Do Facts Matter Any More?

Fake news. “Alternative” facts. Welcome to the age of Trump.

There is no generally accepted definition of “fake news,” and no bright line separating it from the increasing proliferation of propaganda, but the essential characteristic is that it is not factual. (Fake news is not, as Trump asserts, any news that disparages him.)

Concern about fake news has risen, and Facebook and Google have recently announced steps to combat it. Journalist’s Resource has compiled the still-scanty academic research on the phenomenon.

While much has been written about fake news, scholars have published a limited amount of peer-reviewed research on the topic. Below, Journalist’s Resource has compiled studies that examine fake news and the spread of misinformation more broadly to help journalists better understand the problem and its impacts. Other resources that may be helpful are Poynter Institute’s tips on debunking fake news stories and a well-circulated list of fake, unreliable and questionable news websites compiled by Melissa Zimdars, a communication professor at Merrimack College. The First Draft Partner Network, a global collaboration of newsrooms, social media platforms and fact-checking organizations, was launched in September 2016 to battle fake news.

Starting in January 2017, Stony Brook University, home to the Center for News Literacy, will offer a free online course in news literacy.

The research papers described at the link are worth reading; they confirm what most of us suspect–namely, that misinformation, propaganda and fake news have a pernicious effect. Especially when you consider that most of us engage in confirmation bias–looking for information that validates our preferred versions of reality–it can be difficult or impossible to disabuse people of “facts” they want to believe.

As I tell my students, if you truly believe that aliens landed at Roswell, I can find you several websites confirming that belief. (Some even have pictures of the aliens’ bodies!)

As troubling as this aspect of our current information environment is, what makes it far more troubling is the election of a President with a very tenuous connection to reality, and a staff willing to double down on his consistent lies and misstatements. Never before, to my knowledge, have we had an administration for which facts are at best irrelevant and at worst enemies to be contradicted.

The latest evidence of this Administration’s allergy to facts was a surreal “press conference” on Saturday, in which Sean Spicer berated the media for reporting “falsehoods” about the size of the inauguration crowds. (Trump had asserted that it “looked like a million and a half people.”)

The New York Times reported,

An expert hired by The Times found that Mr. Trump’s crowd on the National Mall was about a third of the size of Mr. Obama’s in 2009….

Speaking later on Saturday in the White House briefing room, Mr. Spicer amplified Mr. Trump’s false claims. “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe,” he said.

There is no evidence to support this claim. Not only was Mr. Trump’s inauguration crowd far smaller than Mr. Obama’s in 2009, but he also drew fewer television viewers in the United States (30.6 million) than Mr. Obama did in 2009 (38 million) and Ronald Reagan did in 1981 (42 million), Nielsen reported.

For that matter, most estimates showed that the Women’s March the next day drew three times more people — about 500,000 — than Trump’s swearing-in ceremony, but the White House flatout refused to accept those numbers.

Nor was Spicer the only Administration figure to make bizarre claims. On Sunday morning, Kellyanne Conway said the Trump team is offering “alternative facts” to media reports about President Trump’s inauguration. (This led to immense amusement on social media, with people posting things like “I’m thin and rich” and “Best game the Green Bay Packers ever played” #alternative facts.)

In the wake of the election, many of us worried–and continue to worry–that our unstable new President would take America into a misconceived war. We didn’t realize that the first war he would declare would be a war on reality and those pesky and inconvenient facts.


  1. “The Party told you to reject all evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
    –from Nineteen Eighty Four” by George Orwell

  2. Pete your right @ 12:11 pm. The Trumpet is the logical evolution of Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, Rupert Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh, Grover Norquist and others. The Nixon White House tried the cover it up, obstruction, stone wall it and plead the Fifth. It worked for awhile.

    The McMega-Media Press which for over a year treated Trump with a respect he never deserved, now seems to smell blood in the water. Whether it is a revival journalistic integrity or just ratings, hard to know at this point. Hopefully, the press will now get off the floor.

  3. Betty,

    “It’s only been three miserable days now. Can we even imagine what is ahead in the coming days? Marv knows, don’t you, Marv?”

    I don’t know about that. But if anyone could it would be me, since I’m the only one who has tracked this awful mess from the beginning. I think it’s called intelligence gathering, which has been almost an unknown science on the pro-democracy side other than the “Intelligence Report” by the Southern Poverty Law Center which is limited to spying on white supremacy organizations, even though the SPLC has no power of enforcement. Wow! That’s some deterrent. And we keep wondering how and why we lost our democracy.

