Tag Archives: 2016 presidential campaign

The Disinformation Age

Ed Stein, Rocky Mt.News
                                Ed Stein, Rocky Mt.News

When enough bad information is spread around it licenses all kinds of fantasies that take on a life of their own.

Since the mid-1800s information traveling at nearly the speed of light has transformed the opportunities for Americans to know more about their world. Of course the printed text offered a much earlier gateway to the minds of others.  But book culture still works on an extended clock, using time to develop more considered insights.  In contrast, electronic culture in the information age tends to give us allegations and assertions on the fly.  Now and then a few are actually true.

We are at a transition point when anyone can “publish” at will.  Access to digital media seems to create infinitely permeable understandings of what  “information” can be.  We are no longer shocked that willful distortion and strategic disinformation is  regularly in the mix of ‘views’ on offer.  But it is dismaying to see even a president-elect abandoning the usual rhetorical circumspection that comes to leaders who are about to speak in behalf of a nation. Trump is a fantasist. Never has a new chief executive come to the office with less regard for the reality-based world.  Politifact’s example of a tweet from Trump on November 15 is typical: “The @nytimes sent a letter to their subscribers apologizing for their BAD coverage of me.”  Not true.  Nor is there an evidence for the stunning claim that he “actually” won the 2016 popular vote, as he recently asserted.

Trump is a fantasist. Never has a new chief executive come to the office with less regard for the reality-based world.  

Any historical period has included individuals engaged in malicious distortion.  The Second World War’s Tokyo Rose was perhaps the most famous.  But we seem to be at the threshold of an era where claims anchored in evidence have no special status. This new mutant version of the information age finds ready acceptance of “alternate narratives” that are wrong, but carry just enough veracity to be taken seriously.

There are disturbing signs of our weakening regard for the truth everywhere.  A majority of Republicans still believe President Obama is not an American citizen. The evidence of his birth certificate and transformational presidency is not enough. And then we have the news that The Oxford English Dictionary has chosen “post truth” as its word of the year, reflecting—among other things—the low-knowledge/big-change results seen recently with Britain’s Bexit vote and the 2016 presidential election.

People who study these things estimate that one in three Twitter posts are generated by computers programmed to lob what are literally mindless attacks against others. The accuracy of those issued from real humans often aren’t much better. And we now read reports that Facebook and Twitter are scrambling to tighten controls on “false news” stories and mindless invective thrown at political opponents. They have been overrun in part by “disinformation specialists” both home and abroad that enter the fray of national debate under cover of anonymity.   These hacks are able to repeat dubious accusations that would never see the light of day in a fact-checked magazine or  newspaper.

The willingness to believe falsehoods even overtakes scientific evidence and academic expertise. These days academic analysis is not so much admired as dismissed or ridiculed.  Many Americans have redefined universities as political organizations, perpetuating what they see as a runaway political correctness that substitutes for reasoned understanding. I’ve had columns and posts about communication processes trolled by readers less for what I said and more for who I am. For some it is enough to know that a person is an academician to make the label self-indicting.

When enough bad information is spread around it licenses all kinds of fantasies that take on their own life. So when a street in Miami Beach floods, some residents can still find reasons to blame the local water department for leaky pipes rather than accept the inconvenient truth of melting ice caps triggering “king tides.” Of course most of us eventually face consequences for not living in the reality-based world. As almost any smoker can tell you, truths have a way of imposing themselves on our pitiful efforts to look away from the obvious.

Beyond simple untruths, when proposed policies offend important values—justice, fairness and compassion, to cite just a few–there is too much time for the mischief of disinformation and misinformation to have their ways with us before reason can add to real understandings.  As Winston Churchill famously remarked, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

I was never much of a believer in teaching “media literacy” courses to students at all levels.  But the subject may indeed be needed to save us from the quicksand of fantasies scattered across the internet, and soon to be given the imprimatur of presidential authority.

The Political Poison of Twitter

Twitter imageYou can doll-up the 140 character/20-word limit as “microblogging.”  But that term hardly does justice to the vacuous sneering this social media form has unleashed into our national discourse. 

Over the years pundits have been fond of identifying the chief villains responsible for creating our seemingly hardened political life.  At least in terms of national politics, a host of problems have been identified that have undermined American democracy. Take your pick:  the short eight-second sound-bite common to television news, the tendency of the press to cover campaigns like horseraces and poker games, too much money in the process abetted by the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, the growth of television attack ads that hardly mention the candidates that pay for them, or the decline of the conciliatory impulse as a candidate virtue.

But if I had to pick only one irritant of the American body politic in this election cycle, it would be the cancer of Twitter as a means of making and setting news agendas.  You can doll-up the 140 character/20-word limit as “microblogging.”  But that term hardly does justice to the vacuous sneering and sloganeering this social media form has unleashed into our national discourse.  It may be harmless for private users.  But it has become a bludgeon used by too many campaigns.

Twitter creates two fundamental problems. The first is that it forces a communicator to stand out quickly, usually by texting intellectually dishonest and hyperbolic assertions: features we have gotten to know to well because of the Donald Trump campaign.  Simply speaking, the format makes less likely any kind of thoughtful interactive discourse, often encouraging the rankest kinds of under-qualified claims.  A Twitter account can be like an arsenal of bombs dropped from drones.  Each rhetorical explosive is lobbed at a distance that saves the sender from having to answer a counter-response.  As a means to bypass the media, Twitter is a campaigner’s dream.

Trump Twitter Kelly

Trump Huffington

The second problem is that too many in the press love these text feeds.  If you happen to be a lazy or overworked reporter, you need reach no further than the Twitter feed of the campaign you are covering.  All of the provocative quotes you would like to get from the candidate are there, calculated to be as subtle as a snowball in the face.

Better yet, quotes from Twitter usually come as easy building blocks for a story built around the hackneyed idea that journalism needs to feature conflict.  Charges made on a feed are easily matched up to counter-charges from a competing campaign that is monitoring the competition.  Paste together these shouts into the ether and you have a story without ever having to consider a full stump speech. This process allows the impression that the essential press-politician equation is in tact.  More realistically, the impression is more illusion than reality. A politician can “speak”  to the press without holding a real briefing where follow-up questions might get asked.  And a reporter can go home at a decent hour without the inconvenience of having to show up at a campaign event.

To be sure, this kind of ‘campaign by proxy’ matches the ways we now live. Texting is our distraction and obsession.  So we hardly notice that the press/politician dialogue that has traditionally been an essential part of our democracy has been muted.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu