News Supply And Demand

The faster our country spins out of control–the weirder the behavior of the clowns who (usually thanks to gerrymandering) have been elected to Congress–the more convinced I become that a majority of our  national dysfunctions are a result of our Wild West “information” environment.

No matter how crazy your preferred belief, you can find support for it online. I used to tell the students in my Media and Public Affairs classes that if they really believed that aliens had landed in Roswell, I could find them five Internet sites with pictures of the aliens’ bodies. (I never actually tested that thesis, but I firmly believe those sites are out there.)

The problem–as most of us have long realized–is that free speech on the web far too often means speech (and with AI, pictures) that are free of even the slightest contact with reality.

As Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote awhile back, with the help of the Internet, the Republican Party has constructed a “walled fortress of alternative facts.”

Beginning in the hours after the elementary school massacre in Uvalde, Tex., right-wing social media churned out every manner of conspiracy theory: The shooter was an illegal immigrant! No, he was transgender! Or maybe the massacre was a false-flag operation perpetrated by the anti-gun left! And the grieving families are paid crisis actors!

The disinformation then followed the usual paths, finding its way to Alex Jones’s Infowars (the shooting had “very suspicious timing,” coming days before the National Rifle Association’s convention) and right into the claims of Republican members of Congress.

Rep. Paul Gosar (Ariz.), who has repeatedly tied himself to white nationalists, tweeted that the gunman was “a transsexual leftist illegal alien” — and let that multi-headed falsehood stand for two hours before deleting it.

It wasn’t just Gosar, who is such an embarrassing nutcase that six of his siblings took out television ads asking people not to vote for him. Milbank reported on equally idiotic statements issued by other “usual suspects”–Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and the ever-goofy Marjorie Taylor Green.

At the NRA convention, some of the most prominent Republican officials posited yet another conspiracy theory: that for political figures calling for sensible gun control, “their real goal is disarming America,” as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) put it in a speech stocked with falsehoods. Former president Donald Trump falsely told the group that the Biden administration reportedly “is considering putting U.N. bureaucrats in charge of your Second Amendment rights.”

As Milbank says, purposeful disinformation, aimed at those who desperately want to believe “alternative facts” is why we can’t have a rational discussion or a common-sense compromise about gun violence–or anything else.

Academic studies have found that Republicans share between “200 percent and 500 percent more fake news (fabrications published by sites masquerading as news outlets) than Democrats.” A research team led by scholars from MIT wanted to determine why. “Were they less able to distinguish fact from fiction? More psychologically predisposed to political bias?”

In part, yes. But the researchers found that “the issue primarily seems to be a supply issue,” Guay told me. “There’s just way more fake news on the right than the left.” In experiments giving Democrats and Republicans equal amounts of fake news that confirmed their world views, Republicans were more likely to share the falsehoods — but only 1.6 times more likely. This suggests that Republicans don’t have some “overreaching hunger” to traffic in untruths; they simply can’t avoid it because they’re so immersed in the stuff.

Guay’s is the latest of many studies identifying the disinformation “asymmetry” afflicting the right in the Trump era. In lay terms: Garbage in, garbage out. Republican voters hear lies by the thousand from Trump and imitators such as Johnson and Cruz….It’s hardly surprising that, thus exposed, they become more toxic in their language, more extreme in their ideology and more outraged.

If you saw “evidence” everywhere you turned, from people you trusted, that the country is being run by socialist pedophiles bent on disarming the populace, extinguishing your race and destroying the United States, you’d probably be outraged, too. At the very least, you might not be in the best frame of mind for a constructive conversation about ending gun violence.

I haven’t the slightest idea how rational folks combat this “supply problem.” Real news–actual journalism, even at its most slapdash–requires time and effort to produce. The creation of propaganda doesn’t.

It’s hard enough to tell the difference for those of us who want to separate the wheat from the chaff–but fake news is welcomed and distributed by those who desperately want to believe it.


  1. It’s imperative that we engage in conversations about issues, rather than people, including 45. Names seem to trigger responses. Ideas, not so much. Change the focus to what everyone wants for their children and grandchildren.

  2. To take it one step further, if I talk with a MAGA/trump/evangelical, and I use a word from the list of words that are filed in one of the recesses of that person’s brain, that person shuts down. By that, I mean they no longer will listen to what I have to say, no matter the topic. Example: health care. As others have noted, if a proposed health care system is described as including negotiating prices for drugs & services, without regard to ability to pay, usually the person will listen. “Medicare for all” used to be an easier way to describe it, but that has been identified these days, by them, as “socialized medicine.” The person shuts down and will not listen. Perhaps I am naive, but it still is possible to reach some people. If the far right people cannot be budged, there still are people who will listen, and might flip their vote. One side is blue, the other side is red, but a lot of people are in the intermediate “gray” by varying degree. The key is to get them to listen.

