Every parent has heard a child respond to a scolding with “Everybody does it.”
When it’s children trying to evade responsibility, we see through that excuse pretty easily. When adults engage in such evasions, when they engage in “false equivalency argumentation,” we seem to be more gullible.
That has been especially true in politics, where complaints about political polarization and generally toxic partisan behaviors are routinely accompanied by rueful statements to the effect that, while reprehensible, “both sides do it.”
They don’t. At least, not with respect to phony “facts.”
A recent major study by the Columbia Journalism Review
shows that political polarization is more common among conservatives than liberals — and that the exaggerations and falsehoods emanating from right-wing media outlets such as Breitbart News have infected mainstream discourse….
The CJR study, by scholars at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, at Harvard Law School, and the MIT Center for Civic Media, examined more than 1.25 million articles between April 1, 2015, and Election Day. What they found was that Hillary Clinton supporters shared stories from across a relatively broad political spectrum, including center-right sources such as The Wall Street Journal, mainstream news organizations like the Times and the Post, and partisan liberal sites like The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast.
By contrast, Donald Trump supporters clustered around Breitbart — headed until recently by Stephen Bannon, the hard-right nationalist now ensconced in the White House — and a few like-minded websites such as The Daily Caller, Alex Jones’ Infowars, and The Gateway Pundit. Even Fox News was dropped from the favored circle back when it was attacking Trump during the primaries, and only re-entered the fold once it had made its peace with the future president.
Right-wing sites, led by Breitbart, were able to push traditional media outlets into focusing on Trump’s issues, and–even more importantly–able to get them to frame the issues as Trump did. Even more troubling, right-wing sources were able to influence portrayals of Clinton, and to keep the mainstream media focus on her supposed “scandals.”
As the study’s authors noted,
It is a mistake to dismiss these stories as “fake news”; their power stems from a potent mix of verifiable facts (the leaked Podesta emails), familiar repeated falsehoods, paranoid logic, and consistent political orientation within a mutually-reinforcing network of like-minded sites.
Use of disinformation by partisan media sources is neither new nor limited to the right wing, but the insulation of the partisan right-wing media from traditional journalistic media sources, and the vehemence of its attacks on journalism in common cause with a similarly outspoken president, is new and distinctive.
It turns out that the news appetites of liberals and moderates differ from those of the radical right-wing fringe that is today’s Republican base.
What’s at issue here is not just asymmetrical polarization but asymmetrical news consumption. The left and the center avail themselves of real journalism, however flawed it may be, while the right gorges on what is essentially political propaganda — all the while denigrating anything that contradicts their worldview as “fake news.”
It’s a winning business model: tell the paranoid what they want to hear, and assure them that everyone else is lying. That approach made Rush Limbaugh rich, then made Fox News highly profitable, and more recently, evolved into disinformation’s logical conclusion: Breitbart.
But “everyone” doesn’t consume this propaganda. The deficiencies in intellectual honesty on the left pale in comparison to the avid consumption of bullshit that characterizes the rabid right.
They aren’t equivalent.