Guest post by Iva Kopraleva, former Editor-in-Chief of A Different View.
Kellyanne Conway, President Trump’s former campaign manager and current advisor, recently referenced the Bowling Green massacre – a fictional terrorist attack – in multiple interviews and, as a result, both she and President Trump blamed the media for not covering terrorism properly. When asked whether Trump’s tweet that “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally” reflects reality, Conway said “He is messaging to his supporters and to the rest of the country how he feels”. Despite there being no evidence of widespread election fraud during the US elections whatsoever, Trump insists on launching a formal investigation. Conway also classified the White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s demonstrably false statement that Trump’s inauguration had the largest audience ever as him offering “alternative facts”.
The notion that we live in a post-truth world is repeated so often that we are almost forced to accept it as a truth in itself. Oxford Dictionaries even named post-truth the word of the year for 2016 defining it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.
But what does living in a post-truth world really mean?
Put very crudely, in the post-truth era, what is true ceases to be important or valuable. In politics, opinions and feelings become facts.
The above is not the only time Trump or his circle have used alternative facts as a substitute for reality. Trump’s stances on science denial, including when it comes to climate change and vaccines, are well documented. The recently issued gag order banning the Environmental Protection Agency staff and other governmental bodies from talking to the press and posting on social media is just further proof of his disregard for peer-reviewed research and scientific facts.
Speaking of facts, according to his Politifact scorecard, 70% of what Trump claims is false to a varying degree but 18% of his statements will set his pants on fire. Other politicians spread false information as well, but to a much lesser extent. According to the same source, 26% of what Hillary Clinton has said is wrong (which can be considered as a low number only in comparison). Despite information about Trump’s alternative facts being readily available and highlighted many times during the campaign by Trump’s political opponents, his blatant disregard for the truth, facts and evidence won him the presidency. Why is that?
Fake news or ‘alternative facts’, as per the new White House vernacular, have existed online since the inception of the Internet and offline since always. Distorting reality through media (be it social or traditional) is certainly not a new technique and fact-checking sites have had their hands full debunking fake news and conspiracy theories for quite a while. There is no lack of accurate, factual information on the Internet and most of the time it is just a click away.
However, there is also a lot of misleading, attractive-sounding click bait, that is often much more in tune with what we find inherently interesting or what corresponds to our existing beliefs. Confirmation bias makes news stories that we agree with more easily digestible, more likely to be shared of social media and as a consequence, more widely spread in our personal social circles. The accuracy of the information is a secondary concern.
In a click-driven business model, the online media has an incentive to produce tons of click bait. Demonstrably false but scandalous stories like #Pizzagate or unverified reports like Buzzfeed’s publication about Trump’s relations with Russia, receive unprecedented attention online. They also require less effort on part of the journalists and editors.
This effect is amplified by the echo chambers we exist in online, specifically designed to confirm our preconceived believes and shield us from opposing viewpoints. In the “Filter bubble”, Eli Pariser eloquently explains how our Google searches manage to trap us within the confines of our previous behaviour online. By “guessing” what would be the most relevant search results for us, the Google algorithm robs us of discovering information that goes against what we normally click on.
And if Google places us in a bubble when we search for online content, we very effectively do the same ourselves in our social network interactions. Apart for befriending, liking and following people and organisations based on whether they hold the same opinions as us, we tend to protect our echo chambers by actively blocking dissenting views. On Facebook, Twitter and other platforms, our information is once again tailored in accordance with our previous behaviour, keeping us safely in the bubble. WSJ cleverly demonstrated this with the “Red Feed, Blue Feed” tool, designed to place Republican and Democrat Facebook feeds side by side.
So what is the solution?
Several avenues are being pursued.
Facebook has pledged to introduce a fact checking mechanism where users can flag fake news and third party fact checkers can label it as “disputed”. The company now officially states in its Audience Network policy that it will not display fake news websites. Google is taking measures against the spread of websites with intentionally misleading content as well by restricting their access to AdSense, the company’s advertising service. There are also apps and browser extensions out there that algorithmically detect fake news.
Many media outlets seem to be more willing to invest in investigative journalism now, including the New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN. Investigative pieces take a long time and much effort to publish but their impact can be substantial. It appears that the media has gained a new appreciation for the importance of this type of work.
Individuals also have a role to play in rejecting alternative facts. We can learn to recognise click bait when we see it and to differentiate between reliable and unreliable sources of information. We can also start engaging in fact checking ourselves, especially when the information we receive is later used to inform important decisions. We should stop censoring our bubbles by blocking, unfollowing and unfriending people we disagree with politically or otherwise. Instead, we should actively pursue conversations with ‘the opposite side’.
There are all efforts in the rights direction. But are fake news really what made Trump the President of the United States?
Fake news is a real issue that needs to be addressed. It is difficult enough to swim in the sea of information that is the Internet without someone purposefully trying to drown you. But there were many other factors, including people’s disillusionment with the establishment and the lack of an adequate alternative candidate.
However, not being able or willing to differentiate fact from fiction might signal a deeper problem, namely a reluctance to think critically about politics. Critical thinking is nothing more than the unwillingness to accept that something is true without being presented with evidence and the willingness to change your mind if the evidence contradicts your previously held beliefs. Being open to facts and evidence allows us to see the political reality objectively. Regardless of one’s political orientation, basing policy on reality is certainly preferable to relying on alternative facts.
Iva Kopraleva is a Project Coordinator at Sofia Platform. Previously, she was an Associate Editor at E-International Relations (2013-2014), the Editor-in-chief of the international politics blog A Different View of the International Association for Political Science Students (2014-2015), and a Research Assistant at Sciences Po Grenoble (2014). She has a Bachelor’s in International Relations from the University of National and World Economy in Sofia and a Master’s degree in European Studies from Maastricht University.