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Internet Hoaxes Can’t Be Debunked Anymore

someone-is-wrong-on-the-internet

The xkcd cartoon above became an instant classic when it was released in February 2008. Alas, Cueball might as well get some sleep.

The Washington Post has ended its “What Was Fake on the Internet” column because, as Caitlin Dewey explains, the sort of people who share these stories don’t care about evidence.

We launched “What was Fake” in May 2014 in response to what seemed, at the time, like an epidemic of urban legends and Internet pranks: light-hearted, silly things, for the most part, like new flavors of Oreos and babies with absurd names.

Since then, those sorts of rumors and pranks haven’t slowed down, exactly, but the pace and tenor of fake news has changed. Where debunking an Internet fake once involved some research, it’s now often as simple as clicking around for an “about” or “disclaimer” page. And where a willingness to believe hoaxes once seemed to come from a place of honest ignorance or misunderstanding, that’s frequently no longer the case. Headlines like “Casey Anthony found dismembered in truck” go viral via old-fashioned schadenfreude — even hate.

There’s a simple, economic explanation for this shift: If you’re a hoaxer, it’s more profitable. Since early 2014, a series of Internet entrepreneurs have realized that not much drives traffic as effectively as stories that vindicate and/or inflame the biases of their readers. Where many once wrote celebrity death hoaxes or “satires,” they now run entire, successful websites that do nothing but troll convenient minorities or exploit gross stereotypes. Paul Horner, the proprietor of Nbc.com.co and a string of other very profitable fake-news sites, once told me he specifically tries to invent stories that will provoke strong reactions in middle-aged conservatives. They share a lot on Facebook, he explained; they’re the ideal audience.

[…]

Frankly, this column wasn’t designed to address the current environment. This format doesn’t make sense. I’ve spoken to several researchers and academics about this lately, because it’s started to feel a little pointless. Walter Quattrociocchi, the head of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science at IMT Lucca in Italy, has spent several years studying how conspiracy theories and misinformation spread online, and he confirmed some of my fears: Essentially, he explained, institutional distrust is so high right now, and cognitive bias so strong always, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake.

Had I written this column as normal this week, I probably would have included, say, this widely shared post on Before It’s News that claimed an Alaska judge called for Obama’s arrest. But Quattrociocchi has found (and this is perhaps intuitive) that the sort of readers who would unskeptically share such a far-fetched story site are exactly the readers who will not be convinced by The Washington Post’s debunking.

To me, at least, that represents a very weird moment in Internet discourse — an issue I also addressed earlier this week. At which point does society become utterly irrational? Is it the point at which we start segmenting off into alternate realities?

While Dewey is mostly right about the tenor of the times, she makes two major errors here. First, while things may be getting worse, the phenomenon she describes was alive and well at the time “What Was Fake” started. Megan Garber wrote a piece for The Atlantic summarizing Quattrociocchi’s findings back in March 2014. Second, while middle aged conservatives may be especially prone to this behavior right now given a Democratic president and rapid upheaval in social norms, the phenomenon is widespread across age and ideological cohorts.

The Google Scholar link for the work in question provides a couple of pages but, alas, they are not in a format that allows cutting and pasting. But, essentially, the finding is that those who feel their core viewpoints are being undermined by mainstream news, social policy, and even scientific evidence are most likely to seek out silos that supply information that support their biases and that these people will tend to therefore see those sources as legitimate, even if they’re low-credential, or even seemingly obviously fake. Further, they’re subject to believing that the other side is winning owing to conspiracy plots that would seem objectively absurd. They point to wild claims about the World Economic Forum and the notion that “AIDS was created by the U.S. Government to control the African American population” as examples. The research was done on Italian users of Facebook, not Americans, but the psychology would almost certainly be the same.

Having run this site for just shy of 12 years, I’ve seen all of this firsthand. One early insight came after a May 6, 2003 posting titled “Jesse Jackson” which begins,

George Will once wrote, “Nowadays no diplomatic farce is complete without a cameo appearance by Jesse Jackson.” Truer words have never been spoken.

In the weeks that followed, several people somehow mistook that page as being Jackson’s personal site, leaving comments soliciting help from the iconic civil rights leader.  Several similar episodes happened over the years. Even back in 2003, when the site was much less professional looking in terms of design, people did not seem to have the inclination to take the few seconds it would take to orient themselves to the site they were visiting. To most people, a website is a website is a website. Anything seen on the Internet, on Facebook, on Twitter, or whathaveyou is equal to anything else on those mediums. An article on the Harvard.edu domain from a Nobel Prize-winning expert on a subject and another one on Reddit by ScienceIzBullshite423 debunking said expert are accorded equal status, with the “tie” broken based on which side of the “debate” one prefers.

