“Fake News” And Political Polarization In America (Christopher Layton)

Fake news has flourished in the current politically polarized climate that has persisted over the past thirty years. In the year leading up to the United States 2016 presidential election fake news has produced misinformation on social media platforms and served to diminish the credibility of mainstream news networks, further dividing the American public, not only ideologically, but on the mere acceptance of the fact, providing credence to ideological claims of fake news.

Perpetuated by, what has been termed, “alternative facts”, fake news has validated the multiple realities that are divided by ideology, increasing political polarization between the Democrats and Republicans. The production of factually fake news, fake news that is factually inaccurate, validates the claims of ideologically fake news, factual news that is deemed false for ideological purposes, increasing political polarization and making it more difficult for the American public to discern fact from fiction.

Without these objective, accurate and credible sources of information it becomes impossible for the American public to share the agreed upon premises that are necessitated by democratic debate, threatening the future of democratic debate, as well as the legitimacy of American democracy.

Both ideologically and factually fake news was created by, and has since served to perpetuate, the current political polarization of the American public that has taken place over the past few decades. In 2016 “post-truth” was named the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year as the “word or expression chosen to reflect the passing year in language.” This was found after “language research conducted by Oxford Dictionaries editors reveals that use of the word post- truth has increased by approximately 2,000% over its usage in 2015.” Post-truth, an adjective, is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

It is within these circumstances that ‘fake news’ has gained prominence, disconnected from a singular reality, devoid of objectivity and preying on the emotions of a politically polarized American public.

Political polarization is perpetuated by media bubbles, creating environments in which individuals are not exposed to conflicting perspectives that challenge their beliefs. In a 2017 paper in the Harvard Business Review Bharat Anand argues that the political polarization of the social media is the fault of “sorting based beliefs,” which is when “viewers watch news programs and channels whose positions match their tastes and beliefs.” Anand explains, “we watch what we believe, but what we don’t watch, we don’t believe.” Individuals, then, create their own media filters through watching programs that aligns with their beliefs due to conformation bias, a rejection of “valid information that is not consistent with our beliefs.”

This self-imposed media bubble is then reinforced and perpetuated through the use of algorithmic filters used on Facebook and Google to bring users content that align with presumed interests based on search histories and personal associations. In the United States most adults use social media platforms such as Facebook to get their news, but fewer rely exclusively rely on social media as their source of news.  The political polarization of the American public has been exploited by media companies in an effort to increase profits through sensationalizing news media, serving to perpetuate the dissemination of both factually and ideologically fake news.

This is accomplished through targeting audiences utilizing “sorting based beliefs” with sensational news material that is not based on importance to an objective realty, rather the desired subjective realty of their viewership. Anand explains that “the media did exactly what it was designed to do, given the incentives that govern it. It’s not that the media sets out to be sensationalist; its business model leads it in that direction.” (3,8)

The major media companies are capitalist enterprises with fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders, creating legal obligations to generate profit. Since, profit is generated through advertisement revenue, which increases with ratings, then the content of the news will be dictated by what generates the highest ratings.

The American public has become increasingly divided over the past few decades, which has been found to have an educational correlation, suggesting that fake news could have an asymmetrical ideological impact. A 2014 Pew Research Center survey found that “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades.” This is evident in the fact that “92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.”

More recently, in 2016 Pew Research Center found that, increasingly over the past two decades “highly educated adults – particularly those who have attended graduate school – are far more likely than those with less education to take predominantly liberal positions across a range of political values.” “Based on an analysis of their opinions about the role and performance of government,” they found that, “more than half of those with postgraduate experience (54%) have either consistently liberal political values (31%) or mostly liberal values (23%),” while “fewer than half as many postgrads – roughly 12% of the public in 2015– have either consistently conservative (10%) or mostly conservative (14%) values.”

Fake news, then, would have an disproportionate impact across ideological divides. The climate change debate, or lack there of, can serve as a model for the danger that factually fake news assumes in providing validity to ideologically fake news and the threat this validity poses to democracy.

In a 2016 interview with The New Yorker’s David Remnick, President Obama stated that in the current politically polarized climate “everything is true and nothing is true.” Acknowledging presence of “alternative facts”,  Obama explains that “ideally, in a democracy, everybody would agree that climate change is the consequence of man- made behavior, because that’s what ninety-nine percent of scientists tell us…and then we would have a debate about how to fix it.” Previously, “you’d argue about means, but there was a baseline of facts that we could all work off of,” while “now we just don’t have that.” Here, the one percent of scientists can be seen as representing the factually fake news that provides the necessary doubt to provide validity to the ideological claim that climate change is fake or a hoax, then, as explained by President Obama, this disagreement upon facts negates the possibility of democratic debate.

Ideologically fake news is merely meant to provide doubt to a fact or claim that does not serve the interests of the other. Miriam-Webster Dictionary explains that the term “fake news” has been in use for over 125 years, but has taken on new meaning in recent years. Fake news is now defined as as a term that is “frequently used to describe a political story which is seen as damaging to an agency, entity, or person.”

