Widgets Magazine

OPINIONS

Journalism, authoritarianism and alternative facts

Anyone who thought our new president would become presidential after officially becoming president was in for quite a shock this week. The former president-elect has continued to spew juvenile one-liners in all caps on Twitter, signed a number of possibly illegal executive orders, put his new U.N. ambassador in a tight spot over calls to restrict funding to the body and had his counselor go on television to posit the existence of so-called “alternative facts.” And that’s barely scratching the surface. It’s no surprise that he’s become a laughing stock around the world – hell, even the Dutch are in on it.

A recurring theme since the campaign began is the Trump camp’s unwavering distrust of the ‘mainstream’ media – ostensibly for its inability to say anything ‘nice’ about him, or anything sympathetic to the modern, mainstream version of the conservative movement. One of my fellow columnists at The Daily has also weighed in, labeling the current intellectual environment in the media as “putrid,” and lamenting the loss of so-called “fair and balanced” news coverage. I think he’s wrong.

Talk of liberal bias in the media is nothing new, having gone on since the first half of the 20th century. Trust in the media, however, has plummeted globally, and more so in the USA – less than a third of Americans have at least a fair amount of trust in the news media anymore. This is about half as many as in 1972, in the wake of the Watergate investigations and arguably the media’s greatest moment. The drop in trust of the news media has also been heavily politically polarized: Only 14 percent of Republicans say they trust the mass media, vs. 30 percent of Independents and 51 percent of Democrats. In 1997, those numbers were 41 percent, 53 percent and 64 percent.

Conservatism, it turns out, has drifted far away from “mainstream” or centrist viewpoints in the last decade or so. Online networks of Trump voters tended to be much more isolated from opposing viewpoints than networks of those who voted for Clinton; 40 percent of Trump voters also relied heavily on a single, right-leaning news source (Fox News) during the election. The highest percentage of Clinton voters who were informed by a single news source was 18 percent. The right, it turns out, just does not engage with the left or the center anymore. As with other kinds of monopolies, this partisan news monopoly has opened up a new can of worms – distrust in facts.

Although left-wing and right-wing news outlets both shared a non-trivial amount of fake news on social media during the election, right-wing sources such as Freedom Daily did so at three times the rate of comparable left-wing sources. And even though majorities of both Clinton and Trump voters believed some notable, there were consistently more Trump voters who believed them – the differences ranged from three percent more to 29 percent more. Indeed, one of the bigger fake news publishers noted in an interview how much easier it was for him to spread fake news among conservative groups – to the point where a Colorado state legislator tried to pass a law criminalizing the use of food stamps to buy marijuana because one of the fake articles he had written said it was happening.

Trump’s campaign did not help this. He regularly spewed nonsense about about illegal immigration, urban homicides, voter fraud and the founding of ISIS while spending time with the crackpot conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Since the election, he has not stopped, continuing to lie about voter fraud, inauguration crowd size and the amount Americans care about his tax returnss. At the same time, his administration has taken unprecedented steps in stifling scientific research on climate change and trying to exert political control over what government scientists are allowed to publish; no wonder scientists are planning their own March on Washington. When empirical facts are seen as being politically inconvenient, then there is without a doubt a massive problem with whatever conservatism in American electoral politics has become in the 21st century.

This disregard for empirical fact, however, is not unique to Trump. There were 182 climate change deniers in the last Congress, all of them Republican — including the chairman. Republican legislatures all over the country have enacted restrictive voter ID laws that are undeniably racist in their application (and sometimes in intent as well), on charges that in-person voter fraud is rampant, despite the mathematical impossibility of this particular method being used to sway elections. Conspiracy theories of a secret ring of Democratic child molestors operating out of a pizza parlor, Hillary Clinton’s secret illness and President Obama’s birthplace were promulgated not just by the alt-right fringe, but by the son of Trump’s new national security advisor, a former mayor of New York and our current President. Lies and malarkey are no longer the purview of tinfoil hat-wearing survivalists living in decrepit cabins in the mountains, but are now part of the establishment.

Would-be authoritarians from around the world have used propaganda and nonsense to strengthen their political standing. Stalin had Lysenkoism, Kim Jong-Il had the best golfing handicap in the world, Narendra Modi had genetic engineering and plastic surgery in Ancient India, and the Chinese Communist Party tries to stop air quality warnings from being issued. Trump is going the same way.

As members of the press, it is our job to fight back against the Orwellian drift toward a fact-free reality, where those with power are able to set the narrative even when the exact opposite of what they say hits them in the face. When we say that reality has a “liberal bias,” what we are saying is that liberalism today has a greater basis in empirical reality, whereas self-described grassroots conservatives appear to exist in their own parallel universe of BS.

As Hannah Arendt notes in ” The Origins of Totalitarianism,” simply fact-checking would-be dictators is not enough. It allows the setup of an us-versus-them mentality, with liberals, educated elites and the media playing the villain. In such a situation, it is not enough for the press to lay back and try to report on the news with an idealized, sometimes ridiculous notion of “balance,” a la “Democrats think the sky is blue, Republicans deny, say it is green.” The sky is objectively blue, climate change is happening, in-person voter fraud is practically non-existent and ancient India did not have genetic engineering. Nor is it enough to hope that saying nice things about Trump will bring back alienated citizens into the fold.

What the media needs to do is grow a backbone, and stop normalizing the Hugo Chavez-esque behavior of Trump and his lackeys. Doing so means listening to people, understanding the expectations of citizens living outside affluent suburbs and cities, and using that to hold government accountable at whatever level, through whatever ethical means necessary. Forty years ago, a number of courageous reporters took down one of the stickiest career politicians in the history of this country. Last year, after the Panama Papers were released, the Prime Minister of Iceland was forced to resign, the Argentinian President came under investigation and Panama began implementing institutional reforms. Since 2005, activists in India used whatever institutional measures they could to expose major scam after major scam, resulting in a swell of populist anger that delivered the ruling Congress Party its biggest defeat in independent India’s history and jailing several powerful business leaders and politicians.

Holding Trump accountable therefore means going beyond simply calling him racist, being nice to him or giving airtime to the alt-right. It means doing things that hit harder, that carry risks and don’t always generate clicks. Failure to do so now might condemn the American republic to something much worse.

 

Contact Arnav Mariwala at arnavm ‘at’ stanford.edu.