Tag Archives: free press

Will Propaganda Win?

Did Betty White die because she got a Covid vaccine booster?

Evidently, that’s one of the messages being circulated by the (very busy) purveyors of what we politely call “misinformation” and what is more accurately labeled propaganda. 

According to the News Literacy Project,

 Propagators of anti-vaccine disinformation previously have seized on celebrity deaths — including baseball great Hank Aaron; boxer Marvin Hagler; Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh; and rapper DMX — to falsely impugn the safety of COVID-19 vaccines. Remember: Vaccinated people also die of other causes and a significant portion of the population, including celebrities, are vaccinated. Posts that falsely connect high-profile deaths to vaccines are often attempting to exploit the public’s emotions to generate fear and distrust.

With respect to a phony Betty White quote used in that particular effort, the Project noted

This particular rumor has another red flag: The fake quote has been added to a screenshot of a social media preview for an actual article in which the quote never appeared. This lends the fabricated quote an air of authenticity without providing a clickable link, making it less likely that people will check the alleged source to confirm that the quote is authentic.

I subscribe to a couple of newsletters devoted to news literacy. There are some valiant efforts “out there” to combat the “choose your own reality” media environment we currently inhabit–efforts to provide people with mechanisms for evaluating the credibility of social media posts.

In addition to debunking the suggestion that 99-year-old Betty White died from a vaccine booster, the most recent newsletter from the News Literacy Project highlighted the continued, determined campaign to peddle the “Big Lie.” 

A year after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the role of misinformation in fueling the historic attack continues to come into clearer focus, as does the extent to which falsehoods still shape Americans’ divided views of the deadly riot. Misinformation swept across podcasts, Facebook — as documented in this new investigation by ProPublica and The Washington Post — and other social media platforms ahead of the attack, allowing false narratives to take root and spread. Some news organizations recently published fact-checking roundups that debunk persistent falsehoods and underscore the ongoing threat misinformation poses to democracy.

The problem, of course, is that the folks most susceptible to these falsehoods, and most likely to disseminate them further, don’t read or trust outlets like ProPublica and The Washington Post. Instead, they look for more ideologically compatible sources when they engage in what we used to call “cherry picking”–what psychologists call “confirmation bias”–in their search for information.

No matter how off-the-wall any particular belief might be, there’s a website out there confirming it. (As I used to tell my Media and Public Policy students, if you really believe that aliens once landed in Roswell, New Mexico, I can find you several websites with pictures of the aliens…)

Right now, credible media outlets are focused on very real threats to American democratic institutions. And although it is absolutely true that the country has previously faced and overcome significant challenges to our unity and constitutional system, I can’t help thinking about what is different this time. I think about  that quote attributed to Mark Twain to the effect that “that history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.”

What is different about the stanza of that rhyme that we currently occupy is an unprecedented media environment–the extent of disinformation and propaganda, the ease of accessing false “evidence” proving that this or that conspiracy theory is correct, and the consequential, damaging absence of a widely shared reality.

It has never been easier to believe nonsense. It has never been easier to attribute the inevitable disappointments in life to nefarious (albeit non-existent) machinations of “others”– those people who look, think or pray differently.   

Political scientists and (some) politicians have long emphasized the critical importance of a free press to a free society. That’s why the First Amendment prohibited government suppression–i.e.,censorship. But censorship–like so much else–has evolved. Thanks to new communication technologies, contemporary autocrats have discovered that controlling the flow of information no longer requires suppression: censorship can be achieved simply by sowing confusion and/or drowning out disfavored news.

We are about to see what happens when credible journalism is buried in bullshit– swamped by outlets purveying partisan propaganda and lunatic conspiracy theories–and citizens at that media smorgasbord are invited to pick and choose from the copious selection. 

I’m very much afraid this “rhyme” is uncharted territory.

Trump’s Not The Only One Undermining the Rule of Law

One of the many reasons Trump’s pardon of Arpaio was so appalling was the nature of Arpaio’s behavior during the years he was sheriff. Trump’s pardon essentially endorsed the abuse of power.

Every time a public official–cloaked in the authority of the state–engages in self-serving, corrupt or unlawful behaviors, government legitimacy suffers. The most central principle of the rule of law is that no one is above it; the rules apply equally to the governed and those who do the governing.

Of course, if we don’t know what government officials are doing, we can’t enforce the rules.

One of the reasons our Constitution explicitly protects freedom of the press is because the press acts as a “watchdog,” ferreting out official misconduct. When Trump attacks unflattering coverage as “Fake News,” when Arpaio criticizes the press for pointing out that his actions are racist, they are attempting to delegitimize a critical element of Constitutional accountability.

