We are inundated with waves of anti-intellectual, anti-expert, and anti-science information, where opinions in the form of “alternative facts” and fake news are being promoted as truthful facts and rationality.
My article in Psychology Today, “Anti-intellectualism and the ‘Dumbing Down” of America,” I argued, the new elite are the angry social media trolls, those who can shout the loudest and most often. Together they encourage a culture of anti-rationalism where every fact is suspect and conspiracies abound. Rational and reasonable thought has become the enemy. Anger and fear have become their weapons. I would add to that observation that the current wave of alternate reality now includes the creation of fake news and “alternative facts” which seems to populate both political and popular discourse, fueled by the power of social media. The article must have struck a resonant chord with many, as it has had almost 1.4 million views.
Let’s examine some definitions that may be helpful.
What we are seeing both in public pronouncements by leaders and their replication by some mainstream media and extensive social media, are opinions and false claims now being substituted for facts, or even untested claims. And “fact-checker” reports by some media outlets are growing rapidly in the face of increasing incidents of fake news or false claims. Nowhere is this more evident that the denial of facts and generation of opinions and false claims related to science and particularly, climate change. There is a long history of politicians and business leaders either making false claims or outright lying, but the frequency and tendency seems to be increasing. A Washington correspondent for the Toronto Star, Daniel Dale, fact checks every single word President Trump utters and tallies them up for his paper. He comments that Trumps' false statements can total up to 20 per day and more.
Partly because of the influence of social media and our appetite for sound and video bites, political leaders’ explanation of claims or opinions are becoming increasingly truncated. The average length of a sound bite by a presidential candidate in 1968 was 42.3 seconds. Two decades later, it was 9.8 seconds. Today, it’s over seven seconds and well on its way to being supplanted by 140-character Twitter bursts. This reinforces the belief that there are brief simple answers to complex questions that don’t require more intensive dialogue or reflection.
The digital revolution, which has rapidly expanded our access to information and entertainment choices, has in some ways moved us downward to the lowest common denominators—LOL cat videos and the lifestyles of celebrities or reality shows. In some cases celebrities become “authorities” for pseudo-scientific causes. For example, Jenny McCarthy, a former Playboy model with a high school education, has become a global spokesperson for the anti-vaccination movement, in opposition to the credibility of thousands of medical professionals.
We have entered the era of the “post-truth,” which Oxford Dictionaries identified as its 2016 word of the year and defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The post-truth doesn’t discount the truth, supported by facts, but rather, the post-truth is supported and justified by opinions or false claims where feelings and emotions are more important than facts.
Which points to the problem of public polls, which are often advanced as the same as facts. But the number of people in a poll who believe in the truth of a claim does not determine its truthfulness. For example, 500 years ago, only a small minority of people recognized the truth that the world is round. Most people then believed the world was flat. Facts are statements verified by evidence. Opinions are merely self-reports which are not supported by facts.
Why is the Public So Ready to Believe False Statements or Confuse Opinions with Facts?
Part of the answer to this question is what psychologists refer to as a “cognitive distortion,” specifically “confirmation bias,” which is the tendency to seek evidence or facts (or even opinions) that support what you already believe to be true. Often this is accompanied by a blindness to opposing information, no matter how accurate. For them “seeing is not believing, but rather believing is seeing.”
The Influence of Traditional Vs. Social Media
As of early 2016, just 20% U.S. adults often get news from print newspapers. This has fallen from 27% in 2013. This decrease occurred across all age groups, though the age differences are still stark: Only 5% of 18- to 29-year-olds often get news from a print newspaper, whereas about half (48%) of those 65 and older do. Compared with print, nearly twice as many adults (38%) often get news online, either from news websites/apps (28%), on social media (18%) or both. (81% of adults ever get news on these online
The Pew Research Center’s annual “State of the Media” study describes changes in the television news landscape over the past five years. The study’s authors found that, since 2007, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC have all cut back sharply on the amount of actual reporting found on their airwaves. A majority of U.S. adults – 62% – get news on social media, and 18% do so often, according to Pew Research Center, conducted in association with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. That’s up from 49% in 2012. News plays a varying role across the social networking sites studied. Two-thirds of Facebook users (66%) get news on the site, nearly six-in-ten Twitter users (59%) get news on Twitter, and seven-in-ten Reddit users get news on that platform. On Tumblr, the figure sits at 31%, while for the other five social networking sites it is true of only about one-fifth or less of their user bases.
