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.

67 thoughts on “Do Facts Matter Any More?

  1. As Kellyanne Conway said on air to Chuck Todd, the White House will also re-evaluate its relationship with media that challenges it. These people are so VERY dangerous to our constitutional form of government.

  2. The question I have is, to what extent can mainstream GOP senators and representatives be peeled off from Trump over this kind of thing?

  3. I’ve heard, really, from a democrat friend that facts are pretty low on the hierarchy in terms of how we make decisions. We can’t try to win over voters by using an approach that doesn’t reach them.

  4. The only thing surprising about the first Trump White House news conference was just how poorly it was done. It’s definitely amateur hour at the White House. Imagine just how bad things would be if the Trump gang was good at lying.

  5. I have noticed this type of action by the Trump administration is his standard mode of operation. Confuse and deny. Trumpfacts.

  6. We thinking people are aware of the difference between “fact” and “fiction” or, as it is now termed “alternative facts”. We must be very careful playing the “blame game” and not blame the media for reporting (often during live broadcasts) when blatant lies and distortions are what is being reported. Chuck Todd made a huge mistake when he stated it wasn’t his job (as White House press secretary) to provide facts disproving lies. Obviously, he now knows better. His confrontation with Kellyanne gave me hope that others will follow suit, but…Trump is taking control of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, our right to assemble in some cases – in other words – he is dismissing the entire 1st amendment. Which, by the way, does not require facts or truth regarding speech and/or the press so Trump, Kellyanne and Sean are free to spout “their alternative facts” as they wish…which Trump and Kellyanne have done for months. Sean Spicer is new at this game and, to his credit, he did not appear happy doing it. Wonder what transpired during that lengthy wait between the announcement of an upcoming press release and the actual statements? Let the games begin – in Tweet form if you prefer.

  7. Isn’t “alternative facts” another term for “propaganda” such as Hitler’s Goebbels regularly put out during the rise of German fascism? A lie by any other name is still a lie.

  8. Sheila, I’ve just learned about the 25th amendment to the constitution specifically section 4. Essentially it states that whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the executive departments or congress advise the president pro tempore of senate and the speaker of the house that the president is unable to discharge his duties of office then the Vice President shall assume his powers and duties. Further it reads that while the president can respond by telling same bodies no inability exists the power still rests with the VP and congress to restore power to president (or not).
    I’d appreciate feedback from your readers on this…seems to me the solution to the Trump problems and of course the start of the Pence problem,

  9. It will be interesting to watch to see whether the folks surrounding Trump will eventually resign because of the pressure they feel from having to advance false news. Sean Spicer was respected by his press colleagues when he was appointed. That has changed overnight. I am betting that he will be the first resignation. It won’t happen until the lie he is asked to tell is so insidious that he simply cannot do it.

  10. Chuck Todd’s response to Kellyanne Conway was exactly the right one. It’s what should have happened during the campaign. The presss was given freedom in the First Amendment specifically to call out the lies. If they don’t, they aren’t doing their jobs.

    Concerning fake news, thinking people don’t accept anything at face value.

  11. So what happens to America while all of this goes on?

    At first, Germany progressed under Fascism. What we’re facing is screwed up Fascism. It’s fucked up from the beginning.

  12. Lisa; I have been aware of that section of the 25th Amendment but Pence is just as scary as Trump, moreso when it comes to women’s and LGBTQ rights. His intent is to make the current Indiana laws he enacted to become federal laws. A precarious position to be in; especially with Paul Ryan being next in line after Pence. We have to give Trump more than 3-4 days to prove he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” (WE knew this before he was elected) even though he has managed to do an incredible amount of damage since shortly after noon on Friday.

    John Trimble; my money is on Sean Spicer to be the first to abandon ship. Thus far, he has been the only one who does not appear happy in his position in Trump’s Basket of Deplorables.

  13. Bill Groth nailed it.
    We cannot allow ourselves to be sucked into the alternative reality the Administration is trying to create!

  14. We don’t need the term fake-news as a synonym for propoganda any more than we need the term alt-right as a synonym for white nationalism. Fake words. Sad!

