Tag Archives: shared reality

Misinformation And A Shared Reality

Kathleen Hall Jamison is a towering figure in academic journalism–she has authored numerous books and articles on the relationship between media and politics, and she founded and still oversees Factcheck.org.

Politico recently ran an interview with Jamison in which she made some important distinctions–between truth and fact, and between consequential and inconsequential misinformation.

Journalism is the reporting of fact. Truth is a more fraught concept. In common with most people, Jamison says she hears the word “truth” with a capital T. The word thus capitalized tends to confirm finality: I have discovered the Truth and need not investigate further.

We live in a world in which our understanding is progressing. Knowledge is evolving. There are “truths” in the universe—truths about physics, for example. There are “truths” inside a religious universe—presuppositional things that people treat as truth.

Rather than speaking of Truth-with-a-capital-T, Jamison is more comfortable saying that “there is knowledge that is more or less certain”–what I’d call “facts on the ground.”

She also provides a clear-headed summary of the situation in which Americans currently find ourselves.

So, that said, we live in an environment in which institutional trust is down. The challenge to established knowledge is now greater than it once was. The institutions that certify what we can know are not as trusted as they once were—in part because they have done things that demonstrate that they aren’t able to be trusted (at least some of them in some circumstances). You’ve got more factors challenging institutional forms of knowledge production, and sometimes that’s healthy—trying to hold them accountable is a goal of journalism. Some of them are more trustworthy than others; those that are more trustworthy are trustworthy more times than some would think. There are methods underlying trustworthiness of knowledge. Transparency is a norm. When it’s not honored, less trust. Reproducibility is a norm. When it’s not honored, less trust. A culture of self-critique and of critique is a norm. When it’s not honored, less trust. Those are norms of science. Those are also norms of good journalism.

We live in a world in which some good tendencies—the tendency to critique, the tendency to be skeptical—have gotten out of hand. And as a result, and we live in a polarized environment in which, for ideologically convenient ends, people who see ideologically inconvenient “knowledge” have more ways to discredit it with fewer places to anchor the knowledge.

When it comes to the distinction between information that is and is not consequential, Jamison gives a shout-out to the judiciary, noting that the courts have established rules for determining what constitutes relevant evidence and determining its credibility. Those mechanisms allowed the courts to arrive at a common conclusion when faced with the false assertions of the Trump campaign. We aren’t without tools for determining what is knowable and what is not.

That said, Jamison’s concern is with consequential facts.

With a lot of things, whether or not they’re factual doesn’t really affect anybody. I mean, they’re useful to know at a cocktail party, but they’re not consequential.

So how do we understand what is consequential? She provides an excellent analogy:

If you’re going to teach kids civics, I don’t care whether they know when Paul Revere rode. I don’t even care if they know that Paul Revere rode. In fact, I don’t care whether Paul Revere rode.

I do care that they understand there are three branches of government. I care that they understand that there are checks and balances built into our system. I care that they understand we have a veto—and what that means, when you exercise it, and how you override it. I care that they understand that there’s an independent Supreme Court; that we’ve set up the Supreme Court to be different and that it’s not a political branch of government. Those are consequential. They are consequential because if you understand them, you act and think differently about our system of government. The willingness to protect our system is, in part, a function of understanding our system, and understanding that our system has presuppositional facts—consequential facts—under it. If I don’t understand those things, then if the Supreme Court issues a series of unpopular decisions that I don’t like, I’m more likely to say that maybe we should get rid of the Supreme Court.

It all comes back to operating in a shared reality. That’s especially important to our ability to communicate, and to be contributing citizens in  a functional political system.

The Disinformation Industry

A couple of days ago, the Washington Post published a review of “Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos” by Peter Bergen.The review was very positive; while the reviewer acknowledged that Bergen hadn’t told us anything that hadn’t previously been reported, he was impressed with the book’s readability and clarity.

From the moment Trump strutted into the Oval Office, we have been buried by an avalanche of jaw-dropping revelations about what happens when an unhinged, cynical and impulsive commander in chief bumps up against professionalism, decency and the rule of law. So when opening a new book promising still more inside stories of Trump’s foreign policy, it is hard to expect an author to say anything new — especially when the book was written before the impeachment drama started. Perhaps the best one can hope for is something that helps put this craziness in perspective and lays out the stakes for the future.

The book is another addition to the reams of credible reporting and a veritable avalanche of previous books of widely varying quality, accuracy and readability. It’s hard to conceive how even the most politically disinterested American could fail to hear about the frenzied, ungrammatical tweets, the cozying up to autocrats, the insults to our allies, the threats to the environment…

Sane citizens are left to wonder why his supporters don’t seem to care. The answer is evidently that they don’t believe any of it. It’s all “fake news,” fostered by a cottage industry of disinformation and propaganda.

As the House Judiciary Committee convened Friday to approve articles of impeachment against President Trump, a watch party got underway in a private Facebook group that rallies its more than 75,000 members around the banner, “THE TRUMP DEPLORABLES.”

The comments that streamed forth in the group illustrate how Trump’s most ardent supporters have fashioned alternative realities for themselves — as well as for Republican lawmakers aiming to turn the charge of corruption back on those investigating the president.

The feed — from Fox News, a major source of news for the president’s supporters — showed the same scene available to viewers tuning in on various networks all over the country. But in the online enclave where the self-described “deplorables” had gathered to watch the committee vote, Democrats are the lawbreakers who “should be impeached,” as one viewer wrote. Trump’s word is truth. And the federal employees who question his version of events are not just mistaken, they are “scum,” as Trump labeled members of the intelligence community at a rally this week in Hershey, Pa.

The antics of the Republicans during the committee deliberations were off-putting and clownish to reasonable viewers, but they made perfect sense to Trumpers following live on social media,” in groups sealed off from general scrutiny, where facts are established by volume, and confirmation comes from likes.”

The effect of social media is to jack up the tenor of everything,” said Carl Cameron, who spent more than two decades as a reporter for Fox News before leaving in 2017. This year, he helped found Front Page Live, a liberal news aggregation site. “There’s a statement made by a witness, or an interaction with a lawmaker, and users are able to put together a counternarrative in real time.”

Cameron described the live comment streams as laboratories of right-wing talking points, most likely to attract viewers who already share a certain bias. These viewers are unlikely to change their minds, and thus shift opinion polling on impeachment, which has remained relatively stable.

But the talking points are then exported through other channels, he added, and eventually reach persuadable voters. Social media, he said, does not just echo but serves as an “amplifier, with powerful cross-pollination on the different platforms, until the talk eventually reaches the office water cooler or coffee machine, or the Thanksgiving table.”

I keep coming back to the incredible danger posed by a media environment that no longer produces a shared reality–a fragmented environment enabled by the Internet where partisans and lunatics alike can live in bubbles of their own creation, detached from those pesky things we used to call “facts.”

I lay awake worrying about the size of the alternate reality population, because when reality bites, it will bite us all.