From Spin to Populism

By Jeri Peck

Politico evaluated 596 statements made by Barack Obama over a 9 year period and found that >25% were more than half-false.  Whether these were mis-statements, misinformation, over-stretched spin and rhetoric, or outright lies we will likely never know, but on average you could only trust three out of every four claims he made.  I would argue that this was deplorable, except that it has been eclipsed by the truly shocking comparison with the assessment of 386 statements made by Donald Trump over the past 1.5 yrs.  In contrast to the last, our current President’s record is nearly the inverse:  69% of his statements have been more than half-false; you can only trust three out of every ten claims he makes.

There are many, many ramifications of this fact, but among them is that by making the spread of disinformation officially (national role model #1) socially acceptable, the current administration is accelerating a breakdown in civics that will ultimately spell the demise of rational governance in the United States.  They didn’t start it, but they are accelerating our slide into an abyss from which we will require decades/generations to rebound.

Here’s how I got to that conclusion.

We are living organisms (premise #1a, which I hope we can all agree on).

One of the defining features of living organisms is self-preservation (premise #2a).  They have innate mechanisms for ensuring survival, be they passive (timing of bud set, camouflage) or active (fight or flight).  Whether to fight or flee is determined in a split-second that draws less on acumen than on instinct, by which is meant mind bogglingly fast synaptic connections that functionally calculate the probability of success of seemingly unpredictable pathways.  Yet it works phenomenally well.  You may recall the book Blink from a few years back, which relayed the idea that subconscious decisions are more often ‘right’ than you would expect just by chance.  This is thanks to the odds game of evolution:  if a mutation affecting instinct isn’t at least as good as flipping a coin, it ultimately gets weeded out.

Conclusion:  humans are self-preserving.  Sure, this is not news.

However, we are also social animals (premise #1b).

And at some point along the evolutionary pathway, social animals tripped across a beneficial modification to the rules of behavioral governance:  because interaction with our semi-predictable fellow-beings changes the equation, sometimes it pays to override instinct.  Although which species actually do this (vs. just having more complex “instinct”) is debatable, we are not only capable of making judgement calls rather than just acting on what comes to mind first, but the basis of civilization is that we expect ourselves and others to choose to do most of the things we do, rather than allow ourselves to be driven to do them by our subconscious (premise #2b).

Conclusion:  humans use judgement as well as instinct for self-preservation.  Fine, another no-brainer.

However, the degree to which we use judgement vs. instinct is variable and depends on factors that we are not able to control very well (e.g., an inherited inability to following a logical argument from premise 1 + premise 2 = conclusion) as well as those that are possible but awkward to control (e.g., overriding the parental/societal demonstration of relying on instinct rather than judgement) to those that are theoretically easy to control (e.g., teaching logic or providing the knowledge base from which premises are drawn).  Marketers know this all too well.  They know how to reach those who act on instinct and how to promote impulsive instinct over reasoned judgement in those whose lives are dominated by fast-thinking (i.e., who don’t have/take the time to logic things out).

And political pundits know how to control the knowledge base by controlling the media message (premise #1c).  Historically, when the public had command of basic history and civics and media outlets competed on the basis of exposing untruths, politicians were limited to stretching the interpretation of facts.  [The facts themselves were incontrovertible because we either knew enough to know what was true and what wasn’t, or someone was actually checking, so the knowledge base of the public was grounded in fact.]  By claiming that interpretation is open to interpretation, spin masters shift the onus of disproving spin onto the audience.  Contradicting spin thus requires considerably more effort than contradicting non-facts.  But in an era in which media outlets compete on the basis of ratings and sound bite headlines are optimized for speed at the expense of accuracy, political spin is rebroadcast by the media as quickly as possible until it becomes the message.

Speed and research are not usually very compatible, and sure enough, there is time for very little fact checking or contextualization before political spin is rebroadcast.  Further, in the absence of other sources of information (e.g., education, a fact-checking media), media banter itself often constitutes the knowledge base.  As fewer and fewer media outlets serve as watchdogs of the truth, not only is spin conveyed without appraisal or context, but whatever public figures put forth is repeated verbatim (and ad nauseam) (premise #2c).  As exemplified during the presidential election campaign, public figures have now learned that they can not only feed spin directly into the knowledge base, but also their version of ‘knowledge’ itself.  [Why not call a spade a spade and say they are lying?  Apparently the media shy from this term because it implies intent, and it is very hard to determine if someone is ignorant vs. nefarious.]

Conclusion:  the general knowledge disseminated by media outlets today includes vast quantities of political spin AND may also include actual disinformation (“falsehoods”, “fake news”, “alternative facts”).  OK, I’m not the first to point this out.

However, the harm of being bathed in disinformation is at least three-fold (premise #1d).  First, because we do not know the facts and no longer have an advocate in the media to provide the missing information, we are not able to judge the substance of anyone’s message and thus cannot evaluate the validity of their political argument (assuming they actually give arguments rather than hyperbole).  Second, our awareness of this fact renders us insecure, making us vulnerable to persuasion (“gee, I don’t know, maybe they’re right”) and incapable of judgement.  Third, if you repeat a lie often enough it becomes the truth, leading us to misjudge by virtue of a literally unbelievable knowledge base.

Although repetition alone is in fact enough to make people believe what should not be believed, a credible source speeds the process (premise #2d).  As CBS knew during the Walter Cronkite era (and NBC knew enough to drop Brian Williams like a hot potato), the more people have believed you in the past, the more they will believe you in the future.  Although in the old days this would have worked against our sitting President, in the post-factual era he can furnish the media with alternative facts (that will be repetitively rebroadcast vastly more often than they are checked) and enjoy the benefaction of the authority of the Presidency.  A favorite media message of Trump apologists is “No matter what, you must respect the office of the President.”

Conclusion:  Under the cloak of the Presidency (and Commander in Chief) in the current media environment, disinformation can be so widely and effectively disseminated that most Americans either succumb to it or cynically deny the possibility of truth entering our political discourse.

And that cynicism is our abyss.  We chose a protest candidate because we thought our government was broken, but still believed it could be mended.  Once we either accept whatever they tell us (enter authoritarian propaganda) or stop believing anything they tell us (precursor to anarchy), we have already lost faith in our democratic institutions.  Nations in which no one really believes their politicians (including the politicians) are rife with corruption, incompetence, and inefficiency.  Laws do not get passed.  Policy does not get formed.  Compromise is impossible, so the work of the state simply grinds to a halt.  Private enterprise can keep the boat afloat for a while, but eventually the economies of these functionally failed states suffer as well.  And then it takes a new generation to start digging out of the pit.  Examples in recent decades include Greece, Italy, and South Africa.  It pains me to think the U.S. could join that list.

Even if the Trump administration delivers on all their promises, the damage done by the promulgation of alternative facts may still ultimately take us down, perhaps in the next administration or even the one after that.  If only they had changed that trajectory by embracing a true conservative doctrine:  truth.

[originally published on Emergent Elucidations blog]