  15. The problem with American Fascism (Donald Trump styled) is that it has too many targets. It needs to decide. Is it going to be the Jews, African-Americans, Latinos, Gays and Lesbians, Asians, or Native Americans this time? Or is it going to be like Germany during Fascism’s last breath: EVERYONE

  16. Patmcc – I think you just described the crux of the problem. And there is no remedy for that…

  17. I watched Meet the Press yesterday morning and was truly shocked by Kellyanne’s statement of alternative facts. That seemed to be a huge stretch even for her. When Chuck Todd called her out on it, she went off the deep end of crazy. It is obvious that their team’s only mandate is that you had better take what they say as the truth or you will be punished in some way. I imagine Meet the Press will be banned from access.

    While watching “news” reporters interview trump and his crazy team members I have noticed a tendency of the reporters to stop pushing for answers that trump and his team refuse give a response to. It appears to me that the reporters all know that if they choose to cross a certain boundary they will be risking their career. When the media is owned by so few people, it is like reporters must behave as puppets who cannot push too far to obtain or report the truth.

    trump needs to stop making everything all about himself. His ego will knock him off of his self-appointed pedestal.

    In the Meet the Press round table discussion, one of trump’s closest billionaire friends, Tom Barrack, told Chuck that the people just need to give trump a chance…he just needs some time to acclimate himself. I could not believe he said that. Have the past two months not been enough time? If you campaign for that job and get it, you had better be ready on Day One.

    I imagine that pence was foaming at the mouth yesterday at the possibility that he could move into the White House even sooner than he imagined.

  18. Kellyanne’s attempt to intimidate the Fourth Estate goes beyond mere propaganda (which always has some plausible connection to reality before faulty conclusions are reached). She wants us to accept non-fact for fact AND draw whatever conclusions she puts on the table based upon non-fact. Aristotle would be furious at such a breach of logic and I agree with him.

    What is happening here is Trump’s attempt to scare and intimidate those who would report the truth about his personal and political life, hence his “war on the media.” Fortunately, it is a war he cannot win short of sending the army in to occupy the offices of newspapers and television stations, as is commonplace among countries ruled by dictators elsewhere, that is, elsewhere so far.

    Undergirding this entire enterprise by Trump, in my opinion, is his narcissistic state of mind which brooks no commentary that is negative to his perceived perfection. There must be no ripples in the pool he shares with Narcissus. His ego must be protected at all costs; witness his speech at the “sacred graveyard” of the CIA in which he lambasted the press rather than pay tribute to our fallen heroes who died for their country just as did the Marines on the beaches of the South Pacific in WW II (an island war in which I participated though as a sailor and not a Marine). In his world he had millions at his inaugural and has the “alternative facts” to prove it. The man is sick in the head, and perhaps, as suggested by another commentator, it is not too early to dust off the 25th Amendment for possible use.

    I have this to say in favor of our continuing democracy: That one of its antiththeses, fascism, based on recent marches of millions (in which I also participated) and millions of others who stayed home, is going to have a tough time taking hold in this country and that perhaps we should welcome this brush with such a horrid doctrine to remind us of how valuable and precious our democracy really is. If so, Trump in his make-believe world will have done us a favor in the world in which we live as we exchange craven politicians for representatives who actually represent us pursuant to the democratic institutions we have bled and died to maintain and expand. So if so, thanks, Don!

  19. Nancy,

    Before pence moves in, I believe we need to understand how Fascism operates a little more in America, for example:

    “White supremacy [Fascism] is masked in Christianity” ~ Walter Cronkite, speaking for the Interfaith Alliance.

  20. Nancy; was Tom Barrack the man whose first statement was the announcement Trump TOLD him to give to the public, that his inauguration had been the greatest one in history and there were one and a half million people there? Or was that another of Trump’s flunkies on Meet The Press? I saw the original which was interrupted by the White House swearing in ceremony where Pence gave the lead-in speech, introduced Trump who spoke briefly then Pence did the action swearing in. Will Pence be announcing each and every Trump public appearance? If so, when will he do his job as Vice President rather than being Trump’s “Ed McMahan”? It was announced that the full “Meet The Press” program would be aired at 5:00 p.m, I didn’t watch that one.

