If you‘ve been keeping up with Fox News lately, you’ll know that Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s former senior adviser, has moved into a swanky D.C. mansion with him and Michelle. We don’t know what the new roommates are discussing at the dinner table, but Fox News, citing an authoritative report from the Daily Mail, knows they’re plotting a liberal insurgency against Trump. If you’re worried that Obama will fade from view, fear not. As Michelle and Valerie cook him dinner, he’s actually cooking up a conspiracy to take over the world.
This very likely did not happen. But in this new era in which news is widely available on the internet, it’s one of many baseless but sensational stories that have been plucked from the tabloids and run by major news outlets.
There is a dangerous side to the widespread availability of information: the proliferation of disinformation. This has been accelerated—and given an official stamp—by the new administration. For example, the president recently asserted that the Obama administration wiretapped Trump Tower before the election—an unsubstantiated claim reports indicate he likely culled from Breitbart News.
This flagrant lying is far from arbitrary and may be more than just the release valve of Trump’s ego-inflated head. By delivering lies that are tailor-made for slanted and sensational news sites, Trump is bolstering a distorted view of a world that lionizes his every move, ultimately mobilizing his base. The consumption of news slanted toward one’s belief increases political participation more than “balanced” or belief-changing news, according to research. With media guru Steve Bannon at the helm of a pernicious strategy to mobilize the silent majority, the Trump administration is using the press as a conduit for its attack on reality.
As Trump feeds the public boldly mendacious soundbites, the president creates a space where truth and reality no longer matter. Releasing national discourse from the fetters of fact-based reality gives a convenient freedom to toxically warped ideologies like racism, sexism, Islamaphobia and xenophobia.
Liberals, however, are not immune to alternate realities. Research indicates that members of the losing or minority political party are more likely to embrace conspiracy theories and dubious but belief-confirming stories (ironically, it’s likely eight years of a Democrat in the White House that primed the right-wing fringe for the falsehoods of their now-leader). If you already believe the president is orchestrating the death of democracy in our country, it’s no stretch to think that his blocked so-called “Muslim ban” was an attempt to test the waters for a coup d’état—as a piece that was circulated widely from Medium, an open-source media site that does not fact check, claims.
Instead of just fact-checking, we need reporting that shifts the focus toward informing the public and instigating change.
The persistence of misinformation stems from the principle that deeply held beliefs, even in the face of introduced facts, are hard to crack. Recent research in psychology and political communication sheds light on the way we evaluate our beliefs in the face of new information. One set of experiments found that politically-charged falsehoods continue to shape attitudes even after they are immediately discredited—bad news for ardent fact-checkers. Another study found that individuals on either side of the climate change debate fail to incorporate information that conflicts with their beliefs but embrace information that confirms them. This means that in the face of varied scientific information, this process—called “asymmetric updating”—leads to increased political polarization. Of course, it may be difficult to introduce people to challenging information in the first place. A recent New York Times analysis (and general psychological consensus) suggests people avoid news they don’t like.
Although we need facts to maintain a hold on truth and reality, they’re evidently far from enough. To combat Trump’s “war on truth,” traditional print media have so far been harnessing the power of the internet to provide real-time fact checking of the president and his mouthpieces. These outlets march with the banner of facts as if they will eventually trample the president in some sort of “gotcha” moment. This type of reporting is important, but if facts have alternatives, and people in power and their loyal followers embrace them, it’s more likely that these outlets are missing the beat of their own drum.
So where do we go from here? As journalist Masha Gessen writes, “The media have to find a way to tell the bigger story—the story about the lies rather than the story of the lies; and the story about power that the lies obscure.” Fact-checking Trump will only get us so far, and to rely solely on it is dangerously naive. In an apt comparison, Gessen said that fact-checking Trump is like reporting on a chess player’s strategy by meticulously documenting that he threw each piece, one-by-one, off the board. At that point, he’s no longer playing chess. The administration is rigging a new game, so it’s time for us to stop playing by the old rules.
Instead of just fact-checking, we need reporting that shifts the focus toward informing the public and instigating change. We need writers and activists to build a new narrative, one that is inclusive, based in reality, one that reflects the lived experiences of people of color, gay people, trans people, immigrants, women. We need these narratives to combat the fear and hate-mongering that spews like a leaking oil pipeline from the White House. Journalism exists to expose the systems that oppress us, like the legacy of white supremacy and patriarchy in this country. If we’re going to win any ideological battle over the next few years, fact-checking and logic-building will not be enough.
This is why we at The Fine Print believe so strongly in our mission of advocacy journalism. If you don’t tell your own story, Donald Trump will tell it for you. •