In prior posts, we have discussed how to deal with and counter fake news articles, discussed why junk news matters, and even discussed one particular fake news website that was beginning to make a name for itself in the realm of fake click-bait news. When we discussed why junk news matters, we spoke of mostly about the consequences of junk news that came from the world around us, and there were many. There is the need to not get distracted by false issues. The need for liberals, as a movement, to maintain the moral high ground when trying to persuade people in the middle of the political spectrum. The fact that these junk news click-bait sites could actually be operated by the same groups that manufactured so much of the junk news on the right that Trump supporters gobbled up, and that we don’t want to let our anger and ignorance enrich them. That the right’propagation of propaganda ensures that playing field is going to be uneven, so we have to be ten times better than they are for one tenth of the payoff. Finally, we discussed how posting junk news makes one look like an idiot, and that we should not fight the GOP for the title of “The Party of Stupid.” Today, we are going to take a look at some of the internal consequences of junk news, by which we mean junk news, click-bait news, and hyper-partisan news sources that spin the facts so hard that many consumers end up less informed than if they had read no news at all.
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Hills Like White Elephants.
We will begin with a thought experiment. Try really, really hard to not think about a white elephant, ok? Now, what are you thinking of? This experiment shows the difficulty of trying to keep bad information out of the mind. The brain has a difficult time processing a negation. In other words, it cannot process “NOT white elephant” until it first processes “white elephant.” We also tend to process the noun before the verb. It is possible to process “NOT think” first and just empty the mind, but that is not how we think as a default.
To really, truly, perform the task of not thinking about a pink elephant, one should actually clear the mind of all thoughts and keep it empty. That is achievable if you are a Buddhist monk with years of meditation practice or a movie hero on his quest to purify his mind and spirit before facing the villain in a final showdown. For the rest of us, however, it is nearly impossible. When it comes to junk news, the most reasonable solution is to take steps to keep it from getting into one’s mind to begin with. That was a large focus of the Countering Fake News post.
This sets us up for failure when confronted with junk news. If you thought of a pink elephant or the GOP logo, then you were still thinking of an elephant. That means that part of the information that you want to avoid still got in. If you thought about anything that had a specific color or colors that stood out, then your brain was still focusing on the word “pink” in a response to avoid it. Again, that would mean that the information to avoid still made it through your intellectual defenses. With junk news, we first have to take all the information in, process what is and what is not important, and then try to dismiss the bad information. The brain doesn’t have a delete button, though, so that bad information may very well linger for decades.
Some readers will immediately think this is censorship. Let’s clear this up. Censorship occurs when an authority, usually a government, prevents speech from occurring. We do not advocate that anyone prevent junk news purveyors from spinning their tales of deceit. We do, in contrast, strongly advocate for liberals to be effective when they engage in discussion on topics of national importance. You must be well-informed in order to be effective, and junk news clouds the brain with bad information. People who wish to be well informed and able to play a role in our national discourse keep that toxic junk out of their minds. That is not censorship, it is merely effective strategy.
Our view is that is incorrect to assume the national discourse is liberals trying to win over conservatives and vice versa. What actually occurs is that liberals and conservatives are presenting arguments for the middle-of-the-road, or middling, voters to observe, and they decide from there. We have argued this here and here, also. If middling folk see conservatives spewing out falsehoods 38% of the time and liberals doing so 19% 1,i of the time, even though the liberals are demonstrably more fact-based, it just becomes a tangled and fermenting pile of bullshit ii, in the technical sense 2. The middling voter, at that point, is going to be too confused by all the inaccuracies to reach any conclusion and may decide that it is not worth the effort to dig through that pile of bullshit (in the technical sense) in an attempt to find an undigested kernel of truth. That leaves the middling voter with 3 options.
The first option is that they might vote liberal because they can see that liberals are a little less horrible than conservatives. Two, they may get annoyed or angry at all the fallacious statements. At that point, they may see that the anger they feel identifies with the with the anger that the right has made its brand. If they make a gut level connection, then they are likely to believe that their rational interests also align with conservatives and they vote conservative. Third, they may say that both sides are full of lies, disengage from the national discourse, and not vote. For sake of argument, let's assume that those middling voters split evenly among those 3 options. That is 2/3 of the undecided voters that we lose by using false facts. Given the number of eligible voters that do not vote, the number may be higher than that. Liberals generally have a much stronger and realistic set of policies. We cannot afford to keep losing because we are infected with false facts.
