Throughout the country’s short existence, according to this article, the most authoritarian Presidents have been, in order: John Adams, George Dubya Bush, Woodrow Wilson, Andrew Jackson, and Donald Trump. There are grumblings on the Right that Obama was somewhat abusive of his power, and I think that case can be made (certainly, journalists and Freedom of Information Act seekers were very disappointed in him). I intend this essay to be about the psychology underlying political beliefs, and the hot-button topic in this realm is, perhaps with a plethora of absurdity, uttered by Trump almost daily: the term fake news. Trump most likely coined the term fake news, and though he is but a con-man, truth, lies, and deception predate him – laying bare the idiocy of our whole politico-cultural system.
“Fake news” was pretty much coined by the buffoon currently occupying the highest position in the land. It is, in my opinion, his Orwellian attempt to flip the script and engender a great and grave sense of unreliability, manufacturedness, and subterfuge marking the mainstream media (he, naturally, absurdly, does not consider Fox News to be “fake”). Let me note right up front that many distinguished and legitimate intellectuals have noted and studied the fact that the mainstream media (MSM, for short), is, in a way, fake.
If you tune into CNN or Fox, you do get the impression that there is a lot of stagecraft going on, and that merely providing news is not the main goal as much as something else is. Indeed, in a bygone era, we listened to Walter Cronkite inform us what the real news was, and the New York Times had a more positive reputation. Clearly, when you look at the scandalous case of Milo Radulovich, Edward R. Murrow, Joseph McCarthy, and CBS, you realize that financial, political, and other interests have to some degree always affected the provision of “news.”
“In an oligarchic era, you can be quickly marginalized by a corporate media and political class so comfortable in the extravagantly blended world of money, politics and celebrity that they don’t bark at the burglars of democracy, much less bite the hand that feeds them.” ~ Bill Moyers
In Bill Moyers’ inimitable way, he phrases the challenge thusly: “The challenge of journalism is to survive the pressure-cooker of plutocracy” (article). Plutocracy, as you may know, is “rule by the wealthy.” Compare to oligarchy “rule by the few”, monarchy “rule by an individual”, democracy “rule by the people”, and aristocracy “rule by the privileged”. Moyers is presciently pointing out that the modern challenge to good journalism is folks such as world’s richest man Jeff Bezos, who purchased the once-venerable Washington Post (of Woodward and Bernstein and Harris fame). In this CNN interview, the dynamic duo discusses the similarities between Nixon and Trump.
The problem, Moyers indicates, is that financial pressures are causing worthy media outlets to either downsize, go out of business, or sell to someone such as Bezos. He succinctly notes that “A free press, you see, doesn’t operate for free at all. Fearless journalism requires a steady stream of independent income.” In this era, new sources are stretched thin, and they make one of two decisions to cope: lower standards or raise revenue. When the once-flourishing media (note the ease with which The Federalist Papers were produced, disseminated, and read in the lead-up to the Revolutionary War) is hamstrung and strung up, and is accompanied by a less-than-literate, less-than-educated, less-than-critically-thinking populace, it’s a recipe for poseurs, charlatans, and dark forces to fill in the gaps. Trump’s idea of fake news thus at once hits the nail on the head and misses the mark completely.
Note this: “A Boston Phoenix reporter broke the story about sexual abuse within the city’s Catholic Church nine months before the Boston Globe picked up the thread. The Globe intensified the reporting and gave the story national and international reach. The Boston Phoenix, alas, died from financial malnutrition in 2013 after 47 years in business” (Bill Moyers). That is a serious, serious problem. Indeed, Fox News may be the most unscrupulous news outlet, but it’s a continuum, not discrete categories. It is not true to say that Fox is based on lies and the Times contains only the truth. One person who is helpful in disentangling this web of complication is the author of a book about truth vis-a-vis the media, Bruce Bartlett. I wrote a blog entitled about him you can read here.
“We know that contributions from individuals, not institutions, make up most of American philanthropy, and we think some of that should be directed toward nonprofit journalism. An FCC report in 2011 found that if Americans spent one percent of their charitable giving on nonprofit media it would generate $2.7 billion a year. …But we need more than money to sustain independent journalism. We need laws to ensure that reporters can protect their sources. We need to hound government at every level to respond to public records requests. We need stronger reporting requirements for corporations so that they can be held accountable.” ~ Bill Moyers
I seem to be heading off in the direction of money messing things in our society up, and that is a cake-walk, I think. However, I really want to examine the applied psychology aspects of political beliefs. The two topics are intertwined, but I will now draw it more finely.
In the New York Times article, “Why Do People Fall for Fake News?”, authors Gordon Pennycook and David Rand explore the nature of folks being gullible, easily swayed, and biased.
When it comes to this interesting applied psychology puzzle applied to politics, these psychologists note there are two more-or-less competing hypotheses: 1) people are lazy, or 2) people are biased and seek out news sources that are consistent with their preconceived notions. “In general, our political culture seems to be increasingly populated by people who espouse outlandish or demonstrably false claims that often align with their political ideology,” they claim.
As to what the nature of the issue is, Pennycook and Rand hedge: “The good news is that psychologists and other social scientists are working hard to understand what prevents people from seeing through propaganda. The bad news is that there is not yet a consensus on the answer.” Okay. Well, let’s explore each possibility a bit.
“Honest people, my conservative friends, differ with me. That’s fine. That’s called democracy. It’s a good thing, but I’ve got to hope, and I have to ask the media’s help on this thing: Allow us to discuss the important issues facing the American people. Let’s not get hung up on political soap opera, and all the other aspects of modern campaigns.”
