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The Con of Trumpism: Fake News and Skepticism February 2, 2017

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
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So, I feel silly even writing this. Honestly, I don’t think any of my readers are likely to be people susceptible to the fake news phenomenon anyway, but sometimes when you have a thing to say, as a writer, it just feels better to articulate the thought.

Thesis: The acceptance of fake news, and alt-facts in general, is the result of poor understanding of epistemology, good journalism, and of skeptical methods of determining truth. The larger philosophical goals of people who identify as skeptics, that of caring for and trying to find truth via rational and empirical means, is the cure for the cancer that is fake news and alternative facts in our current socio-political malaise.

Those behind the rise of fake news, such as Steve Bannon, Alex Jones, Mike Cernovich, and many others (a couple of examples; here and here) are running a classic con game. Just like the many cult leaders and charlatans who created things such as Scientology and the Mormons (a B-list sci-fi writer and a known con-man), they attracted people using people’s fears, resentments, and making them feel like they are in on the “real” truth, while everyone else is brainwashed or otherwise deceived. Trumpism is akin to a cult, and it currently controls the levers of power in the United States.

A Bait/Switch: Bias in the media

In the many discussions I’ve had with Trumpists/Trumpkins/AltRight folks in recent weeks and months, I have seen the claim that the media lies, is biased, and that Trump is merely articulating (insofar as Trump is capable of such a task) a feeling of being misled and bamboozled by an elitist and mainstream perspective for far too long. Many people. largely but not exclusively conservative, have felt that their fears about and views of the world have not been taken seriously by many politicians, many people on influence, and the media in general. They really believe that Trump can make America Great Again. Not because they are stupid or evil (though some undoubtedly are), but because they are human.

That is, while there are some truly malignant people, such as White Nationalists, Neo-NAZIs, Klan members who feel an affinity with the Trumpist message, they are not the whole or even the center of the phenomenon. At bottom these associations, while concerning and legitimate to some degree, are missing the bigger picture. We cannot keep getting distracted by historical parallels and comparisons of the Trump phenomenon to things like NAZIs; one thing about history is that every time something like this happens, it’s a little bit different and we have to become inoculated to a new strain of awful, like an immune system exposed to a new pathogen. When we yell “No Trump, no KKK, no NAZI USA!”, we lose the attention of people following Trump because they don’t see themselves as NAZIs or Klan members. Something more subtle and terrible is happening here, than that.

Now, let me start out by saying that there is definitely some legitimacy to what Trump followers are responding to; politics, media and American culture have all sort sof problems that we need to repair, and those in power have no interest in doing so. The problem, however, is that there is a bait and switch occurring. The bait is bias, and the switch is media dishonesty. Because the fact that the media is biased, while undoubtedly true, is not relevant at all to the question of whether the media is lying.

Some thoughts about bias and media deception.

  1. Bias is unavoidable and irrelevant. Good journalists know that they are biased, that their editors are biased, and that their paper/TV show/etc probably leans one way or another on a number of issues, even if they attempt to remain editorially neutral. A good journalist attempts to edit out the bias, make it explicit, and/or attempt to steelman  the arguments of their opponents in an attempt to argue with the best version/interpretation of their points, rather than dismiss or straw-man them. Bias, itself is not a problem if ones arguments are logical, there is sufficient evidence for points raised, and everyone attempts to engage fairly with people who disagree. Claiming that a media source is biased is trivially true, and unless their bias is not counterbalanced with evidence-based claims and logic, pointing out the existence of bias is irrelevant.
  2. Bias is not the same thing as an agenda. And while even those with an agenda can also have good arguments, facts, and good motivations, that agenda needs to be transparent. Outlets which are clearly partisan, whether it’s (for example) RedState, OccupyDemocrats, etc will be advocating for a specific cause, argument, or political group. And while this agenda does not imply that what they say is wrong or right, the agenda will bend and refract the facts it enumerates and reports. We as readers need to be able to recognize the slant, look at other sources, and use critical thinking to pry under the surface of the agendas. Unless their claims are substantiated by other outlets which are not affiliated with the same agendas we should be highly skeptical of the claims from sources with an agenda.
  3. Some media outlets do out-right lie, others make mistakes and either clarify them or ignore such mistakes. Reporting the news is difficult, especially when you are reporting on breaking news, leaks, or complicated issues. If you catch a media source in provable (or at least reasonable) error, and they do not retract, apologize, and or at least clarify, then you may be dealing with a dishonest or unscrupulous source.
  4. But a lie is not the same thing as a competing narrative. And this is where the real problem in the current climate exists. There are a lot of worldviews and political leanings which exist with their own values, stories, and communities. What I’m seeing a lot of, right now, especially from the alt-right and from President Trump himself, are a conflation between an alternative narrative and a claim of truth/falsity. A factual error is not merely an alternative perspective; if your beliefs are not substantiated by logic and evidence, then it’s probably not true.

