Have you noticed that everyone is an expert in everything these days, or thinks they are? Patients diagnose themselves with cancer after a WebMD search of their symptoms, only for their doctors to thankfully tell them they have something far less fatal.
Cab drivers can’t go two blocks without the guy in the backseat opening Waze and disclosing the fastest way to get across town, even though the cab driver knows that some of the “fastest routes” are one-way streets, going the wrong way.
And any elected official can tell you that town hall meetings aren’t what they used to be. Instead of coffee and conversation, constituents come armed with a Google search and an opinion to go with it. Just as information has revolutionized professions from medicine to law, information — particularly bad information — is changing politics as we know it. It used to be leaders who told voters what was wrong and how to fix it. More and more, it’s the other way around.
Far from the days when the newspaper told people nearly everything they knew, Google has created armchair experts in everything, from international trade to wage disparity to “What Really Happened in Benghazi.” They call their congressmen to complain. They arrive at rallies armed with facts to support their opinions.
But there’s a difference between an informed citizenry and an accurately informed citizenry. Our post-Google world seems to be erasing the distinction between both fact and opinion, and information and expertise.
Google nearly anything political and you’ll get a result that contains both legitimate news and partisan hackery, equally ready to be read. Better yet, clear out your search history, begin a search, and see what pops up to finish the search for you. Googling “Hillary” gave me “Hillary Clinton age” and “Hillary Clinton email.” So without even trying, I’ve gotten the impression of an old lady with an email problem.
“Donald Trump” gave me “Donald Trump net worth” and “Donald Trump wife.” In my mind, I’m now looking for a wealthy married man, which seems a lot better than the email lady. But included among the top results for a Donald Trump search is, “Why the new child rape case filed against Donald Trump should not be ignored.” Child rape? How many people aren’t going to click on that to make sure it’s not true?
Access to information is certainly a part of what’s fueling populist outrage around the country, and likely across the world. Why wouldn’t people be mad at Wall Street banks getting a bailout when they can then Google a bank CEO’s pay rate the next year? How could they not be outraged by Googling “factory moved to Mexico” or “Congressman found guilty?”
There’s no longer a need for anyone to take leaders’ words for something when we can just Google it ourselves and read the result in the news source of our choice. A Democrat is not going to read about Hillary Clinton’s email on Breitbart, nor is a conservative going to spend much time getting the story on The Huffington Post. The result is not only an electorate working off a different set of opinions, but also a different set of facts.
If everybody knows it all, there’s not much left for leaders to do except cheer their people on or get out of the way, a lesson leaders in the United Kingdom are learning the hard way. Voters in the U.K. heard the appeals from Prime Minister David Cameron to not leave the European Union. They were deluged with warnings about what the consequences would be, but they chose to leave anyway.
It’s the first, but certainly not the last, example of the root of the global leadership crisis, which is being caused not just by a lack of good leaders, but also by a short supply of good followers, people who used to put their faith in leaders like Cameron, but are now ready to bolt the EU to send a message, but may not have the expertise to know what the real consequences might be.
On the night after that Brexit vote, Google Trends reported that the second-most searched term was “What is the EU?”
The most searched was “What happens if we leave the EU?”
Before Google (or a person’s search engine of choice), those are questions they likely would have asked their leaders. Now they are the questions people just ask themselves.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy