When the business model for news corporations depends on blurring the lines between fact and opinion, how can we move from partisanship to problem solving?
Photo illustration by News Decoder.
In 2017, the political landscape collectively scoffed at Donald Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway for her use of the term “alternative facts.” And yet, this was a full year after the Oxford English Dictionary named “post-truth” its word of the year.
Six years later, the question of what constitutes “truth” and “fact” remains relevant, as seen in the recent lawsuit in which the Fox News network agreed to pay the Dominion Voting Systems Corporation $787.5 million over accusations of defamation.
According to news reports, internal text messages had revealed that despite a relentless support of conspiracy theories about the 2020 U.S. presidential election by television hosts and news anchors at Fox News, the network knew these theories were untrue and potentially harmful. In another recent case against host Tucker Carlson, executives at Fox News admitted under oath that their most popular programs are not a trustworthy source of news.
These stains on Fox’s credibility were, for the most part, preached to the choir of those who already didn’t trust the network. According to a survey done by entertainment and media publication Variety, while a sizeable number of Fox viewers said they trusted the network less, most maintained favorable opinions of the Fox personalities. Representatives for Fox News say their ratings have remained untouched. Why?
Meanwhile, the network was too busy doing the very thing that got them sued in the first place: promoting alternative realities and spreading conspiracies about the January 6th insurrection, in which an uncontrolled mob attacked the U.S. Capitol as the world watched.
This is evidence of a post-truth world.
Facts versus reality
This concept may be hard to grasp since the very concept of “truth” is something we typically think of as objective. How can we be in a time of post-objectivity? The best way to understand this is to separate the idea of fact from the idea of reality.
Facts are defined as having an objective, “actual existence” which sits outside our subjective perceptions. Reality on the other hand is less an immutable actuality and more of an interpretation. While often grounded in some loose assembly of facts, our realities are mostly formed by the accumulated daily experiences of ourselves and those around us.
When a bunch of people agree on an interpretation of the world, this is what we call reality. For example, the North Koreans live in a different reality from most in the U.S, who in turn live in a very different reality from most dolphins, or at least that’s what I assume.
So when I say we’re living in a post-truth world, what I’m referring to is not a collapse of facts themselves, but a splintering of the collectively-held realities within society.
The blurring of fact and opinion is a worldwide problem.
Some readers may say, “but having differing opinions is what a democracy is all about!” To this I say yes, of course. In a functional democracy people always disagree on interpretations of fact and present different facts to convince each other of different perspectives.
What’s different today is that it’s become common for people to no longer acknowledge other perspectives as valid, to claim that their perspective is fact rather than being supported by facts.
This isn’t just a problem in the United States.
Researcher Beata Klimkiewicz in Poland found in 2021 that the polarizing worldviews presented by partisan political commentary shows have worsened the political divisions and contributed to a longstanding fragmentation of national identities there.
Leaked documents reported in 2021 by The Wall Street Journal revealed countries like Spain, Taiwan and India have all contacted Facebook parent company Meta with concerns that social media toxicity is worsening sociopolitical divisions and disincentivizing rational discourse.
Some of the worst cases are seen in developing countries with unstable social fabrics. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, a non-partisan think tank, in Ethiopia and Myanmar, divisive algorithms have directly contributed to the spread of real-world violence and even ethnic cleansing.
Nuance can’t compete with simplicity in a complicated world.
All this shows that while certain contours of the post-truth United States may be unique, the realities and limitations of human psychology are not. All of us tend to embrace consistency over truth, simplicity over nuance.
At the core of a post-truth world is the elimination of any line between fact and opinion, a lost sense of the difference between objectivity and subjectivity.
The topic of a post-truth world is so complex and so frustrating that discussion of it typically results in a great deal of brain ache and a great many rag-dolled arms being tossed in the air in nonverbal acts of indifference.
This is completely understandable.
When operating correctly, reality is usually something we take for granted. We’re not used to needing to consider how our collective realities are merely constructs that are more a matter of perspective than a matter of fact.
But it’s for this reason that the subject is so important.
Post-truth prevents us from understanding each other.
In an effort to soothe our aching brains and rag-dolled arms we’ll be increasingly willing to embrace outright falsehoods, simply for the sake of consistency. This is a dark road marked by some of the worst horrors ever committed by humanity.
So it’s crucial that we understand what’s contributing to this post-truth world, why it’s so dangerous and what we as individuals can do about it.
The first thing to establish is that post-truth is not a bull in a china shop. Post-truth represents a subtle shift in our cultural environment, a change in the backdrop through which we see and discuss the world. Our splintering perceptions of reality don’t cause people to shift their opinions on policy; they simply prevent people who support different policies from being able or willing to understand each other.
The proliferation of a post-truth order costs us the ability to think in terms of adaption, pushing us to think only in terms of allegation.
The other side, with its alternative reality, is the problem that has to be fought and resisted. How can we solve problems if we only see one another as the problem rather than as part of the solution? When political parties view each other as the problem rather than part of the solution, the mechanisms of democracy break down.
A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.
So what causes a break down like this, and how can we fix it?
Rogers Brubaker, chair of the Sociology Department at UCLA, recently authored Hyperconnectivity and Its Discontents, a book on how the digital age has reshaped our economy, politics, culture and yes — even our realities.
He argues that our hyperconnected digital age has created an infinite supply of information and pseudo-information, claims and counterclaims. This has caused a crisis of public knowledge in which “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
It becomes harder and harder for people to be able to talk about the same thing because there’s simply too much being said about any single topic.
This poverty of attention is exacerbated by digital algorithms designed to separate us into distinct ideological bubbles, making it almost impossible to find common ground in the information we receive. And yet, social media alone doesn’t account for that crucial blurring of fact and opinion.
Opinion that masquerades as news
So what does account for this change at the heart of our post-truth world? This brings us to the beginning of this article.
The business model of cable news is built on blurring the line between fact and opinion so heavily that it no longer exists. The first flagship program on Fox News was the “O’Reilly Factor,” a political commentary show that began every broadcast with the oxymoronic claim that “you are now entering the no-spin zone.”
Shows like “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and “Hannity” followed suit, offering increasingly-radical conservative opinions branded as a reliable source of information.
Fox News is not alone; every U.S. cable news network including CNN and MSNBC fills the majority of their air time with “analysis” segments featuring pundits who offer endless opinions about the news rather than the news itself.
These networks all brand themselves as the most reliable and most trustworthy sources. Research has shown that this conflation causes the audiences of cable news networks to implicitly associate partisan bias with reliability and trust.
A political economy of half-truths and hypocrisies
Can we be surprised that so many Americans are unable to distinguish fact from opinion when the business model of the U.S. news industry relies on their inability to do so? From this view, the rise of a post-truth order appears to be voters merely adopting the assumptions of partisan news outlets after decades of conditioning.
Of course, even this is not the full picture. Political philosopher and historian Hannah Arendt first noticed the decline of America’s BS meter in 1972, long before cable news and social media began profiting from it.
But we live in a political economy of half-truths and hypocrisies perpetrated by an industry which feeds off our inability to call its bluff. Like digital hyperconnectivity, this has invariably contributed to the rise of the post-truth world we face today.
Again, it’s tempting to throw up our arms in resignation over all this.
It can also be tempting to lean into the world of bias, to blindly accept that if something sounds right then it must be. Herein lies the greatest danger of a post-truth world. We settle for subtle manipulations as a means of gaining some semblance of consistency and solid ground.
Once we stop valuing the truth, we stop looking for it.
The consistency of bias makes us reject nuance.
Once we embrace the world of spin we surrender the ability to carve our own path as members of a democracy. We cease to question authority except when it suits our ideological biases. Eventually, we become so used to the consistency of bias that nuance itself feels abrasive and even revolting. We wall ourselves off in moral and ideological fortresses that guard against any reminder of what it felt like to question our beliefs.
The first and most important thing we can do as individuals is resist this urge.
However, the only long-term solution is investment in critical thinking and media literacy. Our children are getting an education fit for an atomic-age industrial economy instead of our rapidly-evolving information and service economy. We’re creating assembly line workers when we should be creating computer coders and problem solvers.
This is not a partisan issue; it’s a human one.
Beware of anyone who would discourage you from giving your children the tools to critically examine that person’s platform. If we want to slow our descent into darkness we must give our children the means to navigate the topsy-turvy world we’ve created for them.
As someone who grew up in this world of hyperconnectivity and spin, I fear the worst for the future of my generation and my country as a whole. But there is a light in the darkness, an unwavering pursuit of truth that sits above all comforts and certainties, one that warms my heart and keeps my optimism afloat.
I only hope that you see it too.
Three questions to consider:
- Why do so many people seem so personally vested in political opinion?
- What role has cable news played in dividing the people of the United States?
- Do you see a way that the next generation can get back to a world where facts are valued?
Skyler Kelley Duval is an undergraduate at The George Washington University studying Political Science and Sociology, with a focus on polarization and democratic backslide. A graduate of La Jolla Country Day School, a News Decoder school partner, Skyler looks forward to pursuing a PhD in Political Sociology.
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