Fake News, Echo Chambers, and Critical Thinking in the Trump Era

Oxford Dictionary named “post-truth” as the 2016 word of the year, in light of the massive spike in the salience of fake news. As falsified stories and half-truths—as well as stories about such falsifications—took over timelines and newsfeeds, the relative impact of perception vs. factualness weighed on the American political and media conscious. A Stanford study researching the impact of fake news found that, “Democrats and Republicans are both about 15 percent more likely to believe ideologically aligned headlines, and this ideologically aligned inference is substantially stronger for people with ideologically segregated social media networks.” Ideologically segregated networks are those in which an individual is—intentionally or unintentionally—subject only to information and opinions which corroborate their existing convictions. Phenomena such as the one mentioned in the Stanford study exemplify confirmation bias, the automatic thinking process which causes individuals to focus on evidence that confirms their conceptions of the world and reaffirms their personal values, while tuning out evidence which challenges their perceptions. Confirmation bias occurs largely due to an automatic effort to diminish insecurity of identity. Such biases prove especially pernicious because they occur unconsciously; it is difficult to recognize and amend thought patterns if we are not even aware of their happening in the first place.

Moreover, as social creatures, human beings unconsciously rely on each other for social guidance and approval, and are largely driven by two basic motives: the need to be accurate in our perceptions, and the need to for the group to corroborate those perceptions. Echo chambers are a phenomenon, fueled by confirmation bias, in which consumers focus their attention solely on events and information which comport with their standpoints on various issues, effectively creating a vicious cycle. Echo chambers often arise because consumers seek out media for the satisfaction of the two distinct—sometimes opposing— social needs. Complicating the matter, the need to accurately view events as they occur and the need for the facts (or “facts”) to corroborate values and pre-existing worldviews often conflict. Simply, consumers create echo chambers as a means of cognitive dissonance reduction: they want to know the truth, but not always to an extent that conflicts with their conceptions of the world at-large, which returns to the hindrance unconscious biases can exert over our construal of facts and events.

Facebook routinely provided the most accessible and widely used medium for fake news before, during, and after the 2016 campaign election cycle; although Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg denied that Facebook influenced election results to any significant degree. Due to the readiness with which articles, real or fake, may be shared, coupled with algorithms designed to sort the vast quantities of media, users retain the ability to create for themselves any sort of media experience they desire, shielded from opposing viewpoints—or, in some cases, objective fact. Epistemologically, what is factual is factual. However, in a democratic society characterized by freedom of speech and information, such as the U.S., perceptions of facts threaten to exert greater sway on the wider political scene than facts themselves.

Nevertheless, the issue of fake news proves multifaceted, and a second, distinct threat to accuracy of opinion lies in the spreading of fake news by those in positions of power. On top of actual, falsified stories, the label of “fake news” has been applied to legitimate media criticizing the current administration. Politifact, a Pulitzer prize-winning fact-checking resource, cites 153 instances in 2017 in which Donald Trump has labeled a story critical of his actions and decisions—most originating from left-leaning syndicates such as CNN, NBC, and The New York Times. The perpetuation of the idea that as individuals, we are unable to trust our senses in discerning fact from fiction only serves to further reinforce corrupt power structures.

Anonymous sourcing, common even in reputable journalism, proves the biggest avenue for fake news accusations, tending to further blur the line of real vs. fake. Politifact goes on to quote Aly Colón, Washington and Lee University’s John S. and James L. Knight Professor of Media Ethics: “When the media uses anonymous sources and Trump labels the stories as fake news, the public doesn’t have much recourse for evaluating the evidence for themselves. That typically means they’ll side with whomever they have the most sympathy with anyway.” Seemingly paradoxically, anonymous sourcing provides a means for heightened transparency when used responsibly by reputable syndicates; by allowing contribution from higher-profile sources who may have not otherwise been able to comment, information which may have remained under wraps is disseminated to the public domain. Anonymous sourcing proves generally reliable—especially when used by established syndicates whose reputation of integrity is of utmost importance. Egregiously unfounded accusations only perpetuate confusion and the dangerous illusion that those in power act as the ultimate arbiters of truth.

Yet, in reality, experts and moderately-discriminating citizens alike maintain the ability to detect falsified media. Dr. Melissa Zimdars, assistant professor of communication at Merrimack College, devised a system for recognizing fake news—as cited by NPR—as well as a comprehensive list of over 1000 syndicates and a rating of the trustworthiness of the media they produce. In order to avoid falling for falsified articles, Zimdars recommends double-checking the URLs of online media, and investigating the authorship of articles. Publishers of reputable journalism will provide an extensive “About Us” or “About the author” page, and articles discussing legitimate topics are generally corroborated across multiple reliable syndicates. In order to combat fake news and the spread of misinformation, individual citizens, syndicates, and and the current executive administration must become accountable to higher standards of informational media. “Post-truth” must ultimately be regarded as a temporary growing pain associated with the new data age, rather than a new world order.