False Equivalence 101

An article by Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker references a new book on right-wing media, written by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts. The book–to be published next month by Oxford University Press– is titled, “Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics.

It debunks a favorite belief of politicians and journalists. As Toobin writes,

The Washington conventional wisdom presupposes a kind of symmetry between our polarized political parties. Liberals and conservatives, it is said, live in separate bubbles, where they watch different television networks, frequent different Web sites, and absorb different realities. The implication of this view is that both sides resemble each other in their twisted views of reality. Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity, in other words, represent two sides of the same coin.

This view is precisely wrong.

The two sides are not, in fact, equal when it comes to evaluating “news” stories, or even in how they view reality. Liberals want facts; conservatives want their biases reinforced. Liberals embrace journalism; conservatives believe propaganda. In the more measured but still emphatic words of the authors, “the right-wing media ecosystem differs categorically from the rest of the media environment,” and has been much more susceptible to “disinformation, lies and half-truths.”

This assertion sounds as if it is itself the result of propaganda–liberal propaganda, in this case. But as Toobin reports,

“Network Propaganda” is an academic work at the crossroads of law, sociology, and media studies. Benkler is a law professor at Harvard and a co-director of the university’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, where Faris and Roberts both conduct research. The book is not a work of media criticism but, rather, of data analysis—a study of millions of online stories, tweets, and Facebook-sharing data points. The authors’ conclusion is that “something very different was happening in right-wing media than in centrist, center-left and left-wing media.” Accordingly, they wrote the book “to shine a light on the right-wing media ecosystem itself as the primary culprit in sowing confusion and distrust in the broader American ecosystem.”

The book examines the way in which that right-wing “ecosystem” works. Stories frequently begin on conspiracy theory sites like Infowars; if they remained there, most people would either fail to encounter them or see them for what they are. But they “migrate” to outlets like Fox News, that claim to follow principles of objective journalism. The authors note that there simply aren’t significant sites on the left that mirror those on the right by trafficking in “chronic falsity;”  furthermore, the “upstream sources” in the center and on the left do adhere to traditional journalistic standards, so they debunk rather than parrot the stories contrived by those few sites that  crank out leftwing propaganda.

This lack of symmetry is why “Pizzagate”–accusing Hillary Clinton of pedophilia and of molesting children in the basement of a pizza parlor–was widely reported, while unverifiable allegations that Trump had raped a 15-year-old quickly died.

The authors’ telling conclusion, based upon their data analysis, was that Trump’s election wasn’t the result of Russia’s (admitted) interference, nor to Cambridge Analytica’s manipulation of Facebook.

Rather, it was the feedback loop of right-wing quasi-journalism that had the most impact—and that hypothesis has profound implications not only for the study of the recent past but also for predictions about the not-so-distant future.

This analysis confirms the suspicions of several of my colleagues who have “lost” their previously rational parents to Fox News.

The sixty-four thousand dollar question is: in a country committed to freedom of speech and the press, what can we do about it?

37 thoughts on “False Equivalence 101

  1. “This analysis confirms the suspicions of several of my colleagues who have “lost” their previously rational parents to Fox News.

    The sixty-four thousand dollar question is: in a country committed to freedom of speech and the press, what can we do about it?”

    My mother, 80, was in an absolute tizzy when she accompanied her husband, 92, to the BMV to get their RealID drivers licenses. She can about handle one thing at a time now – he has Fox News on 24/7 at uber-high volume so he can hear it, and I think it’s driven her crazy – at any rate, she kept saying, “I’ve been married to him for 40 year! How am I supposed to get these marriage and divorce papers??” (2 previous marriages, in 2 different counties from where they now live). I was explaining why RealID came about, that she’d need it to fly and enter certain government buildings (can she go into the VA hospital with him?), and that there is “some talk” about requiring it to vote…She said, “Well, I just won’t vote then”.

    Maybe that’s “what we do about it” – spread misinformation to the ill-informed, ready-to-believe-the-worst, and keep them from voting!!

    (The story is true, my suggestion is tongue-in-cheek; however, I did think to myself, “There’s one less Republican vote”, because she doesn’t have the intellectual curiosity to learn if she can vote or not without the RealID….if Fox doesn’t tell them something, they don’t know it).

