Republicans Reveal An Ironic Love Of Fake News

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Republicans Reveal An Ironic Love Of Fake News 1
Image from Logan Zillmer

A couple of days ago, a video¹ appeared on my Twitter feed of President Trump “trolling” news reporters, by making fun of the fact that social distancing was preventing them from packing into the press room. The guy who posted the tweet and his Republican followers found it hilarious, and I was confused as to why. So I asked.

The conversations that followed were frustrating, hilarious, and in some cases, enlightening. I was called stupid, braindead, naive, deluded, indoctrinated, an idiot, and a sheep. I was also called sinful, humourless, disingenuous, a degenerate, a hater, a troll, a bot, a loser, a snowflake, and a cuck (which I had to Google). One guy said I was Hillaryous. It was a hell of a lot of fun.

When explaining why they found the clip humorous, many of the people I spoke to gave the same reason: the press is a puppet of the Deep State, a mysterious and powerful group of Democrats who are trying to oust Donald Trump. By making fun of them, Trump is exposing them for what they are.

I’d heard of the Deep State conspiracy theory before, but hadn’t looked into it, and given that so many Republicans I spoke to believe the press to be a pawn of this obscure and powerful entity, I thought it would be worth trying to understand why, and to consider the implications.

The term “deep state” is believed to have originated in Turkey, where the government military formed a secret alliance with drug traffickers to wage war against Kurdish rebels¹. It was popularised by former Republican U.S. Congressional aide Mike Lofgren in his 2016 book The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, which describes a group of highly influential people from government, finance, and industry that governs the United States from outside of the formal political process.

This idea seems plausible, but the theory has been twisted into something different by Trump and his colleagues, who redefined the group as malicious and deceptive Democrats hell-bent on removing him from office. Trump has pushed the narrative constantly since coming to office. At a rally last year, he claimed that “unelected, deep state operatives who defy the voters to push their own secret agendas are truly a threat to democracy itself.” In a White House press briefing a few weeks ago, he referred to the State Department as the “Deep State Department,” to the chagrin of Anthony Fauci². More specifically related to the press, in September 2018 he tweeted that “the Deep State and the Left, and their vehicle, the Fake News Media, are going Crazy – & they don’t know what to do.” 

Fox News and other radical-right political commentators have helped to popularise the Trump-angled conspiracy theory, and in addition to the President’s countless assertions of “fake news” media, it’s easy to see why so many of the Republicans I spoke to believe in the existence of a deep state that wants to remove him from office, with the press being a key component.

What’s alarming about this is that credible media organisations, for all their faults, remain the best place for understanding our world. They’re composed of trained journalists who adhere to strict standards and ethics, with principles such as truth, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability³. I’m not talking about infotainment organisations like Fox News, who despite their name, are incapable of producing anything remotely close to valuable news. I’m talking about news organisations with a proven history of factual, evidence-based reporting, who use credible, cited sources, and base each story on the most critical information for the reader; the newspapers that have been around for centuries, with cabinets full of Pulitzer prizes—The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the BBC, to name a few. Despite having corporate owners whose business interests don’t always align with those of the journalists themselves, their stellar reputations position them as the most skilled public informers of the Western world.

Trump supporters don’t see them that way, and in their craving to consume news and understand the world around them, they turn to the Internet instead, a place where anyone can create a beautifully-designed professional website and publish their own version of the news. If they’re a half-decent writer, they can even make it sound credible. But these people are missing two key components critical to accurate reporting: journalistic standards, and the affiliation of a reputable news organisation. The Republicans that I talked to on Twitter sent me links to various different websites, which I’ll list in their entirety

  • Breitbart News, a far-right news syndicator which according to Wikipedia, publishes “a number of falsehoods, conspiracy theories, and intentionally misleading stories³.” In 2017, the website’s editor Alex Marlow admitted that the website skews its coverage to protect President Trump⁴.
  • RT, a Russian government-funded television network (formerly called Russia Today).
  • The Western Journal, a conversative news site that is blacklisted by Google and Apple News for its blatant inaccuracy⁸.
  • Human Events, a conservative newspaper and website, which according to owner Raheem Kassam (former editor of Breitbart News), has ambitions to create a MAGAzine⁷. Wikipedia believes the stories to be “generally unreliable” and doesn’t recommend using them as a source in their listings³.
  • The Political Insider, a conservative news website which in 2015, to damage Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign, published a fake picture of Bill Clinton receiving a massage from a woman⁵. They also base entire stories on quotes from Fox News hosts⁶.
  • Gateway Pundit, a far-right news website whose mission is to “expose the wickedness of the left,” and does so by promoting conspiracy theories.  Wikipedia won’t use the site for sources under any circumstances, stating its history for “publishing hoax articles and reporting conspiracy theories as fact³.”
  • The Daily Wire, a right-wing conservative news site founded by Ben Shapiro, which has a history of failing to verify stories, and taking them out of context⁹. Wikipedia won’t allow sources from the site unless “outside of exceptional circumstances³.”
  • PragerU, a conservative media organisation that creates political, economic, and philosophical videos. The company has a history of conflicts with YouTube, Google, and Facebook over its content. It once posted a climate change denial video that uses a classic data trick to mislead viewers¹⁰.
  • New York Post, a right-wing newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch. Wikipedia cautions against using sources for the paper, preferring “more reliable sources when available³.”

