It seems everywhere one turns these days, he or she is bombarded with everything from half-truths to outright lies. And while the dissemination of misinformation isn’t exclusive to any one political platform, the past few months (and arguably, years) have seen the gleeful abandonment of facts in favor of emotional appeal by both extreme political poles. A recent example of one such plea was delivered last Wednesday by Scottie Nell Hughes on NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show. Fellow Trump surrogate Corey Lewandowski followed up with his own appeal to replace fact-checking with bar-talk two days later.
The two previous instances might have been conservative efforts, but don’t think that liberals aren’t capable of playing the same game (especially when it comes to selectively picking minorities to skew study results).
So how exactly did facts get roped into the corner? That’s a complex question and one that we at Irrational Politics will continue to explore in follow-up posts. But for now, focusing on the impact of social media is a reasonable place to start.
Before Facebook and Twitter – and even cable news such as FOX and MSNBC – became our mediums of choice, media was distributed through organizations that acted as gatekeepers. These more traditional broadcast models – including the early internet internet modes of distribution – created a media consumption choke point of sorts. Individuals like Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite acted as guardians of the truth. These impartial titans of the industry possessed a monopoly on news dissemination, and a majority of Americans accepted these journalists’ words as fact even if it contradicted their initial beliefs.
Those days are long gone.
As Facebook and Twitter replaced handwritten notes and telephone calls as our primary means of communication, these platforms granted us the ability to share and consume information with one another at a rate never before imagined. It also allowed us to bypass the aforementioned traditional gatekeepers of information. No longer was news restricted to the evening broadcast, morning paper, or the car ride to work.
The shift to social media as our preferred medium is simply the most recent sea change in the way we consume information. And in some regards it’s not a bad one; individuals that never had a voice or, at least, couldn’t reach a wider audience can now reach millions. The dark side of this shift, though, is that there is no longer a structure to our consumption. With the Rathers and Cronkites declared obsolete, anybody with a little bit of technical know-how and marketing savvy can now masquerade as an authoritative voice. With the restraints that kept us in line as media consumers undone, a significant number of us have become increasingly content with reinforcing our own views instead of actively seeking out the truth of the matter. Podcast philosopher Sam Harris describes this as “disappear[ing] … into an echo chamber” in Episode 48 of his series Waking Up (skip to the 1:00:31 mark). And that metaphorical chamber is getting bigger and more easily accessible by the day.
Instead of working to uncover the truth, many media consumers have decided to reinforce their increasingly unrealistic views of the world with data that grow more toxic and inaccurate with each passing day. Once revered institutions such as the press and the scientific community have become punching bags, decried as crooked and biased any time either opposes the agenda of an uncompromising political camp. And while both have had their fair share of professional shortcomings (especially the media), each has been made the scapegoat of a growing, anti-intellectual movement that values feelings over fact.
This issue is complex and decades old, and so we could discuss this for a lot longer than you care to read and I care to type. But the gist of it is that the evidence increasingly points to this shift in mediums as the primary enabling factor in the rise of outlets like Breitbart and Infowars. It’s why those who keep moving further to the left insulate themselves with sites like Daily Kos and ThinkProgress. And it’s why people can believe that vaccines are responsible for Autism and global warming is a hoax perpetrated by anti-American interests despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And it’s certainly plays a role in why we elected a man who just appointed a climate change-denier as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
This isn’t to say that fake news has irreversibly damaged our sensibilities; not all who cling to a point of view that flies in the face of logic have declared a “war on science,” or “reason,” or whatever noun you so wish to choose. I opted to use the word “assault” in the title of this post because there is no serious, unified effort to bring us into a post-factual age. No matter how dire the situation may seem, a majority of Americans still value cold, hard, factual evidence, and I don’t believe that will change any time soon.
But even if that’s the case, facts have still been put on notice. A number of individuals coming to power have made their displeasure of data that contradicts their talking points readily known. It’s our job as media consumers to be wary of these men and women. The traditional gatekeepers are no more – we the media consumers are all that remains in a vast sea of knowledge. And so we must continue their work by verifying assertions with multiple sources. We must gather information from a wide array of outlets. We have to remember to trust institutions which are comprised of thousands of individuals whose job it is to be better educated than you or I on an infinite amount of contentious subjects. But above all, it means using our heads. Common sense is the most valuable weapon we possess to combat the assault on intelligence – let’s use it. So long as we dedicate our focus and intellectual efforts towards ascertaining the truth, those who have taken issue with facts will never be victorious.