  2. Manufactured artificial reality delays the inevitable day of reckoning with truth. Sheila, thanks for bringing attention to “Network Propaganda”. I look forward to reading.

  3. When I was in school, there was talk of Corporate Responsibility.
    Corporations made an effort to be good citizens.
    IF that were still the case, our largest corporations would not support Fox News, Rush and the other clones .
    I agree with Prof K that Right wing media has done a huge amount of damage to the USA.
    Lets also give “credit” for that to the Corporations that make Fox possible.
    If they did not support them with advertising dollars, the business model would fold.
    Can the shareholders have any impact on this going forward?
    Will they?
    Stay tuned (just not to Fox)

  4. Patmcc criticizes corporations for advertising on the Fox network. She doesn’t seem to realize that they would be derelict if they did not. Corporations are not “good neighbors” any longer; they are in business to make money, so they have to go where the people are. And the shareholders are not going to change that, because the shareholders are the ones benefitting from the money made by advertising on Fox programs.

  5. “what can we do about it?” How about doing something positive? Instead of calling or writing the sponsors of Fox News, Rush, or any of the other right wing media kings with negative comments or boycott threats, call or write the sponsors of PBS, NPR and the major network news outlets that strive for honest journalism and tell them how you appreciate their commitment to the truth? Just do it!

  6. Sheila,

    “The sixty-four thousand dollar question is: in a country committed to freedom of speech and the press, what can we do about it?”

    FLUSH IT OUT. Stop using the antiquated terms: CONSERVATIVE and LIBERAL. Instead use the terms NEO-FASCIST and PRO-DEMOCRACY. Say it like it is; Quit beating around the bush.

  7. Fox News has been demystified for over a decade. It’s pure GOP propaganda. Advertisers have a target market they sell to so they will place their dollars where they can generate revenue.

    Same with those corporations who spread ads on the lame CNN and MSNBC who are limited in what they can report on. You’ll rarely see them dig into the darkness associated with campaign finance or the negative consequences of corporate abuse.

    If they did, they’d lose advertisers.

    Look at where the drug companies spend their money on ads. If MSNBC became a proponent of universal healthcare and showed how Big Pharma was rigging the health care system for profits over people, how long do you think Big Pharma would advertise with them? 😉

    Noam Chomsky broke down the media propaganda filters in the 80’s.

    I’m glad Vernon posted a link to Woodward’s new book. It caused much excitement in Twitterverse yesterday.

    We need a 24/7 free Press reporting about the massive corruption from top down in our Fascist State. No more untouchable myths. The truth needs to go mainstream to break down all the alternative universes where people have chosen to escape and hide in denial.

    The first battle is communications. Unless the Generals can communicate with the troops, there can be no war.

    Here is a simple action people can take…turn of MSNBC. When their ratings plummet, demand truth telling. Only support independent journalists who will advocate for the people—not serve the corporations who own this country.

    Gladwell talks about the tipping point…we are far from it. Boomers and Millennials are world’s apart on identifying the problems and recommending solutions.

  8. Let’s simplify and make easy, voting in the November elections:

    If UR4 NEO-FASCISM—– pull the RED LEVER.

    If UR4 PRO-DEMOCRACY—– pull the BLUE LEVER.

    Vote Blue! unless UR out of your f—— mind.

  9. The weirdo Right can scream and manipulate but can they govern? If our right to vote can survive, change can come. Normal editorially controlled journalism must continue to shine light on what our culture shapers are doing. As people realize their lives are hurt by the fruits of the Right, unaffordable healthcare, no safe food, unsafe work places; why? because there’s regulations with no enforcement, and a government controlled by businesses. The myth of business more competant than government must be exposed. But the GOP has worked assiduously to undermine legislated social welfare legislation, be it poor people or environmental, so it may just be too late.

  10. Jane; my father never missed Rush, he wouldn’t schedule a golf game if the time frames overlapped. Your comments about Real ID requirements and reasons for same reminded me that I must provide materials for renewing my drivers license next year. My first question was and remains; isn’t the BMV a government building? I am assuming that even Republican based requirements, left over from the Patriot Act, will allow us through the doors next year to renew our UnReal ID supported drivers licenses. Or is my thinking on a “False Equivalence 101” level?

