Republicans Reveal An Ironic Love Of Fake News

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

Failure of the popular media

c546c9af393345dda2f934638e5de1ae_18.jpgPhoto from Al Jazeera

According to the United Nations, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis is currently going on in Yemen, at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula. The civil war that is raging in the country has resulted in 22 million people – three-quarters of the population – in desperate need of humanitarian aid. 18 million of those people don’t know where their next meal is coming from. That’s equivalent to every single person in London and New York, suddenly without the prospect of an upcoming meal.

Head north-west a couple of thousand kilometres to war-torn Syria. Here, the number of people in desperation amounts to 13 million, over two-thirds of their population. Almost 6 million people are fleeing the endless bombs, some of which contain illegal, devastating nerve agents, choking their victims to death in the most appalling way imaginable.

Make your way south-west until you reach South Sudan, and you’ll hear news of 2.5 million people being forced to desert their homes, in pursuit of a place where they won’t be mercilessly gunned down by rebel soldiers.

There’s a good chance that you don’t know much about these conflicts. In a bid to chase readership and ratings, the popular media prefers to cover more jovial, loveable stories such as George Clooney being named as the royal baby’s godparent. Apparently, a royal baby is more important than thousands of dead ones in the Middle East. The argument is that the popular media are just giving the people what they want. But are we more interested in entertaining topics because that’s what the media promotes? Or would we be willing to spend time learning about humanitarian disasters, if clearly presented with them? This is not to say that the media should forgo all entertainment and torment us with constant death and misery, but they have to make some kind of effort to cover such critical stories, and to position them at the forefront of their mediums, not in some out-of-focus dark corner where nobody ventures. In addition to this, good, hard-working journalists are required instead of bottom-feeding hacks, in order to capture our attention more effectively.

Our own responsibilities are to actively seek out these kinds of stories, and ignore the mind-numbing fluff that jumps up and down for our attention. Spend some time browsing the world category on your favourite news sites, making sure that the sources themselves are considered credible. The BBC, Guardian and Al Jazeera are three excellent examples. The often-buried issues that you’re pursuing are of paramount importance, and unless we know about them, there’s nothing we can do to help. The cynics among you might be screaming: “but we can’t do anything to help!” But this simply isn’t true – change can only start with us, the people. Just look to Martin Luther King or Gandhi for inspiration.

While Facebook is clearly a vapid, soul-sucking creation, it’s still the most popular social network on the planet, and can be used to illuminate crucial topics which usually find themselves in the nether regions of popular media. You might be surprised at how much interest people take in such stories. We’re not as cold-hearted as you think.

Until the day that our souls are merged with the cloud, we retain the ability to converse with people face-to-face – another effective method for spreading important news. Chat to your friends about it over an alcoholic beverage; get on your high-horse and protest against the awful injustice of it all.

On the topic of protests, if you really wanted to get involved, you could join one. You might even start one, and invite a few local news crews in the hope that they’ll actually cover the event. Just try not to smash anything up, because that isn’t fitting for a polite citizen such as yourself.

Finally, reach into those deep pockets of yours, and offer a portion of the contents to a deserving charity. The UN Refugee Agency is a good candidate.

When you’re casually browsing through your media of choice, remember that the most important news on the planet isn’t going to be easy to find. A little poking and digging is required to discover the good stuff. And while much of what you read will be depressing, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it. In fact, that makes it all the more important to read, because upsetting news usually covers that which requires the most immediate change, and change can only start with us.

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