The Problem Isn’t Disinformation, It’s Dismediation

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When truth hangs in the balance, more is at stake than the need to be right.


 

Donald Trump has won, by no less than democratic consent. However much ignominy and unpleasantness that name might evoke in the minds of many Americans, it must now be associated with commander in chief. The magnate-cum-charlatan has torn past a roster of leading GOP hopefuls and confounded our best pollsters. We now have a Brexit of our very own making, and the conversations attending Tuesday’s outcome share an uncanny resemblance to those that occurred in the wake of Britain’s plebiscite. With marches and protests forming around the country, and our commentariat struggling to make sense of the order of things, the dust has far from settled.

As I see it, there are three basic conversations happening at the moment:

1. What lies ahead? Will Trump actually follow through on his many campaign promises, install conservative policies and champion conservative values? Will he erect his mammoth wall along the Mexican border and ask our neighbor on the other side to front the bill? Will he appoint theocratic judges who overturn Roe v. Wade, pursue legal punishments for women having abortions? Deport millions of undocumented families? Send same-sex marriage decisions back to the states? Annul the Paris accord and roll back clean energy initiatives? In short, will Trump the president mirror Trump the candidate? How will his litany of civil and criminal suits impact his ability to govern? What steps can we take in the coming days-months-years to mitigate the harm we’re already seeing and that is to come?

2. How did we get here? What factors social and economic facilitated this outcome? To what extent did Rust Belt discontent, Clinton’s unpopularity, gross ignorance, racism, sexism, fake news and voter turnout impact this election? Which demographic(s) are most responsible for handing over the nuclear codes to a capricious man-child who fires off salty tweets at 3 AM?

3. Why didn’t we see it coming? Why didn’t the major pundits, pollsters and forecasters gauge this election accurately? How could they have gotten it so wrong?

These are all interesting conversations to be having, but I think this brilliantly researched piece by Maria Bustillos (published a week before the election) really strikes at the heart of door number two. She looks at how disinformation campaigns have been so successful for so long that it now matters less that our beliefs are consistent with reality than that they are consistent with what is being broadcast inside our personal media bubble. If said bubble consists largely of propaganda, partisan pandering, and swiftboating, well, so much the worse for truth.

As we’ve known for some time, when the motivation to believe is strong, confirmation bias tends to rule the day, tugging us toward information we wish to be true and away from information that generates cognitive discomfort. And the internet is nothing if not a planetwide case study on how people use confirmation bias to validate their worldview. The loss of honest pursuit of facts is mere collateral damage amid the stampede of social media and a growing ocean of counterfeit news and linkbait farms.

Those ill-equipped to navigate this unprecedented welter have inevitably slid deeper into the realm of identity politics. Rather than believe nothing (which is impossible), people gravitate to and strengthen their alignment with what they already believe, facts be damned.

This process is stirred and exacerbated by a hyper-partisan poison that drags through the mud anyone and anything that runs afoul of the clung-to narrative, seeding division and cultivating a society that dismisses rival views out of hand. No longer is there any presumed hierarchy by which we might look at CNN and MSNBC more skeptically than NPR or The New York Times; through mere association with the ‘liberal’ or other label, all are perceived as uniform misleaders and ineligible contenders for truth, unworthy of honest appraisal.

Authenticity thus becomes a measure of ideological compatibility. If your personalized filter bubble portrays The Washington Post as suspect, you will find this easier to swallow once you’ve already bought into the omnibus of other lies and distortions peddled by the likes of Limbaugh & Co. And since those falsehoods and half-truths will inevitably fail to gain traction outside the cluster of sources intent on repeating them, you, too, are unlikely to venture outside your partisan nest. This unhealthy environment creates a space for Alex Jones, far-right Twitter, and the dregs of Reddit—all are equally valid in our brave new world.

Bustillos and her colleagues have taken to calling this larger phenomenon dismediation: a pernicious wrench in the process of information-gathering that underlies democratic institutions. It’s not only that people aren’t weighing competing sources, it’s that many of us don’t know which sources are even capable of delivering the facts anymore. Unable to critically think and parse sources, we have lost the sense of what constitutes quality information, choosing to accept this or that ‘fact’ at face value so long as it is distributed from our preferred partisan authorities.