Beyond the problems of trying to sift kernels of truth from the chaff of junk news, there is also the issue of time. We only have a limited amount of it. If we want to be part of the national discourse that helps to shape our nation, then we only have a limited time to do so. If we are forced to fact-check our own minds to know if what we want to assert is true, then that is time wasted. As we discuss in Countering Fake News iii, it is legitimate to question the veracity of an assertion and ask for evidence. It’s also legitimate to reject the information when it comes from a disreputable source and demand better evidence. People don't listen to the boy who cries wolf. All of those alternatives represent time wasted. Of course, the very time spent engaging in junk news sources is itself a waste of time because it does not take us toward our goal of furthering our vision for a better society.
If you make arguments 3 and try to back them up with junk news, a few things are likely to happen that waste your time. First, people can demand more evidence or evidence from more credible sources. This is much less likely to happen if you get your information from reliable sources to begin with and if you work to build a reputation for credibility. So you will spend more time trying to back up your sources. Second, if you come back with evidence from a junk news source, then you lose credibility and, even if you eventually have a good source to cite, others less likely to listen because you have broken your own credibility. That makes all the time you spend trying to persuade others a waste. Third, people may just write you off as the boy who cried wolf and not listen to anything you have to say. What is the point in even trying to keep up with current events and engage in debate if people won’t believe you? That’s not the worst of the possible consequences, however, because people easily overgeneralize.
Junk news doesn’t only make you look like an idiot. When we discuss current events and politics, we are taking part in the national discourse. Whether we want to or not, we will represent the entire side we are arguing to support. When the middling voter encounters us, we need to represent our side the best we can. Middling voters will hear what many people from both sides have to say. If they see that there is a significant amount of junk coming from a majority of people on each side, you are back in the 3 choice situation above. Let’s look at a hypothetical example:
Tom has 10 conservative and 10 liberal friends. Eight of his conservative friends and 4 of his liberal friends repeat junk news and make demonstrably false claims. That’s a majority of his politically inclined friends, 12 out of 20, that speak so much nonsense that he will have a tough time knowing who to believe without lots and lots of fact checking. Even though the numbers are significantly different, there is so much static that even the truth sounds dissonant and flat. It’s not fair to the majority of liberals that aren’t spewing this junk, but they get placed into the same category of untrustworthy partisans as the rest and Tom is put in the 3-choice scenario above.
Now, let’s say that we liberals take responsibility for our side and push back against junk liberal news within our group, and we also openly call out people from our groups spouting that garbage. Suddenly, Tom only has 3 liberal friends that repeat junk news because we discourage it, and a few of his other liberal friends will caution Tom not to listen to 1 of those fools. Now, the numbers are 8 conservative spouting junk and only 2 liberals. He knows also to disregard the 2 remaining liberals who repeat the same junk as the 1 he was warned to disregard by his other liberal friends, so, in effect, the numbers are perhaps closer to 8 to 1. (Still not great but a definite improvement.) At that point, it becomes much easier to for Tom to sort truth from fiction. Which side, in the aggregate, will have the reputation for credibility? Which side is likely to be more persuasive?
When a person takes in and repeats junk news, they don’t merely waste their own time. They also force everyone else on their side to engage in extra effort to persuade those middling voters. What’s worse is that it will take multiple times more effort to persuade them after they have been exposed to even a few people that repeat junk news. People who read junk news are doing more than wasting their time, they are wasting the time of other people from the group who have to make up for the damage they have done. They are actively hurting the cause that the group is advocating for. Those people would be better off spending their time on a hobby or watching a soap opera because they are doing more harm than good.
Junk news sites typically use much more extreme and emotionally loaded language than MSM and other credible news sites. There is a reason for that. Most of us know the old maxim of the news business – if it bleeds it leads. Years ago Jon Stewart said, correctly we believe, that the primary bias of all the news is sensationalism. If a story can get you emotionally involved, you are more likely to remain engaged. That means they can make more money from their advertising.
Many online sources get paid for advertising too, mostly by having people click on ads. The more emotionally triggered they make you, the more likely you are to read that story. The longer you are on their site, the more likely it becomes that you will click on an ad, even if by mistake. There is also a measure called the bounce rate, which is the percentage of people that only view a single page and then leave. Junk news writers know that if they get you emotionally riled up, then it is easier to get you to click on another headline. This happens even if they write headlines that are irrelevant to the article and even if their headlines are disproven by the content within the article. This is why you often see headlines written with incredibly extreme language. When their bounce rate decreases, i.e. when they get people to look at multiple pages on a single visit to the site, that helps increase the amount of revenue they get.