This is similar to the problem I’ve had with post-modern and woo-woo beliefs over the years from the left, where people have their own truths and there is a de-valuing of critical thinking and objective truth. My instinct, gut feeling, or intuition are not sufficient for me to label something as true; I need an argument with reasoning and evidence, or I’m just making shit up. At best, I’ll be accidentally correct.

But what’s happening with the alt-right, in the last few years up through the recent elections, is more pernicious than that sort of vague subjectivism of truth. No, what Steve Bannon and his allies have done is made black into white, up into down, and gossip/conspiracy/fears into (alternative) truth. Where media with journalistic standards which rely on a network of fact-checking and cut-throat competition which weeds out poor arguments and unproven claims, the alt right gives us conspiracy theories based in fears and an agenda. Then, after weaving a narrative which resonates with people, they claim they are the source of truth, and that the fact-based media is lying.

And you know why it works? Well, as anyone who has ever started a religion (cult leaders), sold a miracle cure (snake oil), or ran a pyramid scheme knows, you can convince many people of most things. Because ‘con’ is short for confidence. It’s among the oldest tricks in the book (including most holy books). Fake news is not new; it’s been a central part of every con ever done, and America has been politically hijacked by people running a massive con game in search for power and money.

It’s not different from things like this: Big pharma is trying to sell you expensive drugs to control you and get rich, but we at (let’s make up a name) Herbaltech have this wonderful herbal tea which will cure your illnesses, and it’s only $25! But act now, before big pharma catches onto us and they sue us with their elitist lawyers. In other words, it’s charlatans fooling people who are not thinking critically about the claims they are hearing. Fake news, alt-truth, and billionaire “outsiders” who care about the people are selling people snake oil, and now run the country. too hypothetical? Fine, take a look at this.

There is no significant difference between the alt-right and any other con that skepticism has been unconvinced by for centuries. Cons feed on fear, disillusionment, and tribalism to create a rift between you and your money, votes, and allegiance (in order to get more of the previous two). For those who claimed that the major parties were corrupt and sought an outsider, they sure picked one who was much worse than the system they lost confidence in.

It’s not all that different from someone who is distrustful of organized religion finding a spiritual leader who end up being a cult leader. In fact, it’s very much like that. If you voted for Trump because he was an outsider not beholden to the political structures you don’t trust, you were conned by someone equally, if not more, corrupt than the DNC or the RNC/GOP.

Mainstream media and skepticism

I subscribe to the New York Times, and read it regularly, as well as some other sources (such as the Washington post, Rachel Maddow, the WSJ, and a number of blogs and podcasts) . I’ve been told that the NYT is biased, and that they lie all the time, by supporters of Trump. Hell, Trump himself has said it more than once. Now, I have no doubt that many of the writers for the NYT are biased; against Trump? definitely. Do they lean, in general, towards the Democrats over Republicans? Yeah, that seems largely true. But so what?

Are their claims true? Is their reporting accurate? Also, is it true that the DNC has become more mainstream and conservative, hence losing their left-wing/Progressive base which once stood up for the working class? That would explain why the mainstream media seems closer to the DNC, rather than the media becoming more liberal.

news-infographic

People on the right think that this graphic is biased. I think it’s generally accurate in terms of editorial leanings.

Now, part of the problem is that so many people supporting Trump are so far to the right that, from their point of view, the NYT looks like a commie hippie rag. But from where I stand, they seem centrist. That is, where the center seems to be depends on where you are on the spectrum. And it seems to me that much of the alt-right has lost site of where the extremes of the political spectrum actually exist. I don’t think the alt-right understands the far left very well, or how much farther left they are than the NYT (or the DNC, for that matter).

