“In our increasingly tribalistic political landscape, each side or faction lives in its own separate reality, where it feels not merely entitled to its own opinions, but increasingly to its own facts as well.”
— CONOR LYNCH
Or at least, fake news doesn’t matter in the context that you think it does. When discussing journalistic integrity or responsibility, swaying matters of public opinion, or things of that nature, definitely. But in debates and discussions about politics? Not really.
We all like to think we’re rational, well-informed citizens who base our decisions and stances on facts. Our ‘opponents’ are the irrational ones, and if only they were educated then they would understand our point of view. Usually though, it wouldn’t even make a difference.
Think of Facebook comments: on your timeline, some platform has published a piece on vaccination (or abortion, Donald Trump, feminism, Black Lives Matter, the LGBTQ+ community, or whatever controversy du jour you fancy.) The comments will be littered with agreements and disagreements, both claiming to be backed up by facts – follow a thread and look at the number of links discussing the same statistics yet varying wildly.
Today, the typical response is to discredit links and publications as ‘fake news’ (whether merited or not), and center on misinformation as the cause of these fundamental differences. Even more so now with rise of Donald Trump, his incomprehensible tweets, the branding of the “alt-right” movement, and seemingly the degeneration of truth – they’re all red herrings to these debates though.
Anyone else in Donald Trump’s position would have been ostracized for their actions – had any other candidate been so blatantly caught in lies, fraud, indecent conduct, racism, misogyny, etc. – except for the fact that he didn’t care about anything that would make these actions consequential to him and his supporters. In the same way, the facts of an issue sometimes aren’t of consequence to those who are willingly contrary, ignorant, or basing their conviction in feeling.
At the end of the day, people – particularly within the realm of politics, and even more so when it comes to matters of personal identity or rights – are more likely to form their convictions first, based on their moral and emotional groundings, and then supplant those with facts. As much as ostensibly it should be the other way around, and we like to think it is the other way around, that’s not usually the case.
Positions on abortion usually center on a person’s beliefs of what constitutes life, usually defined personally in the absence of a concrete universally agreed upon definition. Conversations on feminism struggle to move forward when caught in circles of whether the inequality is even there. Trying to debate the Black Lives Matter movement goes nowhere when parties can’t agree on the injustice itself.
Before the rallying cry of ‘fake news’, people still presented skewed slants on the same sets of data, they still gravitated to publications with the same biases as their own, and they still polarized debates along ideological lines so that the weight of data registered much lower than the weight of personal alignments.
Media literacy and criticism is essential, particularly now in a time of increasingly rapid spread of information – just maybe not necessarily when you’re trying to talk to a ‘keyboard warrior from the other side’.