‘It doesn’t matter if the basis for your views are factually wrong, you can find them backed up online’
LIAR, LIAR, PANTS On Fire! The political fact checking website PolitiFact currently rank 18% of what Donald Trump says as Pants on Fire lies. Add in False and Mostly False and he strides, unashamedly, to startling level of sub-truthfulness. The evidence says the man shouldn’t be believed, and yet the American public, particularly white males, have bought in to Team Trump, and this election will go down to the wire.
In a different era, truth mattered to the US electorate. In an interview in 1976 Jimmy Carter’s admission that he’d looked on some women with lust shook the public and could have derailed his successful presidential campaign. Times are different now and this, the first presidential election of the post-truth era illustrates how the voting public have become willing to accept the flimsy, attenuated truths of candidates.
Voters now have more access to news sources than ever before but the brave new world that technology promised to bring us is one distorted by half-truths and falsehoods. President Obama, himself plagued by spurious claims regarding his birthplace, recently described a ‘wild, wild west’ media landscape and suggested that some form of curation was needed to give the public access to information that was factual.
Historically this curation was done by the media. If it was in print, on radio or broadcast on television it was perceived by the public as having foundation in fact. The media though, is now in crisis itself. Newspapers and other media have been down-scaling for a decade with newsrooms shedding journalists and editors. News is increasingly consumed on mobile devices, particularly by younger readers, with many now turning to social media for details of breaking news.
Publishing online is fast, often furious and requires no expertise or even knowledge on a topic with opinion morphing in to fact within hours. As new media consumers we may look to global giants like Twitter and Facebook for something more solid, more trustworthy. They are platforms of the public though, and as such can be a canvas for the annoyed, disaffected or simply nefarious to post or retweet what they wish were true.
More than a decade ago, traditional media knew it would be threatened by nascent online news sources. They flocked online and invested heavily in what they thought could be their digital saviour. In the eyes of many readers, these traditional media sources online are simply more of the same and compete with the consumers favoured news sources.
Newspapers had to up their game and the phenomenon of click-bait took hold. Journalists have known for centuries that you need to grab the readers’ attention quickly.
Freddie Starr didn’t Eat My Hamster, but it became almost a one-off legendary tabloid headline. Now, journalists are forced to titillate the reader daily and even more often, with stories that promise much and deliver little. Some organisations are putting click targets in place for individual journalists which will likely force journalists to be even more outrageous in their bid for attention. Another online magazine have reduced journalists’ pay with it being topped up based on how many clicks their stories get online.
We, as news readers are left to sift through the quagmire of outrageous claims, rumours, plotless stories and listicles of 10 ridiculous reasons to do something. The focus of journalism is increasingly on the trivial. Truth and facts are dissolving in to that triviality and we’re becoming digital citizens who are passively eating up the junk-news we’re being fed. That’s fine for some, but when that development is fused with an election in the world’s second biggest democracy, it’s dangerous.
In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Psychologist Daniel Kahneman talks about “cognitive ease” and our inclination as humans to avoid facts that would force our brains to work harder.
In this world of media disruption we can get all the facts we want, augmenting our views with identical ones from dozens of sources who think just like we do. It doesn’t matter if the basis for our views are factually wrong: someone, somewhere just posted incontrovertible evidence that we were right all along!
The internet has no editor, so who can we trust? From Brexit to the US Election, voters have been fed misinformation that edge them towards voting based on remarkable untruths. Does the voter have a responsibility to sift through the fog of falsehoods to find real facts that they can base a decision to vote on? Considered, engaged voters might, but most won’t. Despite the disruptive challenges that mass media finds itself facing, it’s still encumbered with a responsibility, to report the truth and strengthen the democratic process.
Last week, the eponymous podcast This American Life asked songwriter Sara Bareilles to consider the unspoken thoughts of President Obama on this election. In a visceral reflection, performed by Leslie Odom Jr, she poses a question, that many of us outside the US, and hopefully American voters will be asking, ‘No man’s ignorance will ever be his virtue. Is this the best we can be? Seriously?’