Against alternative facts

To most Americans, the mention of Fox News will no doubt conjure up images of Republicans and MSNBC will elicit thoughts of liberal Democrats. This type of partisan news media simply didn’t exist during the last generation. When Americans turned on the TV after dinner, they had three options: ABC, CBS, or NBC, and they only had one choice, the news, delivered in essentially the same format. To us, this scenario may sound like a hellish nightmare, but it was the norm before the media landscape exploded with the advent of social media. Even though the increase in the variety of sources has given us more choices, it is doing more harm to our society than good.

The Nielsen Media Research found in a recent study that the average American gets 189 cable channels but only watches 17 channels. In order for cable channels to stay relevant to audiences, the channels had to figure out how to take advantage of their own core audience. The easiest way to do this is to exploit the audience’s confirmation bias. By feeding heavily editorialized stories to people who share similar sentiments, society has effectively created a “specialized” media for every political view: Fox News for Republicans and MSNBC for Democrats. However, in recent years, the media specialization and polarization has been taken to a whole new level. We are starting to broaden our sense of what constitute as “facts.” News channels, encouraged by their eager audiences, are able to present the exact same set of numbers with vastly different interpretations. The old adage of “numbers don’t lie” simply isn’t true anymore.

In a Washington Post study done days after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Trump supporters, Clinton supporters, and non-voters were divided equally into two groups. Both groups were shown a picture of President Trump’s inauguration crowds and a picture of President Obama’s 2009 crowds. The first group was asked “which photo is from which inauguration?” The second group was asked “which photo has more people?” The results are surprising. Of the first group, 41 percent of Trump supporters said that Obama’s inauguration photo (the one with more people) was from Trump’s inauguration. And 15 percent of Trump supporters in the second group said that Trump’s inauguration photo had more people. This means that not only did the Trump supporters believe President Trump’s statement that more people came to his inauguration, but they were able to perceive something objectively false as true.

The media polarization has created this phenomenon of distrust of facts and in turn, this phenomenon feeds into media polarization. There is now media on both sides of the isle that specializes on news from questionable sources or straight up fake news. INFOWARS, Breibart, Rush Limbaugh Show, etc. for the right, and Occupy Democrats, Addicting Info, etc. for the left. These news sources only proliferate information (or, more often than not, misinformation) to specific targeted audiences to fuel their extreme bias.

Additionally, the new administration is willing, if not eager, to participate in the mind manipulation of fake news. In the recent controversy surrounding inauguration attendance, White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway said that the statements the Trump White House releases are not lies, but a set of “alternative facts.” The media-politics relationship has now come full circle. The polarized media no longer has to bend the statements of politicians to write its biased news. The politicians now provide the fake news to the media willingly to gain popular support.

The specialized of media also works to separate the political from the non-political. According a study from Cambridge University, the media machine offers other forms of entertainment, such as Discovery Channel, History Channel or Food Network for people who are not as politically acute. Unlike older generations who had nothing to watch from 6 to 7 PM but the daily news, Americans today don’t have to watch the news if we don’t want to, insulating less politically interested audiences in a self-fulfilling cycle.

Here at Yale, we are often criticized for living in a “liberal bubble.” I cannot deny this. Most student organizations are liberal. A majority of publications (including this one) feature mostly liberal writers and editors. Because of the massive percentage of Yale students who are liberal, the campus constantly provides confirmation bias and works to keep our campus free from “conservative” influence by branding it as socially undesirable or simply wrong. The bubble is a problem. The best way to remedy it is to try to get a deeper understanding of the other side. We need to deliberately expose ourselves to information with which we may not agree and talk to people on the opposite end of political ideology. But at the same time, we must also have the diligence to recognize a lie for what it is.

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