This means that these sites intend to emotionally manipulate people just to increase their revenue. Emotional manipulation is what Fox News does to its viewers and has been part of their strategy to keep their incredibly loyal fan base. Part of the problem, though, is that people become accustomed to a certain level of heightened emotional and adrenal states, and then need more to get the next fix. Fox News has marched steadily over the years to become increasingly partisan and extreme in part to maintain that viewer base. It is only worsening the culture wars.
We may actually be experiencing the greatest threat to our democratic republican form of government since the Civil War. So far, our institutions have responded admirably to this threat. We have had millions of citizens marching in protest in contrast to the dozens to hundreds that show up to support Trump. Lawyers also responded immediately to Trump’s first failed Muslim ban to get it knocked down repeatedly. Courts have taken note of Trump’s bigoted statements and used that as part of their reasoning to slap down his unconstitutional executive orders. Regulatory agents have created alt-agency Twitter accounts to push back against his lies and extremism. Members of Congress are also doing their part to resist. This doesn’t happen in many other parts of the world. As painful as it is, it is also a brilliant display of how strong and resilient our form of government actually is.
Right now, this is culture war is still a cold war. In order to win, however, it will require all of us to remain engaged and resisting. If our numbers shrink very low, then we will just be run over by the extremist agenda of the Republicans. Between where we are now and the very low point is a space where some on the right may contemplate physical violence to silence the rest of us to a point where their agenda can be railroaded through. If we are to prevent that, then we need all of us to remain engaged. This is why we need to remain mindful of resistance fatigue.
Resistance fatigue is the feeling of getting worn out because we feel like have to be ready for some new attack all the time. We cannot be on high alert 100% of the time. Junk news intentionally manipulates and spikes our emotions to put us in a heightened state of readiness. That small adrenalin dump that we experience when our anger is activated is a slightly pleasurable feeling, though. That makes us want to engage in more of their junk news to chase after the good feeling, only to be frustrated with more bad news. The end result is that we end up in a heightened emotional and heightened adrenal state for prolonged periods. Our bodies are not built to remain constantly vigilant. Eventually, we become worn out from the constant stress of hyper-vigilance and need a break.
Instead of engaging in these sources that keep us hyper-vigilant, we can be strategically smart. There will be slower news days when Trump doesn’t give top secret intelligence without permission from an ally to our primary world adversary or some other asinine action. On those days, we should try to take a break. We can ignore his tweets, read some positive news, read a book, take a walk, or any number of things to take care of ourselves. We need this time to rejuvenate and maintain our resistance. This is not just good self care, it’s good strategy.
There’s one final point to consider about junk news. We have seen an explosion in politically and hate motivated violence from conservatives 4 inspired by Trump, and, recently, a liberal even went extremist and returned fire at several Republican congressmen while they practiced for a charity baseball game. At some point in the future, we need to come back together as a nation. The only place for that to happen is in the reality based world. If people on both sides get locked into their respective hyper-partisan, junk-news bubbles, then all we will do is continue shouting at each other until we begin shooting at each other. If we are ever to get back to a more civil society, it has to be anchored to reality. Junk news distorts our reality and prevents that civility. The wider the gulf the longer the violence will continue, and many of those victims will be targeted because of their religion (or lack of it), their skin color, or who they love. We cannot excuse this hate-motivated violence. If we don’t stop the spread of this junk news, then we are contributing to that continued violence.
We can neither wish Trump away nor hit a delete button to get bad information out of our brains. Advocating for progressive causes is a group effort, and the misbehavior of one will be attributed to the group. We cannot afford the wasted time and effort that junk news costs us all in this battle of ideas. The stakes have gotten way too high, and people are being killed by people who have poisoned their own minds with this toxic rhetoric. If we are going to prevail, we need all hands on deck and we cannot afford to waste our intellectual or emotional reserves on junk news any longer.
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If you need a break from all the nastiness and junk news, or you just need a laugh, you can check out some of our satire here:
If you're interested in learning how liberals can get better at messaging to win the war of ideas, check out the 4 part series starting with:
1As we noted in prior articles, liberals don’t get to celebrate that their side has only half the fake news when it still accounts for nearly one out of five articles published by some sites.
2Bullshit here comes from a paper by Harry Frankfurt titled “On Bullshit.” He defines bullshit not as a lie, but as a statement made without regard for the statement’s truth value. Sometimes BS statements are made in small talk as a way to test ideas or phrases, e.g. when guys “shoot the breeze,” or “shoot the bull.” All too often, especially in politics, they are made to influence people. This type of bullshit is what we get from a con artist. ________________________
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3Argument as used here means that you try to persuade others to accept a conclusion based on evidence and not a shouting match.
4It might be more fair to say conservative sympathizers, but we aren’t going to split that hair here.