They also provided links from the Daily Kos, Breaking 911, and Powerline, whose credibility was more difficult to confirm.

While the sample of data is too small to be an accurate analysis of a typical Republican’s news sources, the vast majority of Republicans I spoke to provided news sources that were from inaccurate or blatantly misleading media websites, which in their words, could “wake me up” from my debilitating naivety if I gave them a chance. This is disturbing. Our understanding of reality is based on being told the truth, and the small cross-section of Republicans who I spoke to were forming their version of reality from websites that published inaccurate or misleading news, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories. The humour they derived from Trump’s trolling of the press was based on the idea that journalists create nothing but fake news, when almost every single news source they sent me was guilty of doing exactly that. The irony of this would be funny if the implications weren’t so severe—a warped version of reality in which liberals are deluded sheep, the press are the enemy, and Donald Trump is the greatest leader in the history of America. With the free press an undoubtable puppet of a malevolent, Democratic Deep State looking to usurp their beloved President, they get their news from paranoid, right-wing bloggers without the slightest idea of how to be good journalists.

Non-journalists can report the news, but they’re unlikely to report it to the standards of trained journalists who work for reputable media organisations. There’s no question that an article from the New York Times is more trustworthy than an article from Breibart News. It doesn’t matter that the Times is liberal and Breibart conservative—facts are facts. While the Times article may include language sympathetic to liberal ideals, which can influence the reader’s political viewpoint and shift them along the spectrum, it’s still rooted in fact. On the occasion that a reputable newspaper like the Times publishes inaccurate stories (like when reporter Jayson Blair was caught plagiarising), it’s big news because of their stellar reputation. People don’t make a fuss when Breibart News produce inaccurate stories, because they have a history of doing exactly that.

One polite and thoughtful person told me about his mistrust of the press, pointing out that a large majority of the US media is owned by just six corporations, an interesting point if you believe that the media have an underlying agenda pushed by their corporate overlords. This idea is backed by a controversial book from the 80’s called Manufacturing Consent, in which Edward S.Herman and Noam Chomsky describe a media that is part of a wider ideological framework, controlled by elite interests. While Chomsky still holds this position, he laments one of the book’s effects in a 2018 interview with author Matt Taibbi:

“I think one of the unfortunate effects of Manufacturing Consent is that a lot of people who’ve read it say, ‘Well, we can’t trust the media.’ But that’s not exactly what it said. If you want to get information, sure, read the New York Times, but read it with your eyes open. With a critical mind. The Times is full of facts.”

Noam Chomsky

As one of the foremost intellectuals in the world, Chomsky’s position is worryingly close to the traditional, non-Trump-related idea of a controlling Deep State, a group that he prefers to call the “masters of the universe.” A comparison of the conspiracy theory compared to Chomsky and Herman’s position is outside the scope of this article, but if the authors of the book are to be believed, there truly is an elite class who sets an agenda for the press. This doesn’t turn hard-found facts by journalists into lies, but it does have an impact on the stories that they choose to report. For Chomsky, we should still get our facts from credible media companies like The New York Times, but remain skeptical about why the article has been written and chosen by the paper’s editors. Our choice of news remains between credible journalists who report facts, or news websites with a history of deception.

I’m sure there’s plenty of informed Republicans out there who get their news from credible sources, but this wasn’t the case for the people I spoke to on Twitter. They had a deep mistrust of what they call the “mainstream media,” which seemed a convenient way to group every media company together in order to stereotype it, and reinforce their beliefs. For these Republicans, getting a balanced view of the news is impossible because they don’t trust the news in the first place, instead choosing to get their information from shady, dishonest websites. They become trapped in an echo chamber of hateful vitriol, and because of their inherent tribalism and tendency for confirmation bias, escaping seems impossible.

As for Trump himself, pushing the Deep State conspiracy theory is a convenient way to undermine the credibility of a press that exposes his wrongdoing. Every whine of a “deep state” or “fake news” is an attempt to worm away from the uncomfortable facts, and to cast blame when he doesn’t get his way. For his supporters, it strengthens the idea that the press are a malicious and vengeful force of bandits who can’t be trusted. They’d wouldn’t be seen dead reading a copy of The Washington Post.

There’s no firm grip on reality without truth, and in a world where Trump supporters form their opinions from deceitful, inaccurate news, they’re plummeting deeper into dangerous fantasy, where lies are truth, truth are lies, and the rabbit hole is inescapable.

