A Plea to the American Theatre in a Time of Trump: Please Smash the Social Media Echo Chamber

echochamber
Social media echo chambers led to Trump, can theatre help destroy them?

After an ecstatic early morning casting a vote for the first woman presidential candidate from a major party, I probably spent the late hours of Election Night 2016 like many others in the Bay Area: stunned, with a sense of dread gathering in the stomach and fielding a steady stream of woeful text messages.

Although I wanted to be close to people I love, I was stuck working. I’m the City News Editor at a small paper in the East Bay and we were wearily waiting to hear about City Council and School Board results as Donald Trump, the president-elect of these United States, gave his victory speech in New York City.

The number of think-pieces published today will probably be able to fill an encyclopedia set (that’s a freebie business idea for anyone looking to profit off liberal misery). The dirge of Facebook posts today is like the digital version of wearing a sackcloth and sitting in ashes.

Thinking, of course, is important. Mourning is important.

But I have the day off to wallow, and several questions have been buzzing around my head for the past 12 hours. I’m not much of a blogger, but I thought I would process these questions here, now.

What? How? Huh?

We were so sure! Some big deal media outlets said Trump had a 2% chance of winning! Sure, white people came out in droves yesterday for Trump, but he also made impressive gains among African-Americans and Hispanics! Clearly, nearly half the country thinks astoundingly differently than we do in America’s sapphire coastal metropolises and azure Midwest cultural capitals. We can wave away a lot of Trump’s support as based in racism and misogyny, sure, but I think it would be logically impertinent and artistically irresponsible to blame the whole phenomenon on this.

Why is the divide so surprising?

Trump’s breathtaking victory makes me think the Progressive Left saw the election completely differently than the rest of the country. The former includes many members of the media (as well as us theatre artists!), and it seemed we were astonishingly unable to really reach half of the electorate.

This could probably be called the first real social media election, especially with the rise of alt-right and itchy Twitter fingers of Trump himself. And this, evidently, is a catastrophic problem.

The algorithms powering Twitter and Facebook place us all in walled gardens of information, whether we like it or not. Many of us get a lot, if not all, of our news from our friends – think about how that could be a problem.

By creating these tailored-made echo chambers, social media presents a fundamentally different experience from cracking open the newspaper and pouring over its breadth of information. We can hem and haw about the importance of citizen journalists and the danger of information gate-keepers, but it doesn’t remove the fact that social media keeps us isolated in many, many ways.

To me, the echo chamber of social media has failed us in a few ways over the past year – it prevented those of us on the Left from understanding how much support Trump was truly gathering and it also prevented us from communicating with this surprising tide of Trump supporters who popped up yesterday seemingly out of nowhere.

I truly believe Progressive principles would resonate deeply with many Trump voters if communicated well. I have to believe this, as an artist, so I’m not here to argue this concept (although I’m sure there will be at least 110 to 200 articles about this very subject in that November 9, 2016 think-piece collection, if any willing entrepreneurs want to take that on).

What can playwrights and other theatre artists do about this?

Hey, what’s that 6,000 year artistic medium that requires everyone to get together in one area and be introduced to diverse stories and ideas? The one that is supposedly always on the verge of death? The one that by its very funding and granting nature is often far more diverse than blockbuster Hollywood cinema and dives deep into storylines the Big 3 networks would never touch?

The thing with Hamilton?

As you probably guess after just one of four rhetorical questions, I’m talking about The Theatre!!

I think theatre artists have a tremendous opportunity to break through the echo chambers that played a large part in the brazen and frightening election of Donald Trump.

Ok, bub, how could this chronically underfunded and under-attended art form possibly have an impact on the rise of Apprentice star, steak salesman and worryingly neofascist Donald Trump?

I’ll lay out my cards – I think the arts can defeat Trumpism. I think the arts can defeat ISIS. I think the arts can stem the receding tide of democracy seen around the world, from the Philippines to Kenya to Egypt to Singapore to Russia.

Maybe this makes me an idiot, but I already have a B.A. in theatre and I only have like four years of student loans left.

Here are some specific ways “Theatre in a Time of Trump” (now that’s a season announcement) could smash the echo chamber and, hopefully, actually impart a well-presented Progressive message that sticks, I think. And maybe we can actually play a part in ensuring Trump only (*yikes!*) leads the country for four years.

Diversify your characters

Like Van Jones powerfully said on CNN last night, Trump’s election seems like a “white-lash” —  a mandate from white voters who have are uncomfortable with idea of an African-American or woman in charge (as well as from dyed-in-the-wool KKK-style racists). Theatre has a great opportunity to combat this notion by normalizing a wide variety of races and genders in a myriad of roles. This has been trumpeted by many artists more elegantly spoken than I, but it bears repeating now.

-Diversify your storylines

Again, this concept has been pushed many times before in the past decade. But I think now we could use some stories that honestly explore what would attract someone to Trump’s worldview (or, at least, whatever is coherent about it) and how that interplays with the wider world. As always, we need more stories that detail the current issues faced by minorities and women in engaging ways.

-Stop preaching to the Progressive choir

Theatre sorely needs a diversity of viewpoints if it’s going to succeed in breaking the echo chambers. I’m not suggesting that we embrace Trumpism, but I think we can all agree there can be a lot more thematic diversity in the American theatre. I want ideas that articulately challenge the typical liberal point of view just as much as I want theatre that attacks the now extremely conservative status quo (well, maybe not just as much). Audiences crave more than just a living UpWorthy post.

These artistic goals are nothing new, but I think Trump’s election puts them in a new light, at least for me. I think theatre could provide a weighty counterpoint to Trumpism, and could push past the social media echo chambers we’ve undoubtedly become mired in.

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