“Fake News”

Ugh, fake news was a real, if over-hyped, problem in this past election.  And fake news is not hard to define.  News stories basically intended to deceive with no bearing in reality, e.g., Hillary Clinton child sex ring in basement of pizza parlor.  It’s not difficult.  Every news story that is not accurate, or even includes false information is most definitely not fake news.  If Nancy Pelosi claims that she has evidence that Trump had a sexual relationship with Vladimir Putin, that’s news.  Even if Pelosi is lying 100% the fact that she is claiming it is news and is newsworthy.  It is in no meaningful sense “fake news.”  The claim, whether true or false, is the news.

Thus, really frustrating that Trump and conservatives are already trying to take over “fake news” to mean any news unflattering to Trump.

Anyway, using fake news as a hook, Amanda Taub had a pretty nice piece in the upshot that will not be new news to any of you as it is all about the power of partisan motivated reasoning.  Still, some good stuff:

To find out more about the consequences of that polarization, Mr. Westwood, along with Shanto Iyengar, a Stanford professor who studies political communication, embarked on a series of experiments. They found something quite shocking: Not only did party identity turn out to affect people’s behavior and decision making broadly, even on apolitical subjects, but according to their data it also had more influence on the way Americans behaved than race did.

That is a sea change in the role of partisanship in public life, Mr. Westwood said.

“Partisanship, for a long period of time, wasn’t viewed as part of who we are,” he said. “It wasn’t core to our identity. It was just an ancillary trait. But in the modern era we view party identity as something akin to gender, ethnicity or race — the core traits that we use to describe ourselves to others.”

That has made the personal political. “Politics has become so important that people select relationships on that basis,” Mr. Iyengar said. For instance, it has become quite rare for Democrats to marry Republicans, according to the same Westwood/Iyengar paper, which cited a finding in a 2009 survey of married couples that only 9 percent consisted of Democrat-Republican pairs. And it has become more rare for children to have a different party affiliation from their parents.

But it has also made the political personal. Today, political parties are no longer just the people who are supposed to govern the way you want. They are a team to support, and a tribe to feel a part of. And the public’s view of politics is becoming more and more zero-sum: It’s about helping their team win, and making sure the other team loses.

How partisan bias fuels fake news

Partisan tribalism makes people more inclined to seek out and believe stories that justify their pre-existing partisan biases, whether or not they are true.

“If I’m a rabid Trump voter and I don’t know much about public affairs, and I see something about some scandal about Hillary Clinton’s aides being involved in an assassination attempt, or that story about the pope endorsing Trump, then I’d be inclined to believe it,” Mr. Iyengar said. “This is reinforcing my beliefs about the value of a Trump candidacy.”

And Clinton voters, he said, would be similarly drawn to stories that deride Mr. Trump as a demagogue or a sexual predator. [emphasis mine]

Sharing those stories on social media is a way to show public support for one’s partisan team — roughly the equivalent of painting your face with team colors on game day.

“You want to show that you’re a good member of your tribe,” Mr. Westwood said. “You want to show others that Republicans are bad or Democrats are bad, and your tribe is good. Social media provides a unique opportunity to publicly declare to the world what your beliefs are and how willing you are to denigrate the opposition and reinforce your own political candidates.”

Lots of good stuff in here.  And both sides absolutely fall prey to this.  That said, there is a real, genuine asymmetry that Taub elides in this piece.  Go back to the bold section above.  Trump has admitted to being a sexual predator!!  No, he’s not a serial rapist, but that’s a fair term for somebody who liked to “grab ’em by the pussy” and who bragged about walking into changing rooms of naked pageant contestants.  Likewise, “demagogue” seems pretty fair for someone who traffics in racial and xenophobic fear while claiming”only I can fix it.”  These are real!  Sure, there is absolutely hyperbole in how liberals treat the stories about Trump, but absolutely an underlying truth.  As a rule, liberals are not falling prey to “fake news.”  Meanwhile, many of the stories about HRC and the examples cited here bear absolutely zero relation to reality.  So, yes, both sides engage in partisan motivated reasoning, but as in many things, it is a matter of degree, and degrees matter.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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