Now, the question of where the center actually is, and whether it exists anymore, is a separate and interesting question unto itself, but the issue here is how a media outlet handles the political spectrum in terms of its editorial decisions. That is, how they frame issues, how often they include stories from various political perspectives, and what they report, (not merely where the journalists themselves sit on the bias spectrum).

Whatever bias the editorial staff, reporters, or owners of the NYT has, so long as their standards of journalism are good, they retract mistakes, and they keep their biases transparent, then they cannot be called liars. That’s simply not based in reality. Whatever media we are talking about, their bias should be kept in mind, but the important part not to ignore is whether their claims are supported by *gasp* facts.

Atheists, especially if they used to be religious, are commonly personally opposed to religion. Are they biased against religion? Perhaps, but there is a difference between opposition to something for good reasons and mere bias. They are not incompatible, and one can be both opposed and biased, but sometimes opposition is earned. The New York Times, I believe (but I am probably biased) has good reason to be opposed to Donald Trump and his administrations actions so far in office. To merely call that ‘bias’ and dismiss it (or call it dishonesty) ignores the evidence, logic, and emotional import of their arguments and reporting.

Sometimes what we call bias just happens to look like a skewed perspective from the point of view of the one in error. Kierkegaard once said the following:

“One must not let oneself be deceived by the word ‘deception.’  One can deceive a person for the truth’s sake, and (to recall old Socrates) one can deceive a person into the truth.  Indeed, it is only by this means, i.e., by deceiving them, that it is possible to bring into the truth one who is in an illusion”

Now, I imagine that a Leninist like Steve Bannon could have a field day with that quote, but what it means to me is that when one is in error, the truth looks like a lie; it looks like a deceived, biased, silly way to see the world. We atheists look silly to those believers, and we readers of the media seem brainwashed by people who are actually brainwashed by fake news sources such as Alex Jones and Breitbart.com. The relativism is one of perception of truth, not truth itself. And the tribalism which grows around those who distrust the media helps support and bolster that feeling of distrust. Religion has been using that trick for millennia.

It is possible to absolutely despise Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama and accurately report on facts concerning each. It’s possible to not care for any of them in particular, and lie you ass off in every sentence about any of them. Biased does not imply incorrect or untrustworthy. There is a difference between what you think of a person, their policies, and what happened. What actually happened–the facts–don’t care about your biases. Truth is that which remains when you stop thinking or caring about an issue.

But what I’m seeing in our culture recently is not that the media is making up events, but that they are reporting facts with an attempt to communicate a narrative, based in facts, about the world that the complaining source does not like. Was the crowd at Trump’s inauguration the largest ever? Was it bigger than Obama’s? Was it larger than the Women’s march the following day? It seems like the answers are all no (if you look at the evidence), but don’t tell Trump or his followers that. His voters think that his inauguration was the biggest of all time, say this poll. Alternative facts, folks.

That is where skepticism comes in.

That’s why we need a media driven by facts, and not propaganda, conspiracy-theorists, and people who identify with Sith (I’m referring to Steve Bannon, here) who have been known to manipulate the truth in order to gain power.

Journalism’s standards are similar to those of skepticsm; it relies on fact-checking, the competitiveness of the media market, etc. Yes, there is room for clickbait, media with agendas, and fake news in that market, but that is no different than saying that there is room for Scientology, cult leaders, and (yes) Christianity in a world that depends on science to give us better medicine, technology, and a far greater understanding of reality. The fact that alternative facts, fake news, and lies can exist in media is akin to how religion survives despite it’s complete lack of evidence or logical consistency with the world; it creates a narrative which appeals to people, creates confidence, and then becomes the center of a tribe who support each other’s narratives about how they have the truth.

At bottom, religion, political movements, and pretty much everything that humans argue about is tribalistic. The alt-right is a set of tribes who accept an alternative set of facts and narratives about the world which feeds off of fear, ignorance, and a lack of critical thinking. And the places where that critical thinking exists, which is much of the mainstream media (despite its flaws), is the only source of challenge to that tribal power. That’s why the alt-right, specifically Steve Bannon, sees it as the opposition.

They will frame it otherwise, of course, but to con-artists all skepticism is seen as the enemy.