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How Social Media Inflates Our Perception Of Our Choice Presidential Candidate


Five people are still running for president. They each make the case they're the strongest candidate to win election in the fall. They all can't be right. But in a recent column for Bloomberg View, Megan McArdle says it's become easy for candidates and many of their supporters to exaggerate, even be delusional about how popular they are. Megan McArdle joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

MEGAN MCARDLE: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: Have social media platforms changed the way we define popularity for ourselves?

MCARDLE: Absolutely. You know, I grew up in Manhattan and the funny thing about Manhattan was that you would get these Pauline Kael (ph) moments where people said, well, obviously no one's going to vote for George Bush or Ronald Reagan or something. I've never met anyone.

But that used to be a delusion that was confined to Manhattan and specifically because the people in Manhattan were not only in this geographic bubble, but because they ran the media. Everyone outside watched television that came in from New York and understood that there were people who really vehemently disagreed with them. Now the way social media works is that it curates your content so that it's giving you more of what you like, what you click on.

SIMON: These are the algorithms.

MCARDLE: The algorithms, exactly, and the problem with that is that the curation is actually invisible. We don't realize that we're creating bubbles. Now, there are people who absolutely unfollow people who disagree with them politically on Facebook or so forth. But even those who don't, Facebook feeds you more of what you like and click on. Google does the same. And so it comes to seem that the news universe, that people who agree with you are much more ubiquitous than they actually are. And that leads us to the conclusions that - I mean, I've been informed by voters that every single candidate who's still there is completely unelectable.

No one would ever vote for them because X. And it's not even that those weaknesses are wrong. It's that they vastly overestimate the amount to which the rest of the country cares about them. And, you know, having spent my time as a libertarian, being a libertarian means being well aware no one agrees with you. And it strikes me as very strange that suddenly we're seeing this phenomenon of people who really just don't seem to understand that they are a minority and not a majority in the country.

SIMON: You see this in the presidential campaign right now?

MCARDLE: Absolutely. The number of people who have told me that Hillary Clinton can't possibly win because of Benghazi and the email scandals. Now, I agree that those are real weaknesses, but I don't think that everyone in the country cares as much as the people who are saying that to me. Similarly, the people who say Ted Cruz is a religious nut. Well yes, if you're live in Manhattan, you really dislike that sort of religiosity, but most people in America don't actually feel that way. They don't feel that kind of revulsion that sort of coastal liberal types often do. And you can go down the list. It's the same thing.

Even Donald Trump, who I think actually does have just incredibly strong unfavorables and really does trigger revulsion in an astonishingly high percentage of the electorate, even him, people are not as exercised about it as the people who are sitting around and telling each other, boy, do I hate Donald Trump. Boy, am I afraid of him. Boy, am I going to flee to Canada or France or wherever if he gets elected. That's a very local particular phenomenon that people are generalizing to everyone in the country.

SIMON: Doesn't, in one way or another, almost every campaign rely on the idea that there - the unspoken majority of people out there will support them once they get the chance to be on the ballot?

MCARDLE: You know, I think that that's true, yes. But at the same time, you know, Republican nominations always used to follow basically what you might call the Buckley rule, which is you nominate the most conservative candidate who can win the general. And very similarly with Democrats, right? What was John Kerry? He was a Democrat's idea of what a Republican might like, right? He's been in the military. You guys love that stuff (laughter). So that seems to be breaking down.

We've got Bernie Sanders, who is pretty much the most left-wing candidate since McGovern who has - I don't think he's going to get the nomination, but he's put a really serious run. And on the other hand, you have the - now the plausible, kind of vaguely mainstream candidate is, for the Republicans, is Ted Cruz, who is by far to the right of everyone who has run since Goldwater and perhaps even more conservative than Goldwater in some ways.

So this is kind of an astonishing moment. And I think that we have to look at how these bubbles that we all live in and the opacity of these bubbles so that we don't even realize that there are other bubbles out there, how that's shaping our electorate and what that might mean for our political future.

SIMON: I mean, we think we're getting news, but are we getting...

MCARDLE: We think we get - we are getting news, but we're not getting all of the news we need.

SIMON: Megan McArdle is a columnist for Bloomberg View. Thanks very much for being with us again.

MCARDLE: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.