As those pseudo-stories suggest, while we may have dispensed with some problems unique to living in a country run by an inveterate liar, questions remain about how to deal with a continuing torrent of politically useful falsehoods. And they remain because the problem both predates Trump and was exacerbated by him; indeed, it goes to the heart of how journalists think about what they do.
A key tenet of professional journalism from its earliest days has been exposure, particularly the mandate to thrust bad deeds into the spotlight that the doers had tried feverishly to conceal.
Exposure also meant airing a range of ideas, more or less evenhandedly, so readers could sort through them independently to decide what they thought. That last instinct intensified in the late 1960s as politics grew more sharply ideological. Increasingly, media outlets sought to feature a voice from the right and a voice for the left in order to strike a pose of balance and objectivity.
But what happens when the incentives change, along with the meaning of “exposure,” and the goal is no longer to persuade people of the merits of an idea but simply to expose as many people as possible to a false story? According to that huckster-like rationale, exposing the idea — even while debunking it or pointing out its ethical and logical flaws — plays into the hands of the people circulating conspiracies.
That dynamic predates Trump’s rise. Since the 1990s, conservative media has developed a symbiotic (or parasitic) relationship with mainstream news. For all the talk of silos and bubbles and echo chambers, the real power of right-wing media outlets has been their ability to influence the coverage of non-conservative outlets.
There, true believers could pick up any number of books and videos and articles all devoted to the Foster conspiracy, which had so much staying power that one of the most-watched national news shows spent time once again debunking it — not, as host Mike Wallace explained, because the facts were in question, but because the conspiracies circulated so widely.
Fox News was founded the following year and would go on to expand its political influence largely thanks to the coverage its stories received on other networks. Over the years, the relentless and inaccurate flogging of pet issues like “Fast & Furious,” Benghazi and of course, Hillary Clinton’s email server, seeped from Fox News into other outlets.
This prowess holds even, it turns out, when the outrage is powered by something simply conjured from thin air. That was the case with birtherism, an easily disproven claim about President Barack Obama’s birthplace. While mainstream journalism had no truck with birtherism, it thrived in the right-wing media marketplace, where politics, conspiracy and entertainment grew indistinguishable.
That dynamic has been amplified by two major media developments of the past few decades: the rise of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which enable the rapid spread of misinformation, and the economic restructuring of journalism, which rewards vast amounts of content delivered at a rapid pace and encourages outlets to cover the outrage of the day. The remaking of the information environment means that journalists are not the only ones who have to adapt — the rest of us do as well.
During the Trump era, things got trickier. Journalists felt they couldn’t turn away: after all, the primary source of misinformation was the president of the United States, and they had to cover him. But in a post-Trump era, it is clear that the problem is not an adversarial or polarized relationship between the press corps and the president. The problem is deeper and more structural: it’s the way non-conservative outlets get used to further circulate conspiracies.
For the rest of us, one of the most important things people can do is to resist the temptation of social-media dunking.
I know: sharing outrageous clips to call them out comes with a surge of adrenaline and righteousness — as though with enough retweets, people will finally understand how poisonous and fraudulent the material is. But that’s not what happens. Instead, the misinformation winds up before millions more eyeballs, often without any real context or explanation.
The problem of misinformation is a thorny one. It is particularly difficult to fix because it plays on the virtues of journalism, its commitment to exposure and fairness. But in an information environment in which exposure aids misinformation, the best approach is a deeply unsexy one: to ignore the shiniest, least reality-based objects — no stories or tweets on illusory beef bans, for instance — and to deeply contextualize the rest, to help people understand the incentives behind the spread of misinformation, and why it’s suddenly everywhere.
That is slow, hard work that likely won’t be rewarded with prizes or film treatments or Twitter virality, but it can start the process of defanging misinformation in a post-Trump era.