    Regarding the issue of boycotting to make a point; that was much easier to do in days gone by. Today, corporations own vast numbers of many products we need to provide food, clothing, medications, household goods (including TVs to watch the ever increasing number of their advertisements), and services and/or repairs. We live in a world where our daily survival on many levels depends on goods and services those corporations provide. And that “we” includes conservatives and liberals (or neo-Fascists and pro-Democracy) citizens alike. We suffer the lack of services if we chose not to use them but their corporate owners know nothing of our political view, whatever it may be. Most important – they don’t care, they are still getting richer by the minute.

    “Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics.”

    I do love the title of the forthcoming book; my hope is that it will draw in some of the conservative faction believing this book supports their views of Trump’s “fake news” complaints and MAYBE a few of them will actually understand it.

  11. John,

    “Somewhere between 80-90% of Americans believe in God. Not much to work with.”

    Nevertheless, you gotta work with what you’ve got. FEAR is a mighty, potent commodity with the “80-90%.” Why don’t we try using the FEAR OF GOD? I always used it as my STRATEGY, as a criminal defense attorney, in rural East Texas.

    It never failed.

  12. Todd,

    I’ll boycott MSNBC and CNN when the conservatives in my area start their boycott of FOX. While they may not be perfect, they at least provide an alternative to FAUXNEWS. Did you happen to spot the words, “false equivalence,” in the title of today’s blog? It seems to me that you don’t really get it. You rail about the DNC, creating a false equivalence nearly every day. Today, in a blog that tells us that data say that left or center based media at least attempt to present us with facts, while right wing media knowingly presents falsehoods, you rail about how deviant the good guys are. Would you sacrifice everything good in your search for the perfect?

    VOTE BLUE

  13. A wonderful piece Sheila!
    Piggybacking off of Marv, there is no comparison between the two camps. One is straight out of the Josef Goebbels/Ernst Kaltenbrunner School of Political Communications and the other, while flawed, shows a high degree of rationality. If people would just slow down enough to stop and think about the utter crap that is being spewed out from the right and the far right, just think about it, then hopefully they’d see the depravity of the lies that they’re being told.

    I would love to ask the spokesmen and women for these political ads from the right what it is like to get paid to lie. What kind of money did they make and where did they learn about such jobs and where did they begin to think that it would be OK to make a living doing that. Other than the mercantile aspects of it, I am in a total loss understand these people that have such nice voices but tell outright lies for a living.

  14. A somewhat vulgar, but accurate, portrayal of ‘balance’:
    wisewomenforclinton.com/wise-women-comix-the-effects-of-false-equivalency/

  15. Marv,

    I’m not for manipulating other peoples ignorance or fears. I’m not for vilifying the other. I don’t think we see the truth much better than anyone else. I don’t believe the people who voted for Trump are meaningfully less moral than me.

    My point was religion has poisoned the well. We are all fallible.

    Respectfully,

    John

  16. It’s pretty obvious. Trump is hypnotized by “f” words. If the subject matter isn’t fake or false, Trump isn’t interested.

  17. I will say it plainly, if you depend upon CNN, MSDNC and FOX for the news, it is a mistake. They are infotainment Net Works. They exist to entertain you and of course validate bias. BBC news is far superior.

    All of these Infotainment Net Works, start with a basic theme – Trump is good or Trump is bad, from that point it is 24/7/365 of pundits and experts pitching their product. These Infotainment Net Works, may cover some natural disaster or mass shooting, then it is back to our regularly scheduled programming about President Agent Orange and Pastor Pence.

    CBS executive chairman and CEO, Leslie Moonves, let the cat out of the bag. Back on 2/29/2016 in an interview he said he likes the ad money Trump and his competitors are bringing to the network.

    “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” he said of the presidential race.
    “Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? … The money’s rolling in and this is fun,” he said.

    “I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going,” said Moonves.
    *************************************
    Thus, I do not consider CNN or MSDNC as Left, they have carved out an anti Trump niche or some varient and that is that, all day long, they report on nothing else.

    If I want to read, emphasis on read my go to sites are: Asia Times Common Dreams, Counter Punch, In these Times, Progressive Populist, The Intercept, Smirking Chimp, Truth Out, Truth Dig.

