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Chief among the disastrous consequences of our ailing political culture is the election of a consummate bullshitter and seemingly pathological liar to be the next president of the United States. This is in part a failure of our language, evidenced by the debate about how to deal with “fake news.”
“Fake news” sounds like the satire of The Onion or the brilliant performance art of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. Everyone is in on the joke, and that kind of “fake news” can bring us to new perspectives and a greater understanding of ourselves and our world. But the kind of malicious or purely mercenary false news stories we’ve seen in recent months is something else entirely: hoaxes designed to attract viewers that grievously misled voters in this critical election.
Whether churned out by Russian trolls, Macedonian teenagers making pocket money or unprincipled political operatives, false stories were more likely than real news articles to go viral on social media in the final weeks of the election. Among the winners were bogus reports that the pope had endorsed Donald Trump and an insinuation that Hillary Clinton had engineered the execution of an FBI agent. The “pizzagate” story, which led a gunman to a real neighborhood restaurant in Washington, D.C., falsely reported to be the center of a pedophile sex ring, easily could have ended in tragedy.
Why do people fall for this stuff? It seems to have something to do with the way our social media networks are constructed. We’re more likely to pay attention to the final source of an article — the person who calls it to our attention — than to the original source. With sites like Facebook feeding us self-selected and self-reinforcing media, we begin to have a real problem.
That’s especially true given the outsized megaphones wielded by celebrities and politicians, who can reach millions of people with a single blog post or tweet. If they, like our incoming president, the ultimate celebrity-politician, don’t give a damn about the credibility of the source they’re retweeting, truth doesn’t stand a chance.
Trump’s lying is, like everything about him, hyperbolic to the point of self-parody. We may expect politicians to fudge the truth in the heat of battle, but Trump displays a contempt for the very idea that someone in his position should be expected to confine himself to true statements. On the stump he repeated falsehoods that had been debunked. He retweeted false and racially inflammatory information distributed by white nationalists.
Paul Waldman has described Trump’s “epistemological netherworld” as a place where “facts are meaningless, knowledge is useless and nobody can really know anything.” One of Trump’s main surrogates recently took it even further, saying there’s no such thing as facts. No such thing! That worldview will come in handy for the people he is appointing to lead federal agencies whose public service missions they oppose.
In the face of this wreckage, it is sadly unsatisfying to note the hypocrisy of Trump’s evangelical supporters who claim to speak for truth and who are fond of criticizing liberals for moral relativism. Heck, Mike Pence even suggests we should find Trump’s lies about voter fraud “refreshing.”
Trumpism could not have triumphed had the path not been cleared by right-wing pundits who always have acted more as political propagandists than journalists. Trump’s relentless, belittling attacks on the credibility of the media were preceded by a long-term campaign by right-wing operatives to discredit “the liberal media.”
Clearly Trump’s attack-the-media strategy is not going to end once he takes office. Newt Gingrich, a standout among unprincipled propagandists, is even suggesting that conservatives should refer to the news media as “the propaganda media” — a classic right-wing strategy to charge your enemy with what are, in fact, your own sins. In a world in which traditional journalistic gatekeepers already have lost much of their power, Gingrich wants to further defang what remains to hold Trump accountable.
It’s hard to know how to deal with the prevalence of misinformation in a society in which we revere freedom of expression. There are a lot of smart people working on technical ways for companies such as Google and Facebook to identify sites that peddle hoax news and warn readers about them — and deny them ad revenue. But there is a bigger civic challenge facing all of us.
A recent study by researchers at Stanford University evaluated the ability of middle school, high school and college students to distinguish between actual news, bogus news and advertising in the media they consume online. The result: “bleak.” It is clear this problem is not restricted to the young, and we join the researchers in their worry that democracy itself is “threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish.”
There is an urgent need for more and better civics education in our schools, and that must be joined by efforts to foster media literacy and critical thinking. And it now seems just as urgent that we find a way to build into our broken political culture a greater respect for telling the truth. We can start by adopting our own zero-tolerance policies for fake news and insisting that media and public officials continue to seek and speak the truth about Donald Trump and the flabbergasting group he is choosing to run the government.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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