Nor, it should be emphasized, is this is an issue confined to rightist media. A whole cottage industry of fact-averse clickbait has cropped up in recent years specifically designed to prey on the confirmation bias of left-leaning consumers. The first offenders that come to mind are Bipartisan Report and US Uncut, two sites which play as fast and loose with the truth and are every bit as insensitive to fact as Breitbart and Drudge Report or whatever else you’ll find near the bottom of the far-right barrel.

The deluge of disinformation has overwhelmed our ability—or perhaps will—to see through the noise. More and more of our media exists solely to inflame rather than inform. Instead of living in a world where those on opposite sides of the aisle simply view the world differently but are both ultimately working to obtain a truthful picture of the world, we occupy a world in which neither side talks to one another. Systemic distrust of the other has suffused our discourse; good-faith communication has been dearly lost. As Bustillos writes:

“Dismediation isn’t discourse. It doesn’t disinform, and it’s not quite propaganda, as that term has long been understood. Instead, dismediation seeks to break the systems of trust without which civilized society hasn’t got a chance. Disinformation, once it’s done telling its lie, is finished with you. Dismediation is looking to make you never really trust or believe a news story, ever again. Not on Fox, and not on NPR. It’s not that we can’t agree on what the facts are. It’s that we cannot agree on what counts as fact. The machinery of discourse is bricked. That’s why we can’t think together, talk together, or vote together.”

More Socio than Economic

Much post-election coverage has been focused on the Rust Belt, a cluster of rural states concentrated around the Great Lakes and reaching into parts of the Midwest and Northeast. This hardy demographic, browbeaten by the inexorable forces of trade and technological change—a humanizing glimpse of which is offered in J.D. Vance’s recent memoir Hillbilly Elegy—has become synonymous with America’s white working class. Many commentators have used the regional correlations of Trump support with regions hit hardest by globalization as evidence that voting for Trump was really about economic anxiety.

But low income was not correlated with support for Trump. As The New Republic’s Eric Sasson writes: “But the media’s obsessive focus on this voting bloc would leave you to believe that Trump’s voters largely live in areas hit by the decline in manufacturing, are suffering from economic anxiety, and turned out last Tuesday to voice their disdain for smug urban elitists. But this narrative paints a misleading picture of the typical Trump voter, and by doing so, lets off the hook an entire class of voters who are at least as responsible for Trump’s victory: middle-class and wealthy suburban whites, who also came out in droves for Trump and who make up a larger part of his coalition.”

According to exit polls for 23 states from the primaries, the median income of Trump voters was around $70,000, ranking well above the national average of $56,000. The notion that the average Trump supporter is economically disadvantaged is simply a myth; indeed, the data indicate they are better off than most Americans. And if we’re confining our analysis to rural America, this year they made up just 17 percent of the electorate. This isn’t of course to dismiss the inarguable economic decline suffered by the Rust Belt, or to deny that narrow wins in key states within the region—namely Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan—largely handed Trump the electoral victory, but it shows that economic circumstances alone cannot possibly account for the majority of Trump’s 63 million votes.

For that, we need to look to education level and race. Exit polls for the general show that 66% of whites without college degrees voted Trump, including 71% of men and 61% of women. This is closely paralleled by the white evangelical vote (a bloc also associated with lower educational achievement), who came out 80% in favor of Trump despite his chockablock history of sexual misconduct and perverse disrespect for the non-male half of our species.

Before we get too hung up on the “diploma gap”, however, it must be pointed out that educated white people also voted for Trump far in excess of non-whites: nearly half of white college graduates cast a vote for Trump compared with just 22% of college educated non-whites. In fact, after controlling for racial and anti-immigrant attitudes, the diploma divide disappears. That racial resentment and anti-minority prejudice would manifest as strong predictors for the white vote in general and the white education gap in particular is hardly a Sherlockian revelation after a victorious 17-month campaign defined by white identity politics.

Fake News

To be sure, many of these factors tie together. Education and economic standing are positively linked; racism and education are negatively correlated; and low-information, undereducated voters are no doubt more likely to be duped by fake news. As dismediation cuts across each of these variables, we can ask what role it played in channeling the Trump vote.