Possibly the best example and most commonly referenced piece of ideologically fake news by President Trump and the right wing media is the investigation into the collusion that allegedly took place between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. In February of 2017 Trump issued a tweet stating that “Russia talk is FAKE NEWS put out by the Dems, and played up by the media, in order to mask the big election defeat and the illegal leaks!” Trump is using fake news to discredit the coverage of the Russian collusion investigation as a sensationalist distraction in order to divert attention away from the poor performance of the Democratic party in the 2016 election, merely raising doubt and shifting the conversation.

The portrayal of “Liberal media” as fake news is a prominent theme in the rhetoric of both President Trump and his mouth pieces in the right wing media and is not just used for discrediting the media over single issues. Ideologically fake news insinuates that the mainstream “Liberal media” covers only the issues that suit their interests.

In discussing the “news of an illegal immigrant being accused of murdering a teacher’s aide” on Fox News, radio host and author Howie Carr used this opportunity to explain that “fake news is the way the mainstream media refuses to report the crimes by illegal aliens.” This sentiment is then bolstered by the interviewer with leading questions such as “where is the outrage, where is the anger for so many of these news outlets that don’t even cover this stuff.” Also, during his political rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on June 21, 2017, as usual, President Trump roused the audience through his claims that “phony NBC…will never show the crowds” that turn out for his political events, joking that the ‘Liberal media’ turn off the camera as soon as he says something they don’t like.

In addition to Trumps portrayal of the mainstream ‘Liberal media’ organizations as fake news, covering this event, Tucker Carlson perpetuates this perception through focusing on the fact that MSNBC and CNN did not, or barely, covered Trumps speech.

The phrase “alternative facts” is the greatest admittance of the multiverse of facts that is perpetuated by the proliferation of ideologically fake news, serving to further polarize the public. In January of 2017 on MSNBC’s Meet the Press, Chuck Todd interviewed, then US Council to the President, Kelly-Anne Conway. Todd asked why President Trump had the White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer defend, at great length and detail, the empirically observable “falsehoods” that Trump’s inaugural crowd was “largest audience to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe, period.”

In response, Conway explained that “Sean Spicer, our Secretary, gave alternative facts.” Astonished, Todd retorted, stating that “four of the five facts [Spicer] uttered were just not true…alternative facts are not facts they are falsehoods.” Following this exchange, Conway stated that she did not feel like she was being taken seriously as being “symbolic of how [the Trump Administration] is treated by the press.”12 Here, Conway framed the “Liberal press” as biased towards the Trump Administration, embodying the essence of fake, while affirming their intentions for creating simultaneous truths.

This narrative of ideologically fake news is then validated by the presence of factually fake news, most famously the factually fake news propagated by the Russian government. Russia has been accused of producing factually fake news aimed at influencing the legitimacy of the American election and democratic process. In her June 2017 article How Russia Weaponizes Fake News Laura Reston explains that “since Trump’s election, experts report, the Kremlin has doubled down on its dissemination of fake news,” utilizing a “loose network of hackers and state media outlets, Twitter bots and bloggers” in oder to pump “out a steady stream of digital disinformation.”

This formula for destabilizing and delegitimizing government can be found in Russia’s long history “pioneered during the Cold War” of covertly working to “influence political dialogue in the West,” planting “false stories in newspapers, spread[ing] rumors, and work[ing] to stir up racial tensions.” In a report to Congress, US officials explained that “this allow[ed] the Soviets to claim that they are just repeating stories that have appeared in the foreign press.”

Whether or not fake news is produced by Russia for the purposes of destabilizing the American democratic process, the fact of the narrative that factually fake news is being produced in conjunction with the Soviet’s history of misinformation serves as a means of legitimating the claims of ideological fake news.

Yet, factually fake news is also produced and disseminated by members of the American government as well, primarily President Trump. PolitiFact explains that “since the Tampa Bay Times started PolitiFact in 2007, no other major politician has a worse record for accuracy, with more than 70 percent of [President Trump’s] claims rated Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire.”  The New York Times explains that “President Trump’s political rise was built on a lie.” After meticulously documenting his lies, they found that Trump told a lie or falsehood everyday day the first 40 days of his presidency. An example of this can be seen in Trump’s February 29th claim that “the E.P.A.’s regulators were putting people out of jobs by the hundreds of thousands,” which was found to be totally unsubstantiated.

Factually fake news is not only produced for political purposes, rather factually fake news is often created in order to make a profit. The New York Times reports in December of 2016 that “in the buccaneering internet economy…satire produced in Canada can be taken by a recent college graduate in the former Soviet republic of Georgia and presented as real news to attract clicks from credulous readers in the United States.” The creators and disseminators of factually fake news produce mainly pro-Trump and anti-Clinton articles because they attract the most attention, therefore generating the most profit.