  3. It’s truly sad, pathetic and horrifying that this topic has to be dealt with over and over. Is it all for political advantage? Money? Recognition? Tribalism? All of these?

    This trend toward disinformation is a sure sign of societal failure. Alex Jones? Really? Paul Gosar? Give me a break. What is tragically stunning is that these horse’s asses have any following at all. It also explains how deranged demagogues can so easily find an audience among the utterly ignorant fearful and not very smart. Maybe, ultimately, it’s what we deserve for allowing everyone to reproduce… not just genetically, but also raising children to follow in the deranged footprints of their parents.

    As the adage goes: Hate is taught. I think the same applies to lies.

  4. Vernon, IMO those “deranged demagogues” find an audience because the now dominant internet news media panders to them to create headlines, and those headlines produce advertisement dollars. It’s not about disseminating “all the news that’s fit to print”, it’s about the money. Period.

  5. Today we watched excerpts from a German film, Er ist wieder da, which is a black comedy about Hitler waking up in 2014, somehow having arrived via a time machine. He quickly learns the outcome of WWII, and is stunned, as one would imagine a narcissitic megalomaniac might be upon facing reality. He also soon learns about television and, more startling to him, the Internet, and figures out how to use them to his advantage. After a few publicity failures, he perfects his propaganda efforts, with people quickly and gleefully falling for it, just as they did in the 1930s. At the end, his smug smirk and “I can work with this” as he is driven past a nationalist protest, is interspersed with real footage of authoritarian/nationalist-based violence around the world. We felt that it parallels trumpism and its use of mis/disinformation in far too frightening ways. What we didn’t learn until after we watched it, is that several “man on the street” interviews in the film were unscripted, with everyday Germans interacting with a man they knew was an actor, but happily agreeing with the Nazi garbage he was spewing. It’s like watching Jordan Klepper interviewing clearly delusional MAGAts at current rallies. Shudder.

  6. When referring to the info spread by fake news media sources the correct word ‘lies’ needs to be used instead of the much nicer sounding words ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’.

  7. I do not have the sort of calm demeanor that could “discuss” the difference between the lies of the right, and reality as I see it, based on observable, empirically derived facts. I recently read that at one time, not long ago, some 36% of Americans believed that the world was actually being run by Lizard People! Speechless, it leaves me!!
    Alex Jones'”Infowars” is aptly named, as it is designed to wage war around information. He takes Steve Bannon’s “Fill the environment (or whatever) with shit!”, and gives it a home.

  8. Beliefs don’t alter reality. For millennia everyone “knew” the earth was flat and the sun went around it. It was obvious. All you had to do was have eyes to see and a brain to think with. The sun comes up on one side of the village, passes overhead and goes down on the other side. But our ancestors’ beliefs had no influence whatsoever on the reality that the earth is spherical and orbits around the sun.
    As a species, we will either cope with reality or perish. Occasionally, I don’t much care which. But mostly I’m trying to maintain my contact with reality and encourage others to do the same. Perhaps that is all any of us can do. Just hang in there and keep working at it.

  9. Nancy, I read an article in the NY Times about an emergency order to require operators of migrant buses notify NYC 36 hours before a bus arrives. This is no way stops these operators from sending buses to NYC, they just now have to go through the notification process or face fines.

    The Indy Star via the AP ran nearly the same story. The main theme of the article is that the NYC mayor has “restricted” the busses from arriving in NYC. With no mention of actual restriction. Is that a lie? NO. Is it a half truth? YES. It borders on the verge of propaganda or misinformation.

  10. From Katherine Miller in the NYT:

    “In 2016, a good deal of the old, postwar structure of media remained in place, like evening news broadcasts, along with the cable news apparatus that got layered on during the 1990s and the basic infrastructure of digital news in the 2000s. The 2016 election was the first in which a supermajority of Americans owned smartphones. Phone news push alerts gained prominence in 2015 and 2016, just in time for each turn of that unbelievable thing happening in the country.

    Twitter introduced the quote-tweet function in 2015 and shifted toward an algorithmic timeline in the spring of 2016; the combination juiced essentially every Trump tweet into a conflict that sat there like an electromagnet. Mentions of Mr. Trump on Facebook were so prominent and constant, they could barely be compared with those of the other candidates.