  18. The sixty four thousand dollar question is not easily responded. The analysis shows that a lot of people prefer to be pampered in a make believe world, with lots of scapegoating others, instead of being confronted with the real world, with ups and downs.
    In order to change this, we all have the duty to make the world a better place to live in, than it is now.
    Thank you very much, my bank account number is………..

  19. John,

    “My point was religion has poisoned the well. We are all fallible.”

    I agree with you, but many of the 80- 90% have been battered with racial hatred, masked in Christianity, for many, many years. The propaganda has been extremely effective; And it has turned many of them them into, conscious, members of an extremely dangerous, Neo-fascist movement, that can’t be dismissed, from my way of thinking, at this point, because we are “all fallible.”

  20. What a pity that real, hard-assed journalism has come to this. Woodward may be the last of these due-diligence journalists for this and coming generations, though there are some pretty tenacious people out there. Some have their own hour-long shows, but otherwise they’re in the trenches.

    But, it IS true that ads have to sell. Whatever happened to that quaint FCC law that limited commercial time for news and public service air time? Let me think….

  21. I spend winters in Florida and have for some time, as have many other Yankees. Reading the responses today reminded me vividly of a guy from Pennsylvania I played golf with once a week during the season, a guy who was otherwise friendly, outgoing, and quite a golfer. To my amazement, he told me that he always records Rush when he is playing golf or otherwise away from home when Rush’s program came on. I will leave it to the reader’s imagination what my response was, but let’s just say I disagreed with his view of Rush’s vitriol as gospel.

    I think Sheila’s reference today rightly suggests that we liberal minded Democrats are represented on radio, television and the spoken/written word by journalists and others in a far fairer and more objective way than those on the right, who have no regard for truth and seize on every real or imagined hint of impropriety by Democrats to come up with claims of socialism, baby killers etc. What to do about it? Hang tough. Persevere. Call them out on every such claim. Label their baseless recitation of fact as propaganda and those who purvey such lies liars etc. We are two months away from D-Day, and this is no time to make nice; it is time to double down, take the House big time, and (hopefully) the Senate since, literally, our fate may depend upon it.

  22. Not much hope from this quote of Jonathan Swift (from Wikiquote): Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect: like a man, who hath thought of a good repartee when the discourse is changed, or the company parted; or like a physician, who hath found out an infallible medicine, after the patient is dead.
    from Swift’s The Examiner No. XIV (Thursday, November 9th, 1710)

  23. For those like Marv looking for a conspiracy I would suggest that there really isn’t one. For years business (there’s really is no need any longer to distinguish it as “capitalism” which in reality is merely a financial arrangement) has lived under the one rule, make more money regardless of the impact on others. That one rule simply doesn’t any work any longer in today’s overcrowded, resource constrained, highly connected, super technical, global world. It was ok for awhile now it isn’t. Time and reality left it behind.

    Pseudo politics as entertainment is merely a lucrative business. It shines in the make more money part because the costs are lower than real reporting and the audience gets addicted. It’s like crack cocaine except still legal. (I used to wonder following my mother through the check out lines in the grocery store what it would be like to be a tabloid writer. Just sit at your desk and make up stuff and write it, no work involved.)

    In fact all of the political dysfunction that surrounds us today is simply good business for someone. It’s the impact on others that’s out of control. It’s even true of the GOP. They are making more money but it’s at the expense of others, like most of us, that’s problematic.

    So the bottom line is what do we do about this after we’ve fired all of the Trumpublicans and hired only D’s? Can predatory capitalism be regulated out of business without messing with the financial arrangement of shareholders? Is there a way for businesses to be run that recognizes social costs as well as financial management? Who will lead the way to a functional business world, politicians or MBAs? Can existing corporations be salvaged?

    Like most problems ours in this respect is transition, the interface between broken and fixed, between now and what’s next.

  24. Peter, there are ways out, beautifully planned in theory, brilliantly conceived. There is, however, little political will to use the tools at our disposal. Despite lip service to the contrary, people don’t care about their descendants or the future. They act on self-interest, whether it is to elect politicians who promise THEM something, support toxic business structures that enrich THEM by destroying our environment, or worship gods that promise to save THEIR souls.

