Friday, March 03, 2017

A Study on the Era of Alternative Facts

This media study is important:

Our own study of over 1.25 million stories published online between April 1, 2015 and Election Day shows that a right-wing media network anchored around Breitbart developed as a distinct and insulated media system, using social media as a backbone to transmit a hyper-partisan perspective to the world. This pro-Trump media sphere appears to have not only successfully set the agenda for the conservative media sphere, but also strongly influenced the broader media agenda, in particular coverage of Hillary Clinton.
While concerns about political and media polarization online are longstanding, our study suggests that polarization was asymmetric. Pro-Clinton audiences were highly attentive to traditional media outlets, which continued to be the most prominent outlets across the public sphere, alongside more left-oriented online sites. But pro-Trump audiences paid the majority of their attention to polarized outlets that have developed recently, many of them only since the 2008 election season.

These are information bubbles, and not the easily bursting kind.  Though the tendency is more noticeable on the right, I see weaker versions of it on the left, too.

I have spent time surfing various right-wing and left-wing sites.  Here are my observations:

1.  It's not just that the same events are presented differently on the right and on the left: which events are viewed as news also varies.  The reason for the Benghazi-craze of so many Republicans is that Benghazi was in "their" news for very long time periods,* whereas other similar terrorist attacks came and went fairly quickly.

2.  Even for the same news, the evidence marshaled to support a particular point of view differs.  As an example, lefties are likely to discuss  Trump's deportation policies by linking to horrible stories about families torn apart in ICE operations, whereas righties are seeing the same policies framed by stories about crimes undocumented aliens have committed.

3.  Where the right-wing sites do differ, perhaps because they are more polarized, is in the creation of odd alternative realities.  George Soros as the man who held Hillary Clinton's puppet strings and who finances almost all left-wing activism in this country is one such alternative reality.  I have never managed to squeeze one dime out of Mr. Soros, sigh.

Another example of those alternative realities is the Pizzagate "scandal," fabricated out of nothing and spread all over the extreme right websites.

This study casts light on the question why so many individuals would believe in something so bizarre.  The answer is that anything repeated often enough becomes part of established truths, if nobody is allowed to offer different evidence. 

4.  The basic biased framework can be strengthened by those who participate on various sites.

My example of that comes from a misogynistic Facebook page, but similar examples would apply to any right-wing site (and, in theory, to any political site).

That particular page is all about the violence committed by women, especially against men, and readers bring in links to stories about female murderers or batterers from all over the world.   These links give the site the appearance of being factual about the great danger of criminal women, but that is only because no links are introduced about the crimes committed by men, including against women.  The latter are statistically many times more common than the former.  Yet the participants on that site appear quite unaware of that fact.

5.  Even when a conservative site uses studies or statistics to bolster its point of view, those almost always omit any studies or statistics which do not support the arguments the site wishes to make.  That is not unexpected for propaganda, but unacceptable for a site, such as Breitbart, which pretends to be a news site.

Do read the whole description of the study.  It's informative, and it lays out the problem we really have to deal with.  If different people believe in different realities we are going to be in great and continuous trouble as a country.


* Fox News' coverage has similar aspects.  For example, vast amounts of time is spent covering any cases where a mother may have murdered her children, even if the cases have no national significance, while other murder cases are not reported at all.

Thanks to Cole d'Biers at Eschaton for the link to the study.