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President Donald Trump’s false insistence that he is the rightful winner of the 2020 election has exposed like nothing else the possibility that America is becoming a post-truth society, where political partisans can’t agree on a unifying framework of facts, and emotion and personal belief steer public opinion.
Supporters of President-elect Joe Biden point to his solid leads in key battleground states as evidence he won fair and square. Many supporters of President Trump are convinced by allegations, so far unsupported by evidence, that the election was rife with fraud.
State election officials of both parties insist that the nation has managed the heroic act of holding a fair and free vote, with no more glitches than normal, despite a pandemic and historic turnout.
The divide over what constitutes truth is not just due to partisan media or a president who fact-checkers rate as an unparalleled source of falsehoods. It also stems from social media, the blurring of fact and opinion, and the decline in trust in national institutions and expertise.
As Republican Al Schmidt, a Philadelphia city commissioner, said while speaking for the undersung election workers in a CNN interview: “One thing I can’t comprehend is how hungry people are to consume lies.”
President Donald Trump’s false insistence that he is the rightful winner of the 2020 election has exposed like nothing else in his time in office the possibility that America is becoming a post-truth society, where political partisans can’t agree on a unifying framework of facts, and emotion and personal belief steer the winds of public opinion.
Since the vote, Democrats and Republicans seem to be living in different worlds. Supporters of President-elect Joe Biden point to his solid leads in a number of key battleground states and record-breaking overall vote total as evidence he won fair and square. Many supporters of President Trump have been convinced by right-wing media allegations, so far unsupported by evidence, that the election was rife with fraud – with dead people voting, ballots tossed, and corrupted election machines changing thousands of votes at a swipe.
Caught in between are state and national election officials of both parties who insist that the nation has managed the heroic act of holding a fair and free vote, with no more glitches than normal, despite a pandemic and historic turnout. They point out that the Trump campaign’s many lawsuits about the results have virtually all collapsed and are doing nothing but further documenting the solidity of Mr. Biden’s win.
Republican Al Schmidt, a Philadelphia city commissioner, perhaps spoke for many of these undersung election workers in a CNN interview last week.
“I realize a lot of people are happy about this election and a lot of people are not happy about this election,” said Mr. Schmidt. “One thing I can’t comprehend is how hungry people are to consume lies.”
This divide over what constitutes truth and facts has been developing for some time, say experts. It’s not just the result of the rise of right-wing media outlets such as Fox News or the election of a president whom fact-checkers rate as an unparalleled source of political falsehoods.
It’s also about the rise of social media, the blurring of lines between fact and opinion, and the decline in trust of many national institutions and even the nature of expertise.
“It’s a phenomenon that’s not tied to one party or administration. ... It’s not only an information problem. It’s about the context in which information exists,” says Jennifer Kavanagh, a senior political scientist at Rand Corp. and co-author of “Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life.”
Unaddressed it could threaten democracy itself. As former President Barack Obama pointed out this week in an interview with the Atlantic, if we lose the ability to sort the true from the false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas does not work – and neither does democracy. Our whole theory of knowledge – epistemology – is threatened.
“We are entering an epistemological crisis,” President Obama told Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg.
Truth and politics
It may not have begun with him, but President Trump has proved that truth-bending politics has its advantages. A candidacy that began with Mr. Trump leveraging “birtherism” – the lie that Mr. Obama was not born in America – is ending with a president clinging to false stories about why he has won reelection, despite overwhelming evidence he has lost.
During the campaign, Mr. Trump insisted without evidence that mail-in ballots were rife with fraud. He cast doubt on ballots counted after Election Day, though lengthy ballot tallies and checks are routine. Since the vote he has seized on small discrepancies in county vote counts as reasons why the ballots of entire states should be invalidated and state legislatures should name him as the winner of their Electoral College votes.
The president may sincerely believe these moves will keep him in the Oval Office. But in the past, he has used falsehoods and misdirection just to throw dust in the air, overwhelm the media, and create an appearance of scandal to delegitimize opposition. In his famous outreach to Ukraine – for which he was impeached – Mr. Trump only pushed for an investigation into Hunter Biden’s business deals to be announced, not completed or even begun.
In his fight to stay in office, the president has often taken a bit of true information and presented it out of context. On Wednesday night, he tweeted that in Wisconsin, former Vice President Biden had received “a dump of 143,379 votes at 3:42 AM, when they learned he was losing badly.” What Mr. Trump did not mention was that the “dump” was a routine release of ballots by a number of counties and that not all of the ballots were for Mr. Biden, as a Reuters fact check clarifies.
While Rudy Giuliani gives press conferences, as on Thursday, alleging widespread fraud, in court he is far more measured: “This is not a fraud case,” he told a federal judge in Pennsylvania Tuesday.
This sort of activity could continue to cloud Mr. Biden’s presidency, says Whitney Phillips, a lecturer on media literacy and misinformation at Syracuse University.
“It is creating a permission structure to not accept Joe Biden as president,” Dr. Phillips says.
That may have real-world consequences, she adds. If a quarter of the population does not think Mr. Biden is a legitimate president, what does that mean for his coronavirus response plans? Will he face more entrenched opposition to masking recommendations or vaccine distribution?
“This is not just an abstract conversation about electoral consequences 10 years down the road,” she says.