References

  1. The tweet that inspired this article.
  2. Charlie Nash, 2020, Trump Says ‘Deep State Department’ During Press Briefing, Mediaite
  3. Journalism ethics and standards, Wikipedia
  4. Conor Friedersdorf, 2017, Breitbart’s Astonishing Confession, The Atlantic
  5. Brennan Suen, Jared Holt & Tyler Cherry, 2016 Websites Peddling Fake News Still Using Google Ads Nearly A Month After Google Announced Ban, Media Matters
  6. Jack Hadfield, 2020, Laura Ingraham: Trump Should Re-Open Country On May 1st, The Political Insider
  7. Erik Wemple, 2019, Breitbart alum to resuscitate Human Events, The Washington Post
  8. The Western Journal, Wikipedia
  9. The Daily Wire, Wikipedia
  10. Climate Change: What Do Scientists Say?, PragerU

The importance of good ideas

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1_QBg4nJeGIW2yDjgyWMrMVAPhoto by Vale Zmeykov on Unsplash

Death – that fiercly dark, inescapable lurker – eventually reveals his position to every one of us, and sweeps us away. If you’re lucky, it could be while you’re softly snoring in your bed, as a blood clot torpedos its way towards your unsuspecting heart. If you’re unlucky, you’ll contract a horrible, drawn out disease with no cure, and stink up your hospital room in the process. The end result is just the same – this life as you know it comes to a close, and you return to the same state as before you were born, a state impossible for anyone to describe.

While we may not be able to persist for eternity (as if that would be a good thing), there’s something that we can create which does continue into the future: our ideas. We can concoct wonderful concepts in our brains, and magically transplant them into the brains of other people, some of which can be passed on and thrive within human culture for millenia. Controversial scientist Richard Dawkins expands on this idea in his book The Selfish Gene, in which he proposes the idea of the meme, which like its biological counterpart the gene, has the ability to self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures. This was the definition of memes before the internet took over and turned it into something trivial. Dawkins’ meme is a truly perceptive concept which imbues our ideas with a life of their own; an existence that can adapt, thrive, or die, much like ourselves. The ideas that we send out into the world can be devastingly prolific, or fade away with a depressing whimper. They can live in the minds of entire continents, influencing the behaviour of their hosts in unforeseen ways. This is why it’s so important to ensure that our ideas are good and beneficial to the human race, to the extent that we judge them so. Bad ideas are like a cancer, which can infect multitudes of people and end up annihilating us. Climate change deniers are an example of this – the asburd idea that they hold in their heads might literally end up killing us all. This might be considered more murderous than any cancer that can develop in our bodies, and its effectiveness is strengthened dramatically by the rise of the internet, a network that serves as a superhighway for bad ideas.

Truth is the necessary antidote to such evils. We all have a moral responsibility to send good, true ideas out into the world, which nourish the human race. Worthy ideas are like sustenance for the soul, as though you’re consuming the most nutritious, perfectly balanced meal available to you. Bad ideas are tantamount to visiting McDonalds every day – eventually, they might kill you. The information that you share with your fellow chimps is much more important than you might realise, and so some moments of consideration are required in order to prevent the spread of cancerous concepts. This is why good journalism and writing is such a crucial part of society – we need excellent journalists to counteract the stream of incessent bullshit that is fired at us from every imaginable angle. The truth is often difficult to uncover; certainly not as easy as clicking on the first few Google search results and then re-writing what you’ve discovered. Anything worthwhile takes time, and anyone committed to the truth should realise this, lest they get drawn into the dark world of damaging falsities. Fake news is a genuine problem in today’s world, the validity of which is being undermined every time that Trump incorrectly labels something as fake news, in order to cover up a glaring truth about himself. It’s a part of Trump’s ongoing war with the media, in which he’s going so far as expressing his approval of assaulting journalists, because of their responsibility and gratifying effectiveness at illuminating his obscenities. Earlier this year at one of Trump’s rallies, his supporters were filmed mercilessly abusing the media – a direct result of the president’s words.

The bigger the audience, the more construction or destruction the person can inflict upon the world. The concept can be extended to celebrities, who whether by talent or sheer luck, have amassed monumental audiences in which they can effectively spread an endless amount of awful ideas. Take the Kardashians or any one of their ilk, who whether realising it or not, are spreading the destructive notion that you have to look and dress a certain way in order to be considered beautiful. Their absurd fame is genuinely bad for the human race, notably for young impressionable girls whose self-esteem would be better nourished if they followed the pursuits of people who were actually worthwhile. Sadly, Marie Curie or Rosa Parks don’t have quite the same entertainment value as an over-inflated celebrity with a head full of air.

Our society can only flourish if we help to foster good ideas, and root out bad ones. A solid foundation requires strength and durability, which can only be found in valuable truth. Anything built on deceit will crumble when put to the test, which could happen to our species unless we make a concerted effect to propogate lasting, effective ideas, while at the same time rallying against duplicitious nonsense. Like Karl Pilkington’s Bullshit Man, if you witness somebody in the act of spouting inaccurate drivel, call them out on it, preferably in a similarly dramatic fashion.

We’re all destined for the grave, but our ideas don’t have to be. A small part of us can continue into the future, and if you choose to live with integrity, you might just improve the human race in the process.

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