Saturday, December 24, 2016

The awakening: The mainstream media and post truth politics

In the last 6 months or so, and especially the last month, the number of references to social and cognitive science in politics and politics-related mainstream media articles and broadcasts seems to have skyrocketed. That’s based on the MSM sources mostly relied on for information cited as truth here at B&B.[1] The reason behind the new interest in the intersection between cognitive and social science with politics is clearly being driven by the explosion of fake news and the rapid rise of post truth politics that coincides with the rise of Donald Trump and American populism.


If interest in the biological science of politics is real, it’s arguably literally the best thing that has happened to both American politics and the MSM since the founding of the Republic. Obviously, there’s a pro-science bias behind that opinion. Maybe B&B is seeing something that’s not there, but it sure is a convincing illusion.

Getting to the point: The clearest and most pointed and detailed acknowledgement of the role of science in post truth politics comes from the December 22, 2016 broadcast of Warren Onley’s program To The Point (the 51 minute podcast is here, Barbara Bogaev guest hosting for Olney). The program’s title is The year in (fake) news. Some of the program’s comments and their location in the podcast are described below.

The program is in 3 parts. The first part is irrelevant. The second is the 32 minute core fake news broadcast (The way forward in a post-truth world) and the last 10-minute segment, Talking point, describes (i) some of the science behind the human mind, (ii) it’s hard wiring to be irrational, and (iii) it’s susceptibility to fake news via social media.

0:25 to 1:00: The rise of post truth politics coincides with the rise of the power and influence of social media and its algorithms, which have ‘supercharged’ fake news and its potency. Fake news has sometimes caused violence. It’s now nearly impossible for opposing partisans to agree on facts. This new free speech technology represents a new threat to democracy. The role of the MSM, technology companies and educators will have in untangling the bogus from the real is unclear.

8:20-9:00: Fake news is as old as “news itself.” What’s new is social media technology and the speed and potency it confers on fake news. Ad sales and algorithms help spread false stories, e.g., Trump won the popular vote.

9:35-10:48: Fake news needs to be defined because it’s in the eye of the beholder. Despite a long fake news pedigree, it’s now different in terms of its power and speed. The modern version of fake news differs from old fake news by the difference in (i) it’s degree of intensity and speed, (ii) it’s reality distorting and persuasive power, partly due to its ability to present one plausible sounding partisan view without a counterpoint.

10:54-12:22: Fake news is also driven by the conflation of entertainment and news. People now have a hard distinguishing news from entertainment. News and entertainment are now more or less the same thing. Donald Trump is a natural result of the conflation.

13:19-13:50: One effect of fake news is its power to portray a sustaining image of the goodness of your side and the evil of the other side. The data indicates that the effect applies to both sides but is more pronounced for the conservative side, led by Fox News, than for the left, meaning that people on the right tend to be more susceptible to fake news compared to liberals.

14:27-15:34: Cultural change is also relevant. General distrust of the MSM has risen, especially on the right. Since the 1950’s, conservatives have been accusing the MSM of liberal bias. Conservatives now tend to evaluate or weigh news based on its ideology, not its objectivity. That opens the door for fake news that fits their ideological beliefs.

15:57-16:40: Some people run fake news web sites for ideological-political purposes and some do it for money (discussed previously).

16:48-18:00: Motivated reasoning (a powerful unconscious fact and reason distorting bias, discussed previously), generates (i) a susceptibility to believe what fits personal ideology and world beliefs, and (ii) reject what doesn’t fit. That biology feeds into why people go to and believe in the content that fake news sites generate, even if the belief is factually wrong. This happens to both liberals and conservatives, but is more prevalent among conservatives.

19:05-19:33: Media literacy means being more critical and skeptical, but calibrating those responses via personal judgment. [A point of frustration: Once again, no one has any answer to the critical question of who to trust. Everyone keeps throwing that responsibility back on the individual. That ask is both unreasonable and literally impossible for most people. It’s not going to happen now, or probably ever.]

19:39-20:36: Some recent studies suggest that students through college level have trouble with distinguishing fake from real news stories, especially for things you really want to believe. 


20:50-21:48: One danger of fake news is that it effectively makes all news fake whether it’s fake or not. Fake news is a real threat to all news organizations. One upside is that real news outlets like the New York Times are seeing an uptick in subscriptions, which seems to be a response to the rise of Trump and fake news.

The rest of the podcast continues in this vein. Incredible as it may seem to some people, one topic touched on is discussing why true facts matter and how easy it now is to find ‘facts’, real or not, to support just about anything that a person wants to believe.

1. B&B’s most relied-on sources for information: Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, The Economist, Bloomberg Businessweek, NPR, and NPR affiliate broadcasts, e.g., Warren Olney’s To The Point program that’s broadcast by KCRW in Santa Monica.

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