    Some of the deep challenges that the media business faced then persist (like the steep decline in newspaper circulation that began during the Great Recession), but some, like cord cutting, were more an existential threat rather than the massive, ongoing shift it is now. And streaming and digital options were exploding, seeming poised to replace the old. Mr. Trump knew and understood the old media (the desire for spectacle and participation) and was the perfect vessel for social media (constant debate about him). The result of the old and new at the same time was like a Trump cacophony.

    Eight years later, Mr. Trump is often on TV less compared to his presidency, and fewer people are watching; he’s not on social media in the same way, and social media is kind of falling apart, except for TikTok, which is less centralized. Last summer, John Herrman wondered if 2024 would be “a placeless race, in which voters and candidates can and will, despite or maybe because of a glut of fragmented content, ignore the news.”

    The smallest percentage of households are being reached by paid, live television since 1991, according to research by MoffettNathanson. The old newspapers and new digital outlets continue to scale back or shut down. Last year, during jury selection for the E. Jean Carroll defamation trial, potential jurors offered a wide range of answers for how they kept up with the news. A few people said CNN. One said local CBS AM radio. “Google, anything on the internet,” one man said. “Social media is my news outlet,” one woman said, as The New Yorker reported. “Every now and then I’ll listen to a podcast,” Juror 71 said. “I don’t barely watch the news — I just watch YouTube,” Juror 31 said.

    It just feels as though it requires much more work to find and understand the main news events of any given day now — a hazy feeling, yes, but one people seem to express often.

    And yet Mr. Trump’s voice is ceaseless. TV can change, social media can break down further, people can feel that they know all there is to know about him, and he still holds power over millions of people. Even if he never wins a general election again, he retains this hold. The indictments against him didn’t markedly diminish Mr. Trump’s standing with the party or in national polling, which seems to amaze even him, given how often he talks about it on the trail. The decline of the media structures of the 2010s and his plac”e in them doesn’t seem to have diminished this hold, either.

  11. The issue of “accurate news” will get worse. In my HSE (GED) classes, students must write an essay. One topic is News Transparency – Professional Journalism versus Social Media. The average age range of my students is 18 – 25. 90% of them say social media is less biased, more immediate and more trustworthy.

  12. Republican/Right Wing – politicians + related “Business Interests” + Super-Wealthy Allies – play on Emotion/Fears – often related to changes from a white, upper-middle class (patriarchal) cis, male, Christian dominated world – to an increasingly diverse – more complex reality – where wealth and power is increasingly going to wealthy and super-wealthy (usually) white people. Such themes appeal to people who feel left out, as well as to people with wealth (or who believe that through “hard work” they can become wealthy). Add to this the related fact that we often divide between those who believe in “community” / “Sharing” – vs. “rugged individualism. Social Media – allow for so much to be magnified hugely. Close to a majority – if not a majority of people – tend to “not get involved” – whether through excessive demands of their time (such as trying to avoid becoming unhoused), being comfortable with their status (as in many Upper-Middle Class (more male than female people) – as well as other disempowering or disconnecting from “reality” pathways. The right has been organizing for 50 years. Democratic politicians and their “money” – are often owned by The Money – as well as middle of the road and “lefties” like me – often can disagree with each other over minutia – (multiple socialist groups a prime example). We Spout – “anger” – ridiculing 45. Rarely – do we Organize and build alliances with each other – and use: “both/and” – rather than: false binaries of “with me/against me”. We need to listen to those – who have some curiosity or possible curiosity. We need to recognize – that Fascism – is moving in on us (if not already here). We need to celebrate our successes – build on them – as well as learning from our failures. Faith in Biden – seems quite limited. Faith in 45 – seems strong – however it’s possible it won’t Control. It’s challenging. Personally – I welcome dialogue. I have some ideas – not “The Answers”. (We won’t find the latter – it’s more complex). Though lately – Gaza – and my caring for Palestinians (as a Jewish individual) – has predominated – my writings cover a lot of issues – at: MyFirstNameMyLastName(dot)org

  13. Teenage and college students should be required to take a class or two on disinformation and how to find and use references appropriately using a variety of media. I don’t see any reason that Repubs would reject “fact finding” unless they KNOW they are lying and spreading disinformation.

  14. Religion seems to be a powerful human need for a personal explanation for what is out of reach of our experiences.

    It’s not for what can be proved as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but rather to fill in the blanks. We all assume what makes us more comfortable than a blank space.

    We like the concept of an all-powerful being to ensure that our lives are more than random events.