  21. America needs to have a second language. The language of democracy is not enough. We can’t understand what the hell is going on.

    Maybe our new Secretary of Education should require that all schools teach Fascism as a second language. I’m sure she would be all for it.

  22. Bill Groth was very close. Fake news = alternative facts = right wing propaganda.
    KellyAnne Conweasel is the lowest kind of weasel. And I meant that in the worst possible way. 🙂

  23. Marv,

    I believe the readers and commenters here understand the fascist Christianity in this country. Their numbers were great enough to elect DT. It is difficult for those people to connect with reality and even more difficult to get them to admit they are bigots.

  24. JoAnn,

    The answer to your question is no. I am not sure who you are referring to. Tom Barrack is one of trump’s oldest billionaire friends. He speaks very sanely and is obvioiusly very intelligent. However, as a friend he thinks that trump will eventually be able to carry out his job. The problem with that is that the American public and the world are not trump’s long time friends and we have no intention of giving him however much time he might need to actually behave like an intelligent human being. We just don’t believe that to even be a remote possibility.

  25. JoAnn,

    Maybe I was incorrect with my first answer to your question. Maybe Tom Barrack made a statement that I didn’t hear. By that time I was having some tv reception issues. He is bald, if that helps you know if that was the man you were referring to.

  26. Maybe all of the insanity that is coming from trump and his closest minions is actually a plan to take our attention away from the real damage that Congress is attempting to inflict upon us.

    We must switch our focus to our members of the Senate and House and do what we can to keep them from destroying us. We must also focus on our state legislative reps and keep them in line too.

    The marches that took place on Saturday are actually a result of the damage that congressional republicans want to inflict on us. We cannot allow trump to take our attention off of them.

  27. Nancy,

    Fascism is much more than a word. It’s a means of control. That’s the context for my prior statement: America is a Fascist country.

    Donald Trump has captured a long-standing, MUTATING, fascist movement that goes all the way back to 1935. Only pointing the finger at Donald Trump is a grave mistake.

    I’m not including you. You know better.

  28. Nancy- I humbly and sincerely apologize to real weasels. They are, at the very least, honest. Right up front you know they are weasels. No disrespect intended.

  29. How soon before us non-believers get kristian sharia law forced upon us? In a fit of alternative facts-someone tell Drumpf to hand the microphone to HRC- the real winner of the election and then get off the stage and stay off.

  30. Nancy; yes, the man who made the remark was an older, bald, rather thin man and the first person Chuck introduced. Those were the first words out of his mouth; the “alternative facts” regarding the Trump inauguration and crowd count – not in answer to any question but at the request of the great one himself. Much about Trump is not in answer to any question; who asks for additional information regarding his wonderfulness?

  31. At this point in time, the fact that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote is meaningless. Get off it. Like Donald Trump, Adolph Hitler didn’t win the popular vote either.

    The Nazis were much more upfront. 60% of the Christian churches voted to be Nazified. They didn’t need to MASK their intentions like in the U. S. It was a new movement, it didn’t have a history back then. Consequently, the opposition, what little was left of it, was dealing with reality “right off the bat,” although most of it went underground.

  32. Did you grow up with the fairy tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes?…..a tale we now seem to be living. Let us not be overwhelmed by all this, and take to a place “under the covers”. If we, or our fellow citizens do so, the alternate reality will have won.

    Also it seems to me, much as many of you have said, that if our focus is solely on the Trumpisms (all the drama, outrage, and anxiety), we, as the larger society, will be appreciative of those who remove them. Those others perhaps were the original producers of “the play” we are now living out. Watch out for the fox in sheep’s clothing.

    Practicing mindfulness, focus, and attentional training and abiding sometimes in quiesence… the stillness, often is a practice which allows us to slow down our minds and see whatever is happening in a more balanced, less emotional state of being, and with a broadened perspective. At least it does for me. Emotional involvement narrows our perspective and our ability to analyze intelligently.