    The only difference that has ever solved this problem has been LEADERSHIP. We need the Abe, the Teddy, or the Franklin to steer the Titanic away from the icebergs. Instead we have the Hillary and Baracks, who dare not upset the passengers with any sudden motions, or the Georges or Donalds, who own ice concessions and are willing to lose the ship for the sake of their fortunes.

    Meanwhile the right destroys the public school system for profit and the left argues over how many dozens of genders exist. We need LEADERS.

  25. Gerald 10:47 a.m.; your second paragraph is the perfect comments to pass along a term used this morning by Eugene Robinson, a favorite journalist of mine. Talking about Trump’s governing by Tweet and the media coverage repeatedly reporting them, he expressed concern that we would suffer “outrage fatigue”. That term describes my feelings occasionally since November 9, 2016; I manage to rally but, I can understand why some people can’t, it is and has been an “overload” situation all these months. We keep thinking he can’t do anything worse to cause the outrage, but he always manages to take his hatred, racism, bigotry and mental instability another step further. His intrusion into this bogus Kavannaugh hearing, another “never before in our history” is a prime example. We must hang tough; hopefully November 6th will give us a strong second wind to fight on.

  26. “What can we do about it”? Good question, Sheila. If logic or reason were at play here, then the endless lying by Trump, Hannity, Carlson, Pirro and the other Faux News crew would have ended their careers, but what they are doing is pandering to the deplorables who want to be pandered to–those who want to believe that the Clintons are the biggest crooks in the world, and who are responsible for multiple murders, that Hillary and Bill Clinton control the FBI, DOJ and federal judges, that all criticism of Trump is really an Obama-led coup de etat to try to void their votes, anyone who criticizes Trump has Trump Derangement Syndrome because there is no possible merit to any of the criticism of him, and let’s not forget that Hillary sold uranium to Russia and put the money into her Foundation and that it’s her fault about what happened in Benghazi. You cannot talk these people out of this silliness. I know–I’ve tried.

  27. Over it, you and I are on the same wavelength. We have a potentially clean baby and actually dirty water so how do we separate them gracefully and save what we want and dispose of what’s no longer functional.

    Leadership that’s capable of that magic will either arise or it won’t. Our history is full of buzzer beater saves when the right person happens along at the propitious time. Will it happen again? Who? When?

    In the meantime we have this years and 2020’s work cut out for us in terms of firing. This year’s hiring doesn’t matter much as long as they’re D’s but 2020’s hiring could make all of the difference in the world for the world.

  28. I’ve been saying for some time that we need to start a GoFundMe page to collect money to buy out Fox News and either shut them down or slowly reprogram the viewers. My vote is with the latter.

    On a serious point, I’m pretty sure that Rush Limbaugh is partially responsible for my divorce.

  29. Peter Zuris,

    “For those like Marv looking for a conspiracy I would suggest that there really isn’t one.”

    I’m not looking for a conspiracy, I’ve been following one between the Southern Baptist Convention and the Anti-Defamation league for 50 years. By the way, what are your credentials to judge my ability?

  30. Marv, I would say that you have made your supposition that there is a conspiracy behind our current political mess clear for quite awhile.

    Honestly I don’t know where my credentials to challenge your ability enters into anything that I’ve posted.

  31. Peter,

    “Honestly I don’t know where my credentials to challenge your ability enters into anything that I’ve posted.”

    One good reason is that you don’t have any.

  32. A, I the only one who remembers the FCC Equal time rule? Anything but fact base news that was expression of opinion required media outlets to provide equal time for response by a spokesperson of the opposite point of view.
    The rule was destroyed by right wing pressure on the FCC along with media outlets opposition to giving time for response.
    If the Equal Time Rule were still in effect:
    Since he is declared candidate for re-election, Trump’s every word be subject to the rule.
    Big money commercial political spending would be limited in impact.
    Editorial comment opinion ( are large portion of current ” news” ) would be subject to identification as such and equal time rebuttal.
    Non- mainstream candidates and issues would get more and fairer exposure.
    Like safety valves on a steam engine, opinions and persons who seethe under the feeling ofdenied justice could let of steam without creating extremist groups to get recognition.
    Equal Time once was such a common part of our culture that Johnny Carson and SNL had repetitive skits based upon the rule. Without it, media have turned propaganda machine.

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