The study Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election defines fake news to be “news articles that are intentionally and verifiably false, and could mislead readers.”  In the study, Allcott and Gentzkow found that their data base contained “115 pro-Trump fake stories that were shared on Facebook a total of 30 million times, and 41 pro-Clinton fake stories shared a total of 7.6 million times.” (212-13)

While NBC News reported in December of 2016 on a teen in Macedonia creating and circulating primarily pro-Trump and anti-Clinton fake news as having “earned at least $60,000 in the past six months — far outstripping his parents’ income and transforming his prospects in a town where the average annual wage is $4,800.”  Political ideology is not the only driver of factually fake news that targets pro-Trump and anti-Clinton voters in the United States.

The most dangerous effect of fake news is that it validates ideological fake news through causing confusion among the public. According to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center in association with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, “a majority of U.S. adults – 62% – get news on social media, and 18% do so often.”

In 2016 a Pew Research Center survey found that “about two-in-three U.S. adults (64%) say fabricated news stories cause a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of current issues and events.”  While this trend is equally prevalent among both Republican and Democrats, it is also “shared widely across incomes, education levels, partisan affiliations and most other demographic characteristics.”

The survey also found that, “although Americans see fake news as causing a great deal of confusion in general, most are at least somewhat confident in their own ability to identify when a news story is almost completely made up.” While “four-in-ten (39%) are very confident,” “45% are somewhat confident….only 9% are not very confident, and 6% are not at all confident.”Yet, “about a quarter (23%) say they have ever shared such stories.”

Even with great confidence, individuals still find it difficult to discern fake news from real news. In a 2016 study conducted by Stanford University students at elementary, high school and college level were tested on their ability to discern real news articles from fake news articles. In the past “ordinary people once relied on publishers, editors, and subject matter experts to vet the information they consumed. But on the unregulated Internet, all bets are off.”

Today “many assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally savvy about what they find there. Our work shows the opposite.” But the study found that “more than 80% of students believed that the native advertisement, identified by the words “sponsored content,” was a real news story,” while “less than a third of students fully explained how the political agendas of MoveOn.org and the Center for American Progress might influence the content of the tweet.”  Most alarming is that “over 30 percent of students argued that the fake account was more trustworthy because of some key graphic elements that it included.”

“Together these results suggest that students need further instruction in how best to navigate social media content, particularly when that content comes from a source with a clear political agenda.” The report concludes with serious concerns that “democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish.”

Political representatives are just as vulnerable to fall victim to fake news as the public, demonstrating both the covert nature of fake news, as well as the great danger posed to democratic debate. A fake news article tilted “Florida Democrats Just Voted To Impose Sharia Law On Women,” written by “Dr. Kevin ‘Coach’ Collins” and published on the website “Western Journalism” was taken as fact by, then Trump Security Advisor pick, Micheal Flynn and reiterated during an August 2016 speech to the Ahavath Torah Congregation in Stoughton, Massachusetts.

The fakes news article explained that “in a vote that never should have had to be taken, every single Democrat voted to force Sharia law on the people of Florida. By doing so, they placed women and children in very real danger. The vote was 24 votes for America and 14 votes for al-Qaida and the Taliban cast by loathsome Democrats.”  From this, Flynn reiterated in his speech that in Florida “all 12 Democrats voted to impose Shariah law at the local and state level…our country was built upon the foundation of Judeo-Christian principles, values, norms. We should fight this idea of this imposition of Sharia law into our system.”

The infiltration of factually fake news into political discourse is evidence of the multiverse of alternative facts derived of both factually and ideologically fake news, representing a danger in the diminishing ability to engage in democratic debate.

The most dangerous consequence that factually fake news is having on American democracy is that people confuse or conflate the two distinct types of fake news, providing validity to ideological claims of fake news. This has left the American public unwilling to trust the mainstream media and politically polarized, resulting in individuals adhering to alternative sets of facts, or worse not knowing what to believe. Therefore, fake news diminishes the possibility of democratic debate and the subsequent legitimacy of the democratic process.

In a March 2017 Op-Ed in the New York Times Thomas Edsall explains his belief that the delegitimization of the democratic process in the United States that was brought about by fake news could signal a coming “democratic failure or transitioning toward a hybrid regime.” This regime would keep “the trappings of democracy, including seemingly free elections, while leaders would control the election process, the media and the scope of permissible debate,” resulting in “a country that is de facto less free.”

The future of democracy in an age of fake news does not seem to be promising. Outside of highlighting the sources on of news on social media platforms or a better articulations of sources on television news it seems that any attempt to prevent factually fake news would result in an act censorship, while inaction would result in the further dissemination of misinformation.

In his seminal book Public Opinion Walter Lippmann tells us that “we are told about the world before we see it. We imagine most things before we experience them. And those preconceptions, unless education has made us acutely aware, govern deeply the whole process of perception.” Therefore, the only way to combat both factually and ideologically fake news is through educating the public with the necessary information to come to their own deductive conclusion increasing an individuals ability to discern fact from fiction.

An educated public will then demand a better brand of news that provides them with the necessary information to make informed decisions, not just sensationalistic fodder that perpetuates the polarization of the American people.

Christopher Layton is a J.D. candidate at Rutgers University School of Law.

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