What can the press do in an increasingly hazardous environment of computational propaganda, a multi-trillion dollar criminal economy, deeply divided populations, and rising authoritarian populism around the world? I wrote a report about a recent convening of over one hundred journalists, publishers, technologists, philanthropists, academic leaders, and policy experts, who came to atInstitute for the Future (I’m on staff there) in Palo Alto to develop media strategies to preserve civic society.
A charismatic man ran for president on a patriotic platform to restore the country to greatness and return to traditional values. When the media reported on his well-documented misdeeds, he accused the media of smearing him with vicious lies. His drumbeat of racist messages energized rural, working-class white men, playing on their fear of unemployment and their anger over societal changes that were threatening their privileged status. He won, with the support of the religious right, a fake news campaign, and impossible promises.
This may sound familiar, but it’s actually a synopsis of the first part of Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, an eerily prescient 1935 dystopian novel about a populist demagogue named Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip who undermines democracy and drags the United States into fascism. Here’s what happens next: Windrip strips Congress of its authority. His followers form a bloodthirsty militia called the Minute Men that violently attacks dissenters and enforces authoritarian law. Windrip imprisons his political enemies, restricts the rights of women and minorities, and throttles the press. Most of the citizens are alarmed by the totalitarian takeover of their country, but accept the president’s explanation that such changes are necessary to “make America a proud, rich land again.”
Is this our future? It’s impossible to know for sure. “The first rule of futures studies is that there are no facts about the future,” said Marina Gorbis, executive director of Institute for the Future (IFTF). But we can and should take responsibility for shaping the future that we want.