  4. I find most of your posts as hyperbole .. which I reclassify as “fake” news and my daily dose of laughter. You (liberals) created an image of Trump and now you fear your own image. All you have to do is look at the women’s hysteria tantrum march on Saturday that is imbedded in a deranged reality. I heard no hate from Trump’s inauguration speech and millions of women who voted for Trump didn’t either. We look at you and shake our heads in disgust. Without NYC and LA county, you’ve got nothing. So give up harping on the electoral college… does anyone think those two cities should decide the fate of the entire United States.? Plus, I always laugh ( again) when you fail to point out that two states alone (CA, NY) gave HRC 84 electoral vote without much effort or money spent there, but maybe you don’t teach that in your law school class? Your party has been decimated…. 1042 seats lost (state -congressional and state legislature and federal level) during Obamas presidency. Keep up the good work and thanks for helping our cause. I enjoy your cadre of reliable supporters and their predictable comments add comic relief. Nothing fresh here.. thanks JoAnn, Marv, Gerald, Louie and Pete.

  5. There is one truth that comes through loud and clear, very consistently: and that is the fact that Trumplethinskin ran for President solely because of his ego. He wants to be the biggest big shot of the big shots, so he had people come up with talking points that would get him elected. Because of his thin skin, he can never admit he is wrong, he hires people like the Kellyanne Spokeswitch to dream up ways to pivot when confronted with facts, and he is very, very vindictive. She coined the new phrase: “alternative facts”. It’s a wonder I haven’t dislocated my jaw, which keeps dropping every time this bitch opens her mouth.

    I said it before and I’ll say it again: until the midterms, our only hope is that there are some patriots left among the Republicans in Congress. I’m not hopeful. It even appears that even John McCain, whom Trumplethinskin insulted for being a POW, can be bought off.

  6. Pete: “While the memes “fake news” and “alternative facts” are new, the concept goes back to George Orwell in “1984” and pre WWII Nazi Germany globally and Joe McCarthy and J Edgar Hoover in the US post WWII.”

    It was revived 30 years ago by Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, Rupert Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh, Grover Norquist and others. It’s not a Trump product but the cause of this deplorable administration and Congress.

    What Pete has described is called history. He is very perceptive. He was a top executive with Eastman Kodak. However, it can’t be used to forestall coming events. Intelligence gathering allows for predicting the future. That’s the only way you can prevent the next move. It’s based on first-hand knowledge and experience with those who make the decisions.

    For example: I’ve been able to predict George Bush’s move toward fascism with Dennis Hayes former President of the N.A.A.C.P before Bush was in office; predicted the disaster Bush would lead us into Iraq on PBS in a joint discussion with Deepak Chopra, one week after 9/11; predicted in The Nation Magazine that Barack Obama would hit an “Iceberg” later formed as the Tea Party, five months before he was elected; and understood about the real dangers of Donald Trump by purchasing the URL,, a few days after the announcement that he was going to run for the presidency and as some of you remember, I attempted to warn about those dangers many, many, months ago on this blog.

    It’s not based on data prediction. That’s something.

  7. It’s what’s going on backstage that has me really worried. We must not be distracted by the absurd shiney objects spinning on stage.

  8. Thanks for the info on Drumpf paying lip service to the natural disasters, JoAnn Green. I wonder if he is waiting for the states to come beg federal aid?

  9. mike from iowa; Trump made no offer yesterday and the earlier news report on MSNBC today made no mention of federal assistance being requested or offered.

    I briefly stepped away from the first official Trump press briefing; returned to see Banners across bottom of the screen stating; “The White House is doubling down on their claim of the Trump inauguration being the most watched in history. Sometimes we disagree with the facts. The White House has the right to CORRECT (their word) the record.” It appears they are rewriting history as it happens.

    After “hello” Spicer stated that issue of crowd numbers would not be discussed. Why anyone in the room would ask is beyond me; Trump has spoken! It is like I told my kids about dealing with bullies; as long as you are going to whine and cry they are going to continue bullying you. WE KNOW THE TRUTH; stop whining and crying and the lying will have to end…unless they want to argue with themselves which would come as no surprise to anyone who has been watching.

  10. Betty,

    I believe what is happening in America is that many, and understandably so, are in panic mode politically, so instead of taking steps to extricate themselves, they do nothing but thrash around.

    I’m afraid, If they would do the same thing in the water they would drown.

    I’m reminded of the list you provided to us yesterday from your years of experience as a swimming instructor. Can you provide us with some more words of wisdom?

    The fear of death and resulting panic can be a problem not only in the water but also with politics, especially with the health situation of democracy in present-day America.

  11. “Winston Churchill once famously observed that Americans will always do the right thing, only after they have tried everything else.”
    They are going to blow up our republic and we’re going to have to start over – that’s just what I think today. I watched the first press conference and couldn’t get over how damn whiny Spicer was. Seriously man up. Whiny little bitch, just like his boss. Ugh, it’s going to be a long few months until the orange one is impeached. I can’t wait. I hope little puppet Pence goes with him. Seriously, I can barely imagine how this will play out over years…much less months.
    Great comments from new folks today. Thanks for participating.

  12. RE: The size of the inauguration crowd – the only reason it is being discussed is because Trump (et al) made it an issue. The campaign continues…..

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