As these pseudo-stories suggest, while we have been able to do without some of the peculiar problems of living in a country ruled by a die-hard liar, questions remain about how to deal with a continuing torrent of politically useful lies. And they stay because the problem both predates and was exacerbated by Trump; in fact, it goes to the heart of how journalists think about what they do.
A key tenet of professional journalism since its inception has been whistle-blowing, especially the mandate to bring bad deeds into the spotlight that practitioners have feverishly tried to cover up.
Exposure also meant disseminating a range of ideas, more or less evenly, so that readers could sort them independently to decide what they were thinking. This latter instinct intensified in the late 1960s as politics became increasingly ideological. More and more, the media have sought to present a voice on the right and a voice on the left in order to strike a pose of balance and objectivity.
But what happens when the incentives change, with the meaning of “exposure”, and the goal is no longer to persuade people of the merits of an idea, but simply to expose as many people as possible? to a false story? According to this huckster-type reasoning, exposing the idea – even demystifying it or pointing out its ethical and logical flaws – plays into the hands of people who circulate conspiracies.
This dynamic predates Trump’s rise to power. Since the 1990s, the conservative media have developed a symbiotic (or parasitic) relationship with mainstream news. For all the talk about silos, bubbles, and echo chambers, the real power of the right-wing media has been their ability to influence the coverage of non-conservative media.
There, true believers could pick up any number of books, videos, and articles all devoted to the Foster conspiracy, which had so much power that one of the most-watched national news broadcasts would spend time in Debunking it – not, as host Mike Wallace explained, because the facts were in question, but because the plots were circulating so widely.
Fox News was founded the following year and would continue to expand its political influence largely through coverage of its stories on other networks. Over the years, the relentless and inaccurate flogging of pet issues like ‘Fast & Furious’, Benghazi and of course Hillary Clinton’s mail server, has crept into other areas of Fox News. of sale.
This feat holds even, it turns out, when outrage is fueled by something simply conjured up out of nowhere. This was the case with birtherism, an easily refuted claim about President Barack Obama’s birthplace. While mainstream journalism didn’t have a truck with birtherism, it thrived in the right-wing media market, where politics, conspiracy, and entertainment became indistinguishable.
This momentum has been amplified by two major media developments in recent decades: the rise of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which allow the rapid spread of disinformation, and the economic restructuring of journalism, which rewards vast amounts of content being released at a rapid pace and prompting outlets to cover up the outrage of the day. Reshaping the news environment means that journalists aren’t the only ones needing to adapt – the rest of us are too.
During the Trump era, things got trickier. Journalists felt they could not turn away: after all, the main source of disinformation was the President of the United States, and they had to cover him. But in a post-Trump era, it’s clear that the issue is not an adversarial or polarized relationship between the press and the president. The problem is deeper and more structural: it’s how non-conservative outlets get used to circulating more conspiracies.
For the rest of us, one of the most important things people can do is resist the temptation to dunking on social media.
I know: sharing outrageous clips to call them comes comes with a surge of adrenaline and righteousness – as if with enough retweets people will finally understand just how toxic and fraudulent the material is. But that is not what is happening. Instead, the misinformation ends up in front of millions of other eyeballs, often without any real context or explanation.
The problem of disinformation is a thorny one. It is particularly difficult to correct because it plays on the virtues of journalism, its commitment to visibility and fairness. But in an informational environment in which exposure contributes to misinformation, the best approach is a deeply unsexy one: ignore the brightest, less reality-based objects – no stories or tweets about things. Beef’s illusory bans, for example – and to deeply contextualize the rest, to help people understand the motivations behind the spread of disinformation, and why it’s suddenly all over the place.
It’s slow, hard work that likely won’t pay off with awards, movie treatments, or Twitter virality, but it can kickstart the process of disinformation into a post-Trump era.