The 2016 election of Donald Trump left tens of millions of Americans reeling in shock and confusion. Most of us are still confused; how could so many people (a minority, but enough to tip the electoral college) hear the outrageous, boldfaced lies Donald Trump told every day and still vote for him? Or worse, how could his supporters even believe and defend those lies, when they were so blatantly false? These lies weren’t differences of opinion, or conflicting reports. They were objectively, provably untrue statements. Trump said things on the record, then denied having said them. He disregarded documented facts, then lied about disregarding them. He lied constantly and compulsively, sometimes about things that didn’t even benefit him – if you asked Donald Trump three times what he had for breakfast this morning, you’d probably get three different answers… and then a flat denial that he ever said any of it. During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump completely abandoned any notion of truthfulness, consensus, or shared facts, and constructed a constantly shifting alternate reality that left reasonable, rational Americans stammering in disbelief and unable to effectively respond.
Here’s why it worked. In an article for Salon, Simon Maloy charts the path of information after Donald Trump tweeted his false claim about “millions” of illegal votes being cast in the 2016 election. For reference, here’s the tweet:
The New York Times conducted a thorough investigation into Trump’s ridiculous claim, concluding (to no one’s surprise) that the claim was a lie. However, in the three weeks between the tweet and the Times report…
Immediately after Trump made the false claim, conservative media outlets started crafting bad-faith defenses of his allegation, leaning on thin reeds of distorted and cherry-picked evidence to give the president-elect cover for his lie. Trump supporters closed their ears to the mainstream press and turned to disreputable news sources as proof that their preferred candidate was right. And a dishonest bit of pre-election conspiracy theorizing by a credibility-deficient right-wing cable news host was presented as conclusive evidence that Trump had told the truth.
At the same time as all that disinformation was bubbling up from the internet, high-ranking officials close to the president-elect used their positions to lend credibility to Trump’s lie. Reince Priebus, Trump’s incoming White House chief of staff, said it was “possible” that millions of undocumented immigrants had voted, adding, “I don’t know if that’s not true.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan pointedly declined to say anything about the veracity of Trump’s allegation, saying, “I’m not really focused on these things.” Kris Kobach, Kansas’ Republican secretary of state, stated flat out that Trump was telling the truth: “I think the president-elect is absolutely correct when he says the number of illegal votes cast exceeds the popular vote margin between him and Hillary Clinton at this point.”
Kobach’s comments stand out in particular, given that Kansas was, per the Times, the only state that did not respond to the paper’s inquiries about voter fraud.
So while the Times was reaching out to election officials in every state to produce as conclusive a report on the voter-fraud allegations as it could, a flood of untruth poured out from conservative media, Republican officials and the dark corners of the internet that falsely asserted the veracity of Donald Trump’s tweet. By the time that Times report was published, an entirely separate reality had been constructed around Trump’s extravagant lie to give it the appearance of truth and pre-emptively discredit the people working to demonstrate its falsity.
And this clearly has had an impact: More than half of Republican voters surveyed evidently believe that Trump won the popular vote.
There’s the Trump blueprint we have seen so many times, and will see again throughout his presidency:
- Lie publicly to improve your image, support a position, attack a perceived enemy, or distract from a potentially damaging story. It doesn’t matter how ridiculous or easily disprovable the lie is. Spread it loudly and to the largest possible audience.
- Rely on complicit conservative media, disreputable news sources, and Republican leadership to lend at least tacit support to the lie.
- Preemptively attack anyone who might point out the lie. In fact, keep a constant attack going against any media outlets who consistently report the truth.
- Trust that supporters will always choose the alternate reality over the one that exposes you as a con man – and by extension, exposes them as your marks.
It often seems like Trump keeps spouting erratic and random lies out of some pathological need or compulsive habit, but the success of this insidious method is no accident. Political operators like Karl Rove, Steve Bannon, and top Putin adviser Vladislav Surkov have molded misinformation into a powerful political tool for the modern age. In this essay, Ned Resnikoff provides an excellent analysis of the motive behind this deceitful tool. The goal, Resnikoff says, is not necessarily to convince people to believe each individual lie, but to destabilize the public’s very perception of reality to such an extent that they can be easily controlled by those in power:
When political actors can’t agree on basic facts and procedures, compromise and rule-bound argumentation are basically impossible; politics reverts back to its natural state as a raw power struggle in which the weak are dominated by the strong.
That’s where Donald Trump’s lies are taking us. By attacking the very notion of shared reality, the president-elect is making normal democratic politics impossible. When the truth is little more than an arbitrary personal decision, there is no common ground to be reached and no incentive to look for it.