Pennycook and Rand write: “…when it comes to politically charged issues, people use their intellectual abilities to persuade themselves to believe what they want to be true rather than attempting to actually discover the truth. According to this view, political passions essentially make people unreasonable, even — indeed, especially — if they tend to be good at reasoning in other contexts. (Roughly: The smarter you are, the better you are at rationalizing).” This succinctly captures the first side of the debate, and is essentially a wonderful illustration of applied psychology.
Here is an example of what they mean about intelligent, literate, rational individuals being even more susceptible to political polarization: “…more ‘analytical’ Democrats were better able to convince themselves that climate change was a problem, while more ‘analytical’ Republicans were better able to convince themselves that climate change was not a problem.” This samples from a study done by Donald Braman et. al., (2012) about political beliefs vis-a-vis climate change.
Is rationality not a great resource to those who possess more of it, or those who try to cultivate it? Indeed, it can be a strength. The authors believe: “A great deal of research in cognitive psychology has shown that a little bit of reasoning goes a long way toward forming accurate beliefs. For example, people who think more analytically (those who are more likely to exercise their analytic skills and not just trust their “gut” response) are less superstitious, less likely to believe in conspiracy theories and less receptive to seemingly profound but actually empty assertions.” So, the more rational one is, the less they are going to fall victim to fake news, subterfuge, and manipulation. Their consent is less likely to be successfully manufactured by the media and other manipulators of information, Noam Chomsky and Edward Hermann would point out.
“As we sift through the rubble on the eve of the inauguration of Donald Trump, most of us are feeling as if we have completely lost our bearings. Fake news, dossiers, Wikileaks, Buzzfeed, black is white and up is down. Everything is fake, nothing is true yet everything is so horrifyingly true that it seems fake. All of this is doubleplus ungood. We live in a terrified new world. How did we get here?” ~ Julie Gray
As an aside, what is the gist of the hallmark book Manufacturing Consent? From Hermann’s obit: “Drawing on reams of news stories, Dr. Herman and Chomsky compiled case studies that showed how media coverage of America’s allies generally differed from the coverage received by its adversaries, most famously in the case of human rights violations by El Salvador, an American ally, and Nicaragua, whose left-wing Sandinista government was opposed by the Ronald Reagan administration.” The above-cited author, Julie Gray, saw the power of the book. She says this here: “I needed to make a pilgrimage to some sort of ur-text about media. Naturally, I turned to Noam Chomsky and his book, Manufacturing Consent. Then I got confused, scared and paranoid and put the book down for a week.” It’s pretty dark stuff, to think about the fact that the government is up to no good and the MSM is complicit for reasons that amount to, basically, the way America works. It seems that the Russians are not our only threat.
Gray explains the following as part of the basis of the thesis of Chomsky and Hermann: “Freud had a nephew named Edward Bernays, known contemporarily as ‘the father of spin’ [as in, public relations, etc.] who used the theories his uncle had developed and applied them to the idea that democracy was best kept stable through the use of social engineering — that if the Nazis and others could use a methodology of group behavior for evil, then America could use it for good. If Americans were motived by their external wants and desires and if these desires were cars, cigarettes, washers, fashion and other consumer goods, then Americans would be more patriotic and committed to democracy as a system.” She is referring to democracy vis-a-vis Socialism or any other view of economics and social coherence besides the American one.
“Reason is not always, or even typically, held captive by our partisan biases. In many and perhaps most cases, it seems, reason does promote the formation of accurate beliefs.” ~ Gordon Pennycook and David Rand
Julie Gray is really writing about how challenging it is to be rational and careful and find truth in American society. We are a massive group of consumers who get an inferior education and are indoctrinated by churches, schools, parents, and various other institutions to do what we’re supposed to do, think what we’re supposed to think. I like to believe that news and information can be found that doesn’t fall victim to that repressive and manipulative social force, but I wouldn’t be able to validate that MSNBC or The Weekly Standard do not play a role in Americans’ mistaken beliefs and miseducation, as the singer Lauryn Hill would put it (though it is a term from the year 1611). Overall, we are shaped to be uncritical consumers of information, and unthinking consumers of material goods. It’s not as bad as The Matrix, but it’s not as simple as believing what your mommy and daddy did.
Pennycook and Rand again: “Our [novel applied psychology research] results strongly suggest that somehow cultivating or promoting our reasoning abilities should be part of the solution to the kinds of partisan misinformation that circulate on social media. And other new research provides evidence that even in highly political contexts, people are not as irrational as the rationalization camp contends. Recent studies have shown, for instance, that correcting partisan misperceptions does not backfire most of the time….”
This is a comfortable conclusion to me, in that I often imagine (suspect? believe?) that folks are simply too lazy and too miseducated and manipulated to successfully tease apart both simple and challenging cases of conflicting news results, purposefully-complex presentations of political events, and propaganda. That is, why they fall for fake news, if we must use that awful term. We all have personal responsibility for freeing our minds, if you will, and the stakes are pretty high. Consider this uncomfortable fact: Chomsky and Hermann put out their landmark book well before Donald Trump, Russian troll farms, highly-focused/money-hungry news sources, and social media such as Facebook and Twitter made their pernicious impacts on truth. I suspect Edward Hermann would be happy he has “shuffled off this mortal coil”, in the words of Shakespeare, so he doesn’t have to witness what is becoming of us. Ω
“Our research suggests that the solution to politically charged misinformation should involve devoting resources to the spread of accurate information and to training or encouraging people to think more critically. You aren’t doomed to be unreasonable, even in highly politicized times. Just remember that this is also true of people you disagree with.” ~ Gordon Pennycook and David Rand
Keywords: fake news, applied psychology, rationality, journalism, truth, Manufacturing Consent, political polarization