    Under some conditions, we lower the bar of “all-powerful” to just powerful enough.

    Politicians offer to fill that need as a means of their employment.

    “I am just powerful enough to give you the life that you wish you had.”

    Some wander near the truth in their promises to deliver, and some find the truth is antithetical to gaining employment in their field of choice.

    I like the word “demigods” for them—tiny gods.

  15. “People desperately want to believe what they want to believe.” This is a truism we see reflected in religion of popes and preachers with their promise of eternal bliss to those conforming to their views and thus gaining, inter alia, an eternal afterlife – and now we see in the politics of the “princes,” modern-day politicians who prey on such instinct in order to acquire and maintain temporal power over such believers as historically seen from the cathedral builders of the medieval guilds to the TV preachers and Trumps of today in their search for all power.

    However, this is not the era of pamphlets and Morse Code as means of public communication. Now any fruitcake can voice his/her views electronically on any issue real, imagined or contrived and there is neither an effective means of countering such idiocy nor calling such miscreant to task for lying (aka mis or dis information in polite circles). Nor, more specifically, is there an effective means of countering Trump’s public slander of his judges, prosecutors and anyone else he perceives to be in the way of his attempt to attain dictatorial status by the vote of those “who desperately want to believe what they believe,” and how the Supreme Court found that such defamation of judges and prosecutors is O.K. and not jury/witness tampering since the judge is a crook and the prosecutor is deranged I’ll never know.)

    So what are democracy-centered and ethical citizens to do in such a situation? They (we) must call liars liars, challenge these fruitcakes to present evidence to support their lies, and ardently believe what WE want to believe, i.e., in our democracy and its undergirding institutions via, inter alia, VOTING.

  16. I would never be selected to sit on a jury for any number of reasons, not the least is my advanced age, family members in law enforcement/judiciary/legal profession and strong opinions on such things as the use of the death penalty.
    I get my news from NPR, PBS, BBC, the Guardian, Reuters, occasionally El Jazeera, by following historians like Heather Cox Richardson, legal commentators like Joyce Vance and Jay Kuo. I read things like “Caste”, “Democracy Awakening”, “White Trash”, “Oath and Honor” and, of course, Prof. Kennedy’s daily blog and its commenters.
    I try to question and verify. I follow local journalism groups like Indiana Captial Chronicle for local political news as the Star seldom covers anything but sports and entertainment.
    I know many of my neighbors don’t engage with others in the neighborhood except in the most distant and casual ways. Many display support for tfg with yard signs. They also are most likely to vote. It is disheartening and becoming more frightening every day as I see history repeating itself. I fear for my grandson’s future.

    My question remains. What do we do about the very likely possibility that we will no longer by a democratic republic but a religious autocracy or worse? How do we respond individually and collectively to the threats that are and will come from within, maybe even more than from without?

  17. As per Pete, and the discussion of religion here, in general:
    Ain’t religion just great…two nephews of Muhammad had did=fferent spins on his message and…
    “The Islamic State, a Sunni Islamist group, has long been opposed to Iran, which has a Shiite Islamic government and leads, funds and arms an alliance of Shiite groups across the Middle East,” has claimed ownership of the 2 bombs that blew up in Iran yesterday, helping, in a small way, to ease the population crisis on the planet…so special!

  18. Mitch – using an extremist faction to slam people who genuinely believe in religious principles is distasteful and simplistic.

  19. So many insightful comments today. This country is being purposely undermined by lies to break down the power of the legal system and Democracy. It’s right from the authoritarian/fascist playbook to cause unrest and confusion and set the stage for a “strong man” take over to set matters right.
    Authoritarians don’t tolerate questions or dissent and demand conformity that feeds into their current of power rolling over the rights of others who disagree or are ambivalent.
    I hate to see so many Americans buy into the authoritarian propaganda and “jump on the Maga bandwagon”.
    The civil counter is speaking out and protesting the movement against this democracy. Democracy is based on the truth, and I think that’s what is hated and feared so much.

  20. Rose,

    Very curious about your comment “democracy is based on the truth”. Given the “American Story” of slavery, eugenics, inequality…what “truth” are you talking about?

  21. Lester,
    A great defender of our democracy Jamie Raskin has often said that democracy depends on the truth. My interpretation is that in order to make progress in a positive way our decisions have to be based on facts/truth to promote a more just and inclusive state. When I hear outright lies being broadcasted, I know there’s bad faith involved and disregard for some or all citizens rights.

  22. Rose – thanks for explaining…if true, “democracy” (at least American-style) will end this year.

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