3 Reasons we now live in the Post-Truth Era of Politics
“If you tell the same story five times, it’s true.”
White House Press Secretary for Reagan
In November of 2016, Americans elected a man who called global warming a hoax invented by the Chinese to keep American manufacturers non-competitive. Given that Donald Trump launched his political career by questioning the birthplace of Barack Obama, it is not a surprise that he used conspiracy theories to fuel his presidential candidacy to the top. After all, 20% of Americans still believed, in 2015, that Obama was born outside of the United States (even after he produced his birth certificate in 2011) while 29% of Americans incorrectly believe Obama is Muslim (he is Christian).
A few weeks after the election, a man misinformed by conspiracy theories drove from North Carolina all the way to Washington DC and marched into a local pizza restaurant with an assault rifle. The reason? He was convinced that he would find Hillary Clinton and John Podesta’s underground sex trafficking ring in the back of the pizza restaurant.
With the overload of misinformation, we are now living in a post-truth era in which conspiracy theories run rampant through the Internet unchecked.
How did we get here?
“No Reason to Stop It
If we’re going to Profit.”
- Evil News Corporation
Violence is more entertaining than peace; polarization is more entertaining than moderation. Let’s take a trip down memory lane. Back to middle school, when our pre-pubescent hormones were raging and we were becoming hyper conscious of how “cool” we appeared to others. (A hyper consciousness that never goes away for most of us.) Remember how entertained we were whenever a fight broke out? Never mind that the two middle schoolers were fighting over whose bubble gum was more flavorful than the other’s. It all started with a series of disses, to which the crowd would “Oooh” and “Aaah” and culminate in fists being thrown.
Now think of the “peacemaker” who tried to get in between the two. Nobody liked him. “Get out of the way!” the crowd would yell. All the kids have their phones out, ready to record the next viral YouTube video.
We laugh at the middle school kids, but that’s American adult politics in a nutshell. We are drawn to the polarizing “outsiders” such as Donald Trump. Anybody who is a centrist Democrat or Republican is a “sellout”, equivalent to the boring peacemaker kid in middle school.
And polarization is not at all new to American politics. Our politicians have not “devolved”. Our Founding Fathers killed each other in pistol duels, unable to settle issues by talking things out.
Polarization is entertaining, and entertainment sells. It’s the reason ratings and viewership for the Daily Show dropped (from 2.1 million to 1.3 million) when it switched from Jon Stewart the Great Eviscerator to Trevor Noah. It turns out Jon Stewart himself didn’t like being called “The Great Eviscerator” and didn’t think it was healthy. Trevor Noah, on the other hand, promotes reaching across the aisle and talking to the other side in a civilized manner. Boring!
Polarized entertainment is exactly how Fox News built their profitable business model.
Creates Fake Politicians”
“Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us,
and now we are discovering we work for Fox.”
Former George W. Bush speechwriter
- Fox News and other right wing radio stations had to become sensationalized in order to be more entertaining and to compete in the media market.
- One of the ways to sensationalize the news is through spreading misinformation such as: A) Trump’s “birther” conspiracy; B) Claiming Obama is a Muslim; C) Claiming Weapons of Mass Destruction were found in Iraq; D) Claiming that Obamacare would create “Death Panels”(Labeled by Politifact as Lie of the Year)
- This misinformation keeps the voters angry and in fear that the outside world is out to get them. This makes them angrier and more likely to hate politicians who are willing to compromise with the “other side”
- This is EXACTLY how cult leaders operate, keeping their members enslaved and in fear of the outside world
- Angry & fearful voters become a reliable base for angry politicians who refuse to compromise, thus fueling the rise of the Tea Party who led our nation to 2011’s debt ceiling crisis. These are folks whom I call “fake politicians”, because they are unwilling to compromise with the other side, the very job function of a political figure.
- Donald Trump comes along, validating all the misinformation that Fox News and other right wing outlets have been spreading for years. Voters love him because “he tells it like it is” meaning Trump repeats the misinformation Fox News feeds its viewers.
“Why Aren’t They Listening?
It’s Cognitive Dissonance!”
Whenever collecting information, we have a tendency to stay in our comfort zone, never exposing ourselves to information that may change our worldview. Admitting that we are wrong and deciding to change is always uncomfortable and takes maturity, whether it is in an argument with our loved ones or on a political view.
Although we may believe that our opinions are based on years of objective research and factual data, the truth is that we are all biased and engage in what psychologists call “Cognitive Dissonance.” Cognitive Dissonance occurs when we hold two contradictory truths in our head. For example, all smokers know smoking is bad. On the other hand, they continue to smoke. There are only two ways to reduce the stress these contradictory beliefs create:
Option A: Put in the hard work to quit smoking or
Option B: Convince oneself smoking isn’t so bad compared to gaining weight or being stressed
Since quitting smoking is much more difficult to do, many smokers go with Option B. Let’s take another example. If we do not have the ideal body type, we can either:
Option A: Put in the hard work to change our diet and exercise patterns or
Option B: Blame it on our metabolism
With our tendency to go with Option B on an individual basis, we can see how this quickly becomes a problem when we all decide to live together as a society. Although well over 90% of publishing climate scientists have concluded that human activities are accelerating climate change, taking the necessary steps to keep our planet healthy is inconvenient. We can either:
Option A: Put in the hard work to change our consumption patterns or
Option B: Convince ourselves climate change is a hoax and that human activity does not cause it
It’s unfortunate that we’ve elected a President who decides to go with Option B. After it was shown that Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by almost 3 million popular votes, Trump could either:
Option A: Put in the hard work to understand why so many Americans voted against him or
Option B: Convince himself that there was massive voter fraud
Because Option A always requires more maturity and hard work, Option B will always be the more common path.
“Be Comfortable being Uncomfortable.”
When it comes to building muscle, the growth only happens when we are outside of our comfort zone. In the same way, we can only increase in the certainty of our own beliefs when we listen to other points of view. Although we may not agree with the other side, it is the best way to come out with a win-win.
Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote a viral post regarding climate change which embodies this win-win mentality.
In it, he addresses the climate change deniers and gives them the benefit of the doubt that yes, perhaps climate change is all a hoax. And yet, even if climate change were a hoax, there are legitimate ethical and business reasons to pursue clean energy:
- 7 million people die every year from pollution.
- We are bound to run out of fossil fuels at one point and switching to clean energy is simply the smarter business decision
Of course there was disagreement from some of us on Arnold’s hypothetical assumption that climate change is a hoax. Perhaps we thought he was a “sell out”. However, he was able to understand the opposing side and to make an argument that was catered even to climate change deniers.
In the same way, we can only generate these win-win solutions when we are willing to at least “try on” the assumptions of the opposing side.
Before Thou Wreck Thyself.”
20th Century Poet
* May not be Ice Cube
DON’T CLICK ON CLICKBAIT.
Too late. Every time we fall for their trap, the clickbait creators get rewarded with ad revenue. When’s the last time you told a kid not to take a cookie out of the cookie jar and he actually listened? It’s nearly impossible But at the very least, we can use Snopes and Politifact before sharing any misinformation.
The day after the election, Eric Tucker, who lives in Austin, tweeted a picture of buses coming into town. In the tweet to his 40 followers, he declared:
“Anti-Trump protestors in Austin today are not as organic as they seem. Here are the busses they came in. #fakeprotests #trump2016 #austin”
By the next day, the post was shared over 300,000 times. It was written about in conservative blogs and Donald Trump himself tweeted it. The only problem?
It was completely false. Snopes debunked it and it turned out the buses were used to host a business conference of over 13,000 people.
After realizing his claim was false, Eric Tucker tried to take it back by tweeting:
Unfortunately, that particular post was only re-tweeted 29 times in a week, and the Snopes article debunking it was shared about 5,800 times at the time. In numbers, less that 2% of the number of people who shared the original fake news (300,000) shared the correction to it.
What’s At Stake?
In 2009, President Obama introduced the Affordable Care Act, an individual mandate based health insurance which was proposed by The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank many Republican politicians have agreed with. In fact, when Hillary Clinton introduced employer-mandated healthcare in the early 90’s, Newt Gingrich tried to counter her with the individual mandate proposal. Governor Mitt Romney also used the individual mandate model to create a universal healthcare system within Massachusetts, the state with the lowest rate of uninsured residents. It is fair to say that Obama’s Affordable Care Act was largely based on Republican ideas.
And yet the resistance against the Affordable Care Act from the conservative side was so fierce that the repeal of Obamacare became a central theme in both the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, even after it covered 20 million Americans who previously had no healthcare.
But much more eye-opening was the influence the right wing media had on getting Obamacare beneficiaries to vote against themselves. Although “Obamacare” is just a nickname for the “Affordable Care Act”, about one-third of Americans do not know that they are one and the same. With all the demonizing of Obama and “Obamacare” and reporting on “death panels” (labeled by Politifact as Lie of the Year), Fox News successfully convinced many Obamacare beneficiaries to vote against themselves. According to William Carpenter, the CEO of a rural hospital network, Donald Trump voters will be hurt the most by an Obamacare repeal.
Whether it is climate change, health care, or our immigration policy, the polarization and misinformation spread by our media will continue to have huge consequences on our world for the foreseeable future. Just like we would be careful of what food we eat and feed others, maybe we can strive to be careful of what media we consume and share.