The Rise of “Trolls” and “Bots”
Internet “trolls” and “bots” distribute vast amounts of false information in various languages. A social media troll, by definition, is someone who creates conflict on sites like Twitter, Facebook and Reddit by posting messages that are particularly inflammatory and provocative, hoping to antagonize the original author. Investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson, an American author and host of the weekly Sunday public affairs program "Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson," which airs on television stations operated by the Sinclair Broadcast Group and former investigative correspondent in the Washington bureau for CBS News has reported on the increasing trend for organizations to utilize trolls to manipulate public opinion as part of an “Astroturfing” initiative. Teams of sponsored trolls, sometimes referred to as “sockpuppet” armies, swarm a website to prevent any honest discourse and denigrate anyone who disagree with them.
An “bot” is software for the Internet, used to perform simple and repetitive tasks that would be time-consuming, mundane or impossible for a human to perform. For example, In 2010, a conservative group in Iowa used automated accounts to send messages supporting Republican candidate Scott Brown’s attempt to win a Massachusetts seat in the U.S. Senate. The messages were retweeted by some real people, and reached an audience of 60,000. In another case, Mexico’s 2012 general election, the Institutional Revolutionary Party used more than 10,000 automated accounts to swamp online discussion.
Today, governments manipulate social media to influence public opinion or even the outcome of elections. Thousands of bots on the internet use social media to post fake news, or comment on others’ websites and blogs. You can even hire your own troll army. In 2011 the PR firm Bell Pottinger told investigative journalists that they could “create and maintain third-party blogs”, and spruce up Wikipedia profiles and Google search rankings.
Rather than ushering in an era in which the average person can get facts and the truth about issues via the Internet, lies and false claims abound. And by the time a fact-checker has caught a lie, thousands more lies have been created. And when a lie is repeated enough times, psychologists argue, it is more likely to be believed.
Why Have We Arrived Here?
Part of the answer is the trend of the general public’s lack of trust in experts, government, leaders and the media. A new Pew study comparing the attitudes of scientists and the public shows wide gaps between the two when it comes to climate, GMOs and pesticides, research using animals, and also the threat posed by the fast-growing world population. And while 87 percent of scientists in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the world's biggest scientific society) say climate change is caused by humans, just 50 percent of U.S. adults agree — a 37-point gap.
This lack of trust is documented in a variety of national surveys. The Gallup poll shows Americans' trust in their political leaders continues to decline. The percentages trusting the American people (56%) and political leaders (42%) are down roughly 20 percentage points since 2004 and are currently at new lows in Gallup's trends. The General Social Survey, a periodic assessment of Americans’ moods and values, shows a 10 point decline from 1976 to 2006 in the number of Americans who believe other people can generally be trusted. The General Social Survey also shows declines in trust in institutions. And Gallup’s annual Governance survey shows that trust in the government is even lower today than it was during the Watergate era, when the Nixon administration was caught engaging in criminal acts.
What is Needed Now
Clearly, public trust in our institutions and leaders in government and business needs to be re-established. The World Economic Forum suggests To be effective, today’s institutions must be recalibrated to reflect this democratization of power and promote a more inclusive view of collaboration, across countries and different stakeholders of our society. Government needs to lead open and transparent debate with all its communities about policy challenges and options. All of these challenges lead us to believe that it’s time to re-examine the fundamentals: what institutions we need; how they are to be legitimized; what makes for the most effective institutions; and what types of transparency need to be created.
Management guru Steven Covey advanced 13 principles to establish and strengthen trust in organizations. Among these were the important principles of transparency, personal accountability, honesty, respect and righting wrongs. That would be a good starting place for today’s leaders.
The behavior of our leaders is important, because the rest of us are significantly affected by the example of our political, cultural and religious leaders. Also, the teaching of ethics needs to be reinforced in the education of young people in schools.
What about trust in business leaders? Richard Edelman, commenting in McKinsey & Company says “A CEO is going to have to go and meet the community and have an open community meeting and actually make relationships personally and listen. And not just go and formulate policy, but listen first and participate in the community—only then be an advocate.”
Finally, leaders and institutions must address the growing problem of economic inequality in our society, where wealth is being increasingly held in the hands of 1% or less of the population.
The media has a significant role to play in combating fake news and false claims. The quest for objective truth and (non-alternative) facts has never been more critical. Journalists and experts in various fields must join forces in this common endeavor, and not hesitate to call out present and future falsehoods, whether due to innocent mistakes or to frank attempts to mislead. Investigative reporting and aggressive fact-checking will be crucial to make leaders in government and business accountable. Re-establishing the importance of science to back up arguments is paramount to public discourse.
And finally, we need to redefine the responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy to match the rapid changes in the information age. Citizens will have to take more responsibility for understanding, investigation and reaching informed decisions based on factual evidence, and not leave those tasks wholly to institutions or leaders through blind faith. Regulatory and legal processes that focus on the prevention of conflicts of interest, an ability to acknowledge mistakes and, yes, punishment of fraudulent behavior are needed to regain the citizens’ trust. And there needs to be a widespread public commitment to challenging fake news and false claims by demanding leaders and institutions provide the truth, based on factual evidence.
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