021, and titled "Social Media Is a Public Health Crisis. Let's Treat it Like One." Given my disdain for social media—despite my being as addicted to it as I ever was to nicotine—I can't believe I missed that one. It never hit my radar.

The story highlights the ill effects of social media. It intensifies anxiety, loneliness and depression, contributes to low self-esteem and makes it harder for persons to concentrate—particularly young people. I'm here to tell you that this old author has become just as dumb as the other dumb people out there on social media. It's not just an affliction for the young.

I'm going to stretch here and suggest that too many of the insurrectionists of Jan. 6, 2021, were led there—via years of breadcrumbs—down one social-media conspiracy sinkhole after another. Smart people, sane and healthy citizens, simply don't act like that. And yes, social media makes dummies of progressive lefties, too. None of us are concentrating on the same prize.

And that's the rub. Hardly anyone disagrees with me on Twitter these days, except perhaps for those idiot BYU fans who think beating Utah was a big deal. But politically, no. I'm not a Twitter star. I have 2,450 Twitter followers. That's paltry compared to my friends, Salt Lake Tribune mainstays Robert Gehrke and Pat Bagley. I'd bet nearly all of my followers also follow them.

What Twitter has done is make sure everyone loves what I say, making me feel smart and important. People who disagree with me, or whom I wish would read a particular column, don't see what I have to say. In the old days, they'd simply walk past our news rack, but not always. On social media, as we send out billions of messages, we filter into subsets of our own making. Diverse opinions don't filter into my stream, either. We are all our own echo chambers. Paywalls exacerbate this problem, but that's another story.

The result is that what formerly mattered, what could once sway a political viewpoint or a vote—a powerful editorial, column or drawing—is far less impactful than it formerly was. All of us on social media merely impress one another. Today's best minds could write the most compelling case on a topic—COVID, mask mandates, political boundaries, water resources—and it will barely register to the people who need to see it, our contemporaries on the other side of the aisle, for example.

A study by Princeton University says that public opinion has a "near zero" impact on U.S. laws. It goes on to say that only "when the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups align, does public opinion have any impact. Otherwise, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, statistically non-significant impact on public policy."

Today's political leaders not only don't listen to us, they don't need to listen because, in the end, all of the Pats and Roberts and Johns don't amount to a hill of beans to them. At the same time, we are not influencing the politicians as they know our words will never be seen by the dissenting public. To be fair, they also don't listen to public opinion in their own ranks.

We've all been parsed out into fractions of public opinion. Lots of trees blowing in the wind, but none of us any longer combining to make a forest.

Send comments to john@cityweekly.net.