  33. I must contest the allegations that Donald Trump owns his own personal zoo. It is said that he visits his zoo every morning because he has an amatory proclivity with a horde of monkeys. In fact, he is the head of the horde. He is falsely reported to say, “Monkeys are the most lovable creatures on the earth and were some of my leading proponents in the immediate election that propelled me to the highest office in the world. Might I insert here that I have been at the top of the highest tree for most of my life.” Moreover, I am capable of getting 25 different treats by pushing the proper levers every time. I love the banana M & Ms.” You should check this on Snopes!

  34. Barbara,

    “Those others perhaps were the original producers of “the play” we are now living out. Watch out for the fox in sheep’s clothing.”


  35. If John Lennon had written …

    Imagine “Alternative Facts” its easy if you try …

  36. Nancy,

    You’re right about switching our focus onto Congress. Hard to do as Trump is spellbinding and so entertaining. But the Congress is where the real damage to the country will be done, and the press has yet to really shine its light on them. Call! Write! E mail! March! This session of Congress must be reigned in.

  37. The Trumpet and his spokespeople and defenders are masters of bait and switch, he can spin like a whirling dervish kicking up sand and dust into the air and deny with arrogant confidence any contradictions to what he has said.

    Yesterday I saw a clip of White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus trying to defend and deflect Chris Wallace of FOX News on the “alternative facts” concerning the size of the Trumpet’s crowd at his inauguration. To Wallace’s credit he did not let Priebus off the hook.

    The Trumpeters have spun around and now accuse the Liberal Media of attacking Trump. That is if Trump is caught in lie and he is exposed it is dark plot. The lie is superfluous to their way of thinking. The original lie is discounted and those who point out the lie are vilified.

    We owe a very big round of applause to Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway for coining the phrase “alternative facts”. It brings into clarity the positions and statements by the Trumpet and Republicans.

    >>> In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it.

    The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.<<< George Orwell 1984.

  38. Nancy: I agree. First order of business is defeat Paul Ryan using the tactics that Tea Party used against all of its enemies – start attacking him now and keep it up for months. Portray him as the monster that wants to deny seniors their social security and Medicare and allow women and children to suffer without food or proper medical care. Show those faces and have them tell their stories. Lets go!

  39. Trump, Spicer, and all the anorexic blondes around DT are lightly, ever so lightly, tethered to reality. It’s out there, just ahead of them. They can’t quite reach it. It just doesn’t fit into the current agenda.

    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?

    Brighter note: Good to see the new commenters here as well as the usual corps of folks.

  40. Mike from iowa; yes, Trump briefly mentioned the terrible storms in the south and 11 deaths (as that time) after his CIA meeting and before announcing he had never talked against the CIA and that he loves them. The references to CIA and the meeting were brief, he told how many times his face had been on “Time” magazine, his huge inauguration day crowd and numerous other unrelated issues using “alternative facts”.

    Theresa, Nancy and daleb; has anyone else seen Trump on MSNBC, et al, today announcing his use of Executive Orders to reduce regulations and taxes? He went on a rant about returning American businesses to this country, taxing foreign products we import, he wants businesses considering a move to talk to states like Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Maryland to keep them in this country. Yadda, yadda, yadda, blah, blah, blah. The games have begun. I am sure you can get details directly from him if you Tweet. Executive Orders do not need Congressional approval but I’m sure Ryan and the others are busily doing their own dastardly deeds, readying bills for him to sign into law.

  41. 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.

    It is the most toxic sludge on the planet. The only chance that we have to recover democracy is to clearly label it and stamp it out.

    Fortunately we have the tools, this blog being one. Social media is ours, not oligarchy’s. Our voices can match and exceed their bought and paid for mass media brainwashing.

    How do we know the size of Trump’s, um, crowd? Social media. Cell phone reporting. We were there even though we weren’t.

    Perhaps there is an upside to the Trump virus and that is the end of our apathy, the end of couch potatoes being fed advertising pablum from the TV 24/7.

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