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

Why you should distrust your beliefs

argument.jpgImage from Farnam Street

“The most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.” — H. L. Mencken

The evidence is overwhelming: Trump is an imbecile, and a dangerous one. The frequency of his lies are astonishing. For a (supposedly) sane person like me, the fact that he was ever voted into office, and continues to serve as the head of state, beggars belief. How can his supporters continue to stand by his side in the face of the lies, scandals, and clear evidence of Trump’s hilarious incompetency? How can they be so stupid?

Social psychology has the answer, and its implications are frightening. The phenomenon is known as motivated reasoning, and it causes us to blankly reject solid evidence that challenges our beliefs. Clearly, this can be a dangerous cognitive failing at certain times, such as voting for a president. There’s a few reasons why this phenomenon occurs:

Cognitive dissonance
This is the mental discomfort that you experience when your beliefs are challenged. Few people like discomfort, so we’ll do whatever we can to reduce it. The quickest way to neutralise cognitive dissonance is to simply reject the challenging idea; no effort needs to be expended to figure out whether the challenge is accurate. We can simply reject, regain our comfort, and move on. Default notions are much easier.

The alternative way to dispel discomfort is rationalisation, which we consider to be logical and accurate, but is actually just another way for us to reinforce our own idea. Reasoning is permeated with emotion – our feelings about an idea surface much faster than conscious, logical thought, so our first reaction to them is emotional, and therefore less likely to be based in reality.

“Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.” —Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber

Our delicate egos
Much of our confidence is hinged on being right. Challenging a strongly-held belief is like taking a large stick and bashing somebody’s self-esteem with it. We want to protect ourselves at all cost, and the way that we do that is by rejecting conflicting evidence and holding onto our beliefs ever more tightly. In a sense, our beliefs are our identity, and threatening our identity is a dangerous attack which we’ll defend against using the strongest means possible: outright rejection of the belief, or rationalisation.

“The reasoning process is more like a lawyer defending a client than a judge or scientist seeking truth.” — Jonathan Haidt

Our tribe protects us
Our primitive times instilled a sense of tribal loyalty, which ensured our survival. If we were foolish enough to have coveted our neighbour’s delectable chimp wife, and upon discovery were cast out of the tribe, that probably would have meant death. To this day, our tribal instincts are incredibly strong. Republicans stick with Republicans, Democrats with Democrats. If you challenge a core belief of my political party, I’m very likely to outrightly reject it.

We’ve confirmed our beliefs extensively
“I don’t care whether you’re presenting overwhelming, contrary evidence to me, I’ve spent hours reading about this topic myself.”

What has actually happened is that the hours were spent reading every piece of content that agreed with my opinion, and completely ignoring that which disagreed. This is known as confirmation bias. 

1_yN2Xhv-M5PPerWzDVNt3sw.jpegImage from Chainsawsuit.com

We’re far from logical
Though we might like to consider ourselves as straightforward, logical people, the reality is that much of our decision making involves a good deal of emotion. We wouldn’t even be able to make a decision if we were 100% logical, as discovered by an unfortunate gentleman with a brain tumour. Clearly, the ludicrous man that is Donald Trump isn’t a logical choice for president, but emotionally, his supporters think that he is.

As an intelligent human, you might assume that you’ll be able to outsmart the devlish process of motivated reasoning. You’d be totally wrong – smart people are even more susceptible, because their increased levels of knowledge just make it harder for them to let go of their belief.

We have a stake in the belief
Maybe we just purchased a gleaming, curvaceous diesel Jaguar XE, and desperately want to believe that climate change is nonsense, so that we don’t feel bad about pumping diesel fumes into the atmosphere. Climate change is invisible and intangible, but our sense of moral worthiness is close to hand. The scientists must be wrong.

**

Motivated reasoning is one of the culprits behind absurdities such as flat-earth theory, anti-vaxxing, and climate-change denial. The first is mildly humourous, the second will kill innocent children, and the third might end up killing a quarter of a million people a year. Obviously, what we choose to believe can have a devastating impact on our species, so being aware of motivated reasoning, and knowing how you might be able to combat it, is of urgent importance.

Here’s some ways in which you might battle your own destructive biases:

Be skeptical about your own beliefs
In light of the fact that our identity is pinged on our beliefs, this can be immensely demanding. We want to believe that we’re smart, reasonable human beings with a good idea of what’s going on around us. Being skeptical about our own beliefs might be a form of self-flagellation, in which we inflict bloody pain to cast out sinful, factually incorrect demons. Casting intentional doubt on our beliefs will cause us mental suffering, but the reward is more accurate reflection of reality, which could be the difference between life and death.

Check the credibility of your information
Tabloid newspapers aren’t credible. The ten facts about immigration that your redneck cousin posted on Facebook probably isn’t credible. The mysterious bleatings of an evangelical Christian on TV isn’t credible. It’s your responsibility to figure out whether your information is coming from an unbiased source, and so much of what we receive every day is biased. Everyone has desires that they’re motivated to achieve, and they won’t think twice about bending the truth in order to achieve them. Even if the person you’re speaking to isn’t trying to achieve a conscious desire, they’re still unconsciously trying to affirm their beliefs in order to protect their own egos.

Watch out for cognitive dissonance
When your beliefs are challenged, feeling uncomfortable is a cue to be cautious – you’ll want to seek out affirming evidence to remove the uncomfortableness. At this point you might try to deliberately soften your attitude, and consider whether the opposing belief may be correct. The more value that you place on your belief, the stronger the cognitive dissonance, and the harder it’ll be to persuade you otherwise. Keep a close eye on this, and have the courage to change your mind if you’re faced with strong opposing evidence.

Consider how your belief might be benefiting you
What do you gain by holding onto your belief? Maybe your entire family are republicans, and by switching sides, you’d no longer have their loyalty or respect? Maybe it’s just peace of mind? For climate-change deniers, the idea that we’re destroying our own planet has distressing consequences for us, and we’d rather not believe it to be true.

Work on your self-esteem
Research has shown that the better your self-esteem, the more willing you’ll be to accept threatening information, because you won’t need to be so protective of your beliefs. A much easier way of doing this is to consider something good about yourself; some personal value that you’ve achieved. This improves your confidence and makes you more accepting of challenging arguments.

Get off social media
Social media apps are motivated reasoning on crack – your friends probably hold the same beliefs as you, spread the same beliefs as you, and reinforce the same beliefs as you, regardless of whether they’re true. The Russians knew this, and used it effectively to help Trump win the election.

**

It’s easy to poke fun at Trump supporters, until you realise that we’re subject to the exact same cognitive biases as them. In another life, you could have been a Trump supporter, or a pitiable flat-earther. Fighting the phenomenon of motivated reasoning is difficult, but a worthy pursuit. Without this laborious undertaking, we might find ourselves harnessing a belief that will literally help to destroy our own planet. It’s urgently important for us to reject bad ideas and promote good ones. The truth is out there, and much of it doesn’t yet reside in your head. Have the courage to pursue the truth, and in the process you might just help to save our species.