Donald Trump and his advisers don’t care if everyone believes he got that letter from the NFL, or that he never supported the Iraq war, or that Obama wasn’t born in America. His goal is larger than these individual issues. Once Americans can no longer agree on whether it is day or night outside, Trump and his cohorts will be the dominant source of information. They will be able to write their own “truth,” create their own “facts,” deny any wrongdoing, and simply tell whatever story best serves their own ends – free of any basis in objective reality. That is exactly what dictators do.
Trump’s dangerous brand of non-linear warfare cannot be allowed to succeed. So what can responsible Americans do to resist this threatening trend toward authoritarianism? It’s hard to say what will work, since this problem has taken on a new form in the digital age. Here are some suggestions for how different groups of stakeholders can resist Trump’s (and his supporters’) attempts to destabilize the consensus reality that keeps our republic working.
- Call Trump’s lies what they are: LIES. In an article for The Atlantic, James Fallows shows how reporting lies as “controversies” or “claims with no evidence” normalizes them. A “controversy” implies debate between sides with opposing views, not pure falsehood. A “claim with no evidence” implies that the person making the claim may have evidence, but merely failed to provide it. Donald Trump tells egregious lies and spreads conspiracy theories. Don’t be afraid to call them what they are. Objectivity is part of your job, but so is the accurate description of events.
- Refuse to normalize the behavior Trump uses to support his lies. Donald Trump bullies, threatens, and gaslights journalists who cover him in a less than completely glowing manner. Once he has the powers of the presidency behind him, this will only get worse. As Ned Resnikoff says:
“…journalists need to understand what Trump is doing and refuse to play by his rules. He is going to use the respect and deference typically accorded to the presidency as an instrument for spreading more lies. Reporters must refuse to treat him like a normal president and refuse to bestow any unearned legitimacy on his administration. They must also give up their posture of high-minded objectivity — and, along with it, any hope of privileged access to the Trump White House. The incoming president has made clear that he expects unquestioning obedience from the press, and will regard anyone who doesn’t give it to him as an enemy. That is the choice every news outlet faces for the next four years: Subservience and complicity, or open hostility. There is no middle ground.
The same goes for every other organization, both public and private, whose job it is to safeguard political liberalism. For the next four years, Donald Trump will seek to shred any institution that threatens his ability to unilaterally determine what is real. That will likely include the courts, universities, unions, and even executive branch agencies like the Bureau of Labor Statistics.”
Stand your ground. Trump’s misinformation machine and his fact-proof supporters will be quite hard on the media in the next four years, but if journalists are too afraid to speak truth to power, then why does the profession exist?
Social Media Companies
Fake news was a gigantic problem in the 2016 election season. Millions upon millions of people – potential voters – were bombarded by completely false stories, made up from whole cloth and dressed as real news. Some stories went so far as to accuse a presidential candidate of running a pedophilia ring out of the basement of a pizza shop. That story was completely fabricated and ridiculous, yet it instantly spread like a virus across social media, spawning more stories that repeated the spurious claims. Millions of people read it. Many believed it – and still do. One reader took it upon himself to travel out-of-state to the pizza shop in question, with a loaded gun, and threaten innocent people while searching to liberate children who never existed.
False and dangerous stories were spread by extremists on both sides of the political aisle (though more so by right-wing propagandists), as well as by foreign propagandists. There is a good chance these stories influenced the decisions of many voters, and such stories could sway public opinion on important issues in the future if left unchecked. Meanwhile, social media companies like Facebook and Twitter have raked in the advertising revenue that such clickbait generates, while largely ignoring its dangerous real-world implications.
That indifference needs to stop. Regardless of their original intentions or whether they brand themselves as “social” in nature, the fact is that Facebook and Twitter are a major source of news and information for hundreds of millions of people. If social media companies continue to operate as they do now, they have incurred a social responsibility. It is their duty as responsible corporate citizens to take all necessary actions to prevent the spread of potentially harmful fake news. Implementing such controls poses a complex problem, but it’s time to get started solving it.
The Rest of Us
Most Americans aren’t journalists or editors and don’t hold board positions at major social media companies. However, the average American still has a voice and influence, especially when combined with the voices and influence of others. First, we can bolster the two efforts described above – support and share media that respects the truth and refuses to capitulate to Trump’s agenda of misinformation. Conversely, we should take to task and refuse our support to any media who refuses to stand up to Trump. The same goes for politicians – make an important platform component out of the respect for truth and the refusal to “play along” with any deliberate falsehood. Require this truthfulness, courage, and integrity from the candidates you vote for, the media you consume, the social sites you frequent, and the companies where you spend your money. And let it be known that you are doing so.
Remember: the majority of Americans did not vote for Donald Trump. A frighteningly large number of people did go along with his pathological lying and will probably go along with his administration’s efforts to replace objective reality with a contrived, self-serving fantasy… but the majority rejects it. Donald Trump’s non-linear warfare against truth, facts, and integrity will only succeed if we, the people, allow it.
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