It is probably naive to assume that those harboring ingrained anti-Clinton views would ever have caved—with or without sensationalist media tipping the scales. After all, it’s conceivable that these fabulists merely capitalized on latent bias in the voting pool. But what about the fence-sitters, those who hadn’t yet made up their mind on either candidate? Here we have good reasons for concern. Studies have shown that the ability to weigh sources and assess the credibility of competing information is a skill set many students never succesfully acquire. This is a problem come election season, and it is one purveyors of fake news, aided by proliferative social media platforms, exploited mercilessly.

Google and other search experts could tweak their algorithms to derank hoax sites, but the effects may not necessarily penetrate the social media echo chamber, which has enabled both reliable and fringe news to spread faster than at any point in history. Considering Facebook is the primary source of news for 44% of American adults, it’s worth wondering whether our unprecedented connectedness is more gift than curse.

Research shows that a significant portion of users share without cross-referencing the stories or claims against other sources. Worse, many share without reading the article at all; they click and share based on the headline alone. That said headline agrees with the narrative they’re prepared to imbibe is all that matters. This means that whether protesters were actually paid to appear at Trump rallies or Hillary really erased 33,000 emails in violation of congressional subpoena was ultimately beside the point for those circulating these stories.

As far as democracy is concerned, this spells disaster. Cherished journalistic objectivity has been overrun by legions of serial disinformers who capitalize on the emotive propensities, partisanship and idea-poor state of modern America. Rewards to the perpetrators come in the form of endless ad revenue and committed partisan support, making an election as polarizing as this one nothing less than a windfall for counterfeit-news curators.

But let’s not forget that what makes this enterprise so profitable are the unwitting masses they target, who readily buy into the blatancy with welcoming arms. It is we who have given in, collectively trafficking in untruth and false equivalence. Dismediation has sparked a ‘war on expertise’, all but shattering common-sense approaches to truth and removing whatever common ground there is left to seize. It takes no great imagination to worry that if we distance ourselves long enough from fact-based environments, we may no longer notice they’re gone. We must push back against the onslaught of disinformation, prop up integrity in journalism, and help educate our society out of this intellectual crisis.

Alas, America

While the reasons for voting in an uninformed, ego-drunk, chauvinistic, science-fearing, fitfully fascistic demagogue who routinely attacked freedom of speech and freedom of the press certainly vary, it’s become increasingly clear that Trump won the election largely because the most ignorant in our communities decided to vote for him. At a minimum Trump voters believed their candidate outclassed his opponent in one or several respects. They either failed to notice his feeble mind, manifest ignorance and unsavory character, or didn’t care. This is a devastating commentary on the intellectual state and moral center of this nation. There can be no doubt that bigotry and irrational anti-Hillary sentiment each played a part, but Trump’s victory on November 9 was ultimately rooted in the ignorance of our low-information electorate.

Like Brexit before it, this election may well be considered a plebiscite on the intelligence of the American people. A democracy once helmed by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Abraham Lincoln has been pinched by narrow-minded fools who have voted in one of their own. The uptake of anti-intellectualism, of a piece with the overall decline of critical thinking and the tragic, well cultivated inability to recognize accurate information, has long threatened to pull our nation into the ditch. Against our better instincts, it appears we have succumbed at last.

Read more at The Awl:  

“The lasting harm of this unfortunate episode, however, was not to Kerry’s reputation or to his candidacy. It was that afterward, millions of minds were uncertain as to what really constitutes “news,” or “reporting,” or “fact-checking.” This state of uncertainty hasn’t ever been adequately addressed, let alone mended…The advent of Brexit in the United Kingdom, and of the presidential bid of Donald Trump — two national campaigns characterized by the wholesale spread of disinformation in mass media — resuscitated the concept.”

[…]

“The success of dismediation projects like Fox News, Drudge Report and Rush Limbaugh’s radio show set the stage for Donald Trump, a buffoon beyond the satires of Dr. Strangelove or Infinite Jest. Trump happened in part because some of my cousins are now literally incapable of identifying facts, let alone weighing them.”


 

Further reading:
Why voters don’t care about facts
How social media creates angry, poorly informed partisans
How The 2016 Election Blew Up In Facebook’s Face
Students Have ‘Dismaying’ Inability To Tell Fake News From Real, Study Finds
Fake news on Facebook is a real problem. These college students came up with a fix in 36 hours.
Education, Not Income, Predicted Who Would Vote For Trump
What We Do Now: How to preserve the ideals of liberal democracy in the face of a Trump presidency


 

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