Mother Jones recently provided an excellent example of how the system is supposed to work.  The magazine investigated and uncovered a Judge’s conflict of interest in the aftermath of an immigration raid that netted 400 undocumented workers. As the article notes, such workers are

usually charged with civil violations and then deported. But most of these defendants, shackled and dragging chains behind them, were charged with criminal fraud for using falsified work documents or Social Security numbers. About 270 people were sentenced to five months in federal prison, in a process that one witness described as a “judicial assembly line.”

Overseeing the process was Judge Linda R. Reade, the chief judge of the Northern District of Iowa… The incident sparked allegations of prosecutorial and judicial misconduct and led to congressional hearings. Erik Camayd-Freixas, an interpreter who had worked at the Waterloo proceedings, testified that most of the Spanish-speaking defendants had been pressured to plead guilty…

Yet amid the national attention, one fact didn’t make the news: Before and after the raid, Reade’s husband owned stock in two private prison companies, and he bought additional prison stock five days before the raid, according to Reade’s financial disclosure forms. Ethics experts say these investments were inappropriate and may have violated the Code of Conduct for United States Judges.

The subsequent discovery of emails and memos from Immigration and Customs Enforcement showed that in the months leading up to the raid, Judge Reade had repeatedly met with immigration officials and federal prosecutors. She had also attended a meeting with officials from the US Attorney’s Office where “parties discussed an overview of charging strategies,” according to ICE memoranda. In those meeting she learned that about 700 arrests were anticipated.

I’ve previously argued that prisons should never be privatized. Not only is incarceration an inherently governmental function, but the private prison industry lobbies (often successfully) for counterproductive public policies. Currently, CCA and Geo, the two largest prison companies, are actively resisting criminal justice reforms and the decriminalization of marijuana. The Mother Jones article points to a less-recognized danger–public officials succumbing to the temptation to “enhance” the value of their investments.

Today, dozens of people who were sentenced by Reade while her husband owned prison stock remain behind bars. According to the US Sentencing Commission, the Northern District of Iowa, where Reade sits, sends a significantly higher proportion of defendants to prison, and with longer sentences, than the national average.

Can we spell “appearance of impropriety”?

 

Rupert Murdoch and Climate Change

One of the most thoughtful commenters to this blog recently sent me an interesting–albeit disquieting–article from Mother Jones. The subject was climate change and the curious fact that the countries with the largest numbers of skeptics were all English-speaking:  U.S., England and Australia. Canada wasn’t in the bottom cluster, but it was close.

Why would the English language correlate with climate skepticism? As the author, respected science reporter Chris Mooney, notes

There is nothing about English, in and of itself, that predisposes you to climate change denial. Words and phrases like “doubt,” “natural causes,” “climate models,” and other skeptic mots are readily available in other languages. So what’s the real cause?

Mooney quotes political scientists for (pretty unpersuasive) theories linking neoliberalism with denialism, but then he suggests a simpler–and very troubling–explanation:

The English language media in three of these four countries are linked together by a single individual: Rupert Murdoch. An apparent climate skeptic or lukewarmer, Murdoch is the chairman of News Corp and 21st Century Fox. (You can watch him express his climate views here.) Some of the media outlets subsumed by the two conglomerates that he heads are responsible for quite a lot of English language climate skepticism and denial.

In the US, Fox News and the Wall Street Journal lead the way; research shows that Fox watching increases distrust of climate scientists. (You can also catch Fox News in Canada.) In Australia, a recent study found that slightly under a third of climate-related articles in 10 top Australian newspapers “did not accept” the scientific consensus on climate change, and that News Corp papers—the Australian, the Herald Sun, and the Daily Telegraph—were particular hotbeds of skepticism. “The Australian represents climate science as matter of opinion or debate rather than as a field for inquiry and investigation like all scientific fields,” noted the study.

And then there’s the UK. A 2010 academic study found that while News Corp outlets in this country from 1997 to 2007 did not produce as much strident climate skepticism as did their counterparts in the US and Australia, “the Sun newspaper offered a place for scornful skeptics on its opinion pages as did The Times and Sunday Times to a lesser extent.” (There are also other outlets in the UK, such as the Daily Mail, that feature plenty of skepticism but aren’t owned by News Corp.)

I have long been a free speech purist–and I remain convinced by John Stuart Mill’s argument that only the freest expression and most robust exchange of ideas  will yield Truth (note capital T). Climate skeptics are entitled to their say, and Faux News is entitled to spew demonstrable inaccuracies and falsehoods on this and all manner of other issues, no matter how maddening some of us find that and no matter how much damage their fabrications do to our ability to produce sound public policies.

Ideally, a few wealthy individuals would not be allowed to dominate the media (the right to free expression does not include the right to crowd out dissenting opinions), but in the age of the Internet, restrictions on the number of media outlets one corporation can control are arguably unnecessary, and unlikely in any event.

We’ll just have to hope that Mill and others were right–that people will examine the information they are being fed, consider the sources of that information, and come to rational conclusions. And perhaps that’s happening; Fox News has been losing market share for the last few years.

We can hope….