Tag Archives: Benkler

Radio, Television And Fake News

When Trump announced his ban on travel to most–but not all–European countries, commentators generally panned the move as irrelevant to containment of the virus, which is already spreading in the U.S. Whether Trump’s loyal cult will understand the uselessness of that move–or grasp the degree of incompetence being demonstrated in the face of the coronavirus pandemic–is unknown, but I’d guess it’s improbable.

What the cult won’t even see or hear about are aspects of the travel ban that certainly don’t surprise the rest of us. According to Politico

President Donald Trump’s new European travel restrictions have a convenient side effect: They exempt nations where three Trump-owned golf resorts are located.

Because of course they did.

This is what happens when stupid meets corrupt. As the article notes, residents of the exempted countries are free to live and work in the United Kingdom, meaning they could fly to the United States from a British airport as long as they hadn’t spent time in their countries of origin within the last 14 days. And as leaders of the EU have emphasized, pandemics are global crises. They aren’t limited to any continent and they require cooperation rather than unilateral action.

Meanwhile, His Idiocy has expressed an intent to continue the Hitler-like rallies where he feeds off the resentments and bigotries of the crowd. Until just the last few days, right-wing commentators had joined him in downplaying the risks and dangers of the coronavirus–which brings me to a recent paper by Yochai Benkler, a Harvard professor and co-author of Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics.

Benkler and his colleagues reviewed four million political news stories over the course of three years. They found that “the right wing media ecosystem is distinct and insular from the rest of the media ecosystem,” which hardly comes as a shock to most of us. But they also discounted the influence of the Internet, concluding (as many commenters to this blog have concluded) that radio and television are far more culpable in conveying misinformation.

“A critical implication of our findings is that it is highly unlikely that technology played a central role in causing this asymmetric media ecosystem,” he explained. “If anything, Democrats tend to be younger, and younger people tend to use online and social media more than older people. [Two separate studies found] that sharing of ‘fake news’ was highly concentrated in a tiny portion of the population, was largely done by conservatives, and interacted with age–primarily driven by people over 65. In other words, the problem of online dissemination seems to be driven by older conservatives–precisely the demographic of Fox News.”

And yet while there is plenty of sharing of fake news and other forms of deceptive propaganda online, Benkler explained, these stories only really “explode” once they appear on Fox News. If they remain solely online, the spread is limited.

Benkler attributed the phenomenon to Rush Limbaugh, whose radio show, starting in 1988, demonstrated that conservative “outrage-bait and propaganda” could generate huge profits.

By attacking the groups who sought to change society — feminists, civil rights activists — Limbaugh captivated white Christian men and tapped into their identities.

“The whole business model was not about informing, but creating a sense of shared identity,” he explained.

Despite right-wing efforts to paint false equivalencies, Fox has no leftwing counterparts–Democratic diversity defeats similar propaganda efforts on the left.

Benkler has a somewhat surprising antidote to the rightwing echo chamber.

The most recent Pew survey of news sources used and trusted by Democrats and Republicans suggests that, surprisingly, the most used and trusted sources by both centrist lean republicans and lean democrats are CBS, ABC, and NBC. It becomes critical that these outlets be particularly attentive to how they cover the news, what sort of frame they offer for propagandist pronouncement by the president, and so forth. The hard core of the Republican base who spend their days purely in Limbaugh-Hannity land are lost. But they are only enough to win a Republican primary, not repeated elections. And so the critical pathway to a more reasoned public discourse is for these core mainstream media, trusted by a substantial minority of lean-republican voters, to be ever more vigilant not to spread disinformation, not to stoke the fires, and to understand that professionalism and truth seeking do not mean neutrality when you are reporting in a highly asymmetric media ecosystem like ours. (emphasis mine)

When the pandemic is finally over, I wonder if anyone will compare coronavirus infection rates in the Trump cult to those in the fact-based population?