Dr. Phillips says it is also important to place Mr. Trump’s current charges in context. The president began constructing a narrative about the “deep state” and shadowy enemies almost from the moment he entered office. It has been a thread linking the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller, the impeachment effort, and more fervid false conspiracy theories such as those espoused by QAnon. This summer he began pushing a message that the Democrats would steal the election from him by any means necessary. This feeds a constant media diet by right-wing outlets that wraps around and encompasses many issues and “explains” confusing developments.
“It’s very hard to see outside the narrative. People are convinced of the underlying idea, and they’re going to seek that story out,” Dr. Phillips says.
“We wanted to support our president”
Many supporters of President Trump believe wholeheartedly that the vote was rife with wrongdoing, with dead people voting, ballots falsified, and corrupted election machines changing thousands of votes at a swipe. A recent Monmouth poll, for instance, found that 77% of Trump backers believed Mr. Biden’s victory was due to “fraud.”
That’s in contrast to the 60% of Americans who believe Mr. Biden won the election fair and square, according to Monmouth.
Sign-waving fans of the president interviewed at Nov. 14’s “Million MAGA March” in Washington were certain there was no way he could have lost legitimately. They cited the size of Trump rallies, Mr. Biden’s flaws, and U.S. economic strength.
Janine Luzzi, a financial analyst from New Jersey, woke up at 5:15 a.m. to drive down to Washington with a friend.
“We wanted to support our president. We know he’s been cheated,” said Ms. Luzzi.
Terry and Kevin Roche drove up from their hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, the day before the rally. They felt it was important to attend because they don’t think the election process is over, and that courts and legislatures will discover there was fraud.
“Historically, the economy, scandals, all the measures that we use to judge a candidate – Joe Biden could not have done well. So it’s very inexplicable. Simply because people don’t like Donald Trump’s tweets he would lose an election?” said Mr. Roche, who works in computers.
Cathy Boyd, a nurse from western Massachusetts, spent seven hours on a train to reach the rally. She says she felt she had to come and support the president because his opponents are simply stealing the election.
“I tell people that President Trump exposed the evil and corruption. He’s the only person who can do it. He’s got his own money,” said Ms. Boyd.
Why would Trump supporters be so sure about fraud in the election, when evidence to support that claim is lacking, more than two dozen court cases have gone against the president’s campaign or been withdrawn, and a majority of the country believes otherwise? Media silos may be one big reason. A quick glance at news headlines on Nov. 18 shows the split: The New York Times and other mainstream sources led with stories about the national coronavirus spike, with a smattering of pieces about the organization of the incoming Biden administration. Fox News, Breitbart, and OANN lead with Trump lawyer Mr. Giuliani laying out a “path to victory,” and the continuing struggle to certify vote results in Michigan’s Wayne County.
Many adults now get much of their news through Facebook and other social media sites, where it remains difficult to ascertain the validity of stories. At last weekend’s MAGA March, many participants repeated allegations that have been debunked by fact-checking, such as the false charge that Dominion Voting System machines were rigged to throw votes to Mr. Biden. As The Wall Street Journal pointed out in an editorial Thursday, if there had been a problem with Dominion machines, the hand recount Georgia just completed would have uncovered them. Dominion machines also were used in South Carolina and other states that voted for the president.
In his interview with The Atlantic, former President Obama criticized what he called the nation’s “new malevolent information structure.” America no longer has a trusted figure such as Walter Cronkite to bring us all together, he said. Locally owned and controlled TV stations are dwindling. Local newspapers run by experienced journalists are dying off.
“Maybe most importantly, and most disconcertingly, what we’ve seen is what some people call ‘truth decay,’ something that’s been accelerated by outgoing President Trump – the sense that not only do we not have to tell the truth, but the truth doesn’t even matter,” said the former president in a separate interview with “60 Minutes.”
Combating “truth decay”
“Truth decay” is a phrase Mr. Obama likely lifted from a lengthy 2018 Rand study of the same name.
Since his interviews “we definitely have gotten renewed interest,” says Dr. Kavanagh, who co-wrote the book with Rand president and CEO Michael D. Rich.
Truth decay, as defined by Dr. Kavanagh, is a set of four interrelated trends: increasing disagreement about facts and interpretations of facts and data, more and more blurring of lines between opinions and facts, an increased volume of opinions, and lowered trust in formerly respected sources of factual information.
Causes of these trends include changes in information providers, such as the rise in social media; an educational system that places less emphasis on media literacy and critical thinking; and political and demographic polarization.
Damaging consequences of this situation include the erosion of civil discourse, political paralysis, and uncertainty about national policy.
“We’re describing a situation in which people don’t know what’s true and what’s not – and they don’t know where to turn to find fact-based information,” says Dr. Kavanagh.
Solutions to truth decay could include more teaching about civic responsibilities and media literacy.
“Understanding the responsibility to become informed, and then having the tools to do it,” says Dr. Kavanagh.
There is also much that journalism can do to help overcome the challenge, according to Rand. A first step would be much clearer separation of fact and opinion articles and broadcasts. Consumers conflate the two much more than many journalists realize. A second step would be an increased attention to breaking up high-quality news in small, digestible chunks. That’s a market currently dominated by low-quality news providers.
The online news environment is a big part of the problem. Right now, it’s a problem with more questions than answers. How to balance privacy and access against manipulation and hate speech? Are the companies themselves the right people to make those decisions?
Overall, with effort truth decay can be addressed, says Dr. Kavanagh.
“It’s not inevitable,” she says.