The same happens routinely with parody postings on the site. It happens all the time even with sites that do nothing but parody, such as The Onion or Duffel Blog. I’ve seen Congressmen go onto the old “Colbert Show” and treat it like an appearance on “60 Minutes,” seemingly oblivious that the host was doing a parody of a talk show.

Of course, it doesn’t help that, in the dog-eat-dog competition for eyeballs, even legitimate sites like the Post itself engage in gimmickry on a routine basis to drive traffic. To note one silly example, the “Most Popular” sidebar to Dewey’s post led me to an article headlined ”Goodbye, Good Old Greek Yogurt“ and tells us in the lede that “popularity in the American food world can be a fickle thing, and the Greek yogurt business is learning that first hand. After years of double digit growth, Americans’ enthusiasm for the trendy yogurt seems to be cooling.” Reading slightly further we learn that the product, which was essentially unavailable in the US market before 2007, is now a mature product whose sales are flat. That doesn’t rate a mention in the nation’s most prominent newspaper, much less a misleading, click-bait headline. But since most people will encounter the story via their Facebook feed and not bother to actually click through and read it, the perception will now exist that no one is eating Greek yogurt anymore.

Regardless, Dewey’s central point remains valid: it’s hard to see much point in trying to engage in honest debate in this environment. Which is a major contributing factor to the Blog Fatigue I wrote about a couple weeks back.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. The ease with which things can be shared, in blogs of course but most especially on social media like Twitter and Facebook, makes it almost impossible to stop the hoaxes from spreading. All you have to do is click “Share” and it goes out the the rest of the world, or at least your circle of followers. This includes a Facebook meme that includes quotes and claims that later turn out to be untrue, stories about the latest “Outrage Of The Day,” that later turn out to have been exaggerated, and much else. And it’s assisted by the fact that people like to share things that reinforce the things they already believe and aren’t inclined to fact-check those items.

    One of the stranger aspects of this phenomenon, though, are the celebrity death notices that seem to go be shared as “news” even several year after someone has died. Just this week, several Facebook friends shared a link about the death of jazz musician Dave Brubeck, who died in 2013. I’ve made the mistake myself a few times, but it continues to happen on a regular basis. According to my Facebook feed, former Golden Girls Star Rue McClahanan and Hollywood legend Mickey Rooney have both died several times over in the past three years alone. It’s very odd.

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  2. Pch101 says:

    Second, while middle aged conservatives may be especially prone to this behavior right now given a Democratic president and rapid upheaval in social norms, the phenomenon is widespread across age and ideological cohorts.

    While there are idiots on both ends of the spectrum, they do not appear to be equivalent, at least not at this point in time.

    It tends to be American conservatives in this day and age who are convinced that the mainstream media is out to get them and is therefore not to be believed. They are more inclined to believe falsehoods because they will make a point of relying upon bad sources that they fail to recognize are bad.

    There’s also an abundance of research that suggests that the choice of political affiliation is driven by personality factors, not ideas per se. Those who have black-and-white views are drawn by conservatism because it eschews and attacks nuance; those who are comfortable with ambiguity are prone to be liberal for those same reasons.

    That being said, there are many among us who have lousy research skills and who fail to understand that some sources are not good enough to be used for reference purposes. Whether it’s citing Wikipedia as a source even though it is written by anonymous amateurs, failing to understand that scientific research is supposed to be peer-reviewed, or confusing factual information with pure opinion, some of us are just lazy or lack the critical thinking skills needed to know that they need to keep working. There have always been those who believe what they read when it suits them; now, there’s a greater variety of tripe from which to choose.

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  3. CSK says:

    @Pch101:

    Indeed. People believe what they choose to believe, only now they have more “evidence” to cite in support of it.

    Try reasoning with someone who’s convinced that the Boston Marathon bombing, the Sandy Hook shooting, and, more recently, the San Bernardino shootings were “false flag” operations. None of the victims were killed or maimed; they were “crisis actors” engaged as part of a government conspiracy to bring on martial law.

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  4. Ron Beasley says:

    This imaginary bubble world started before blogs or social media – think FOX “news” and Rush Limbaugh. Blogs and social media have only made it more efficient and faster. My late mother hated the idea that we had a black democratic president and watched FOX News all day.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 4

  5. @Ron Beasley:

    The polarization of media is hardly exclusively a phenomenon of the right, as numerous surveys have shown. In general, people seem to prefer exposing themselves to news sources that reinforce their beliefs rather than challenging them. One need only look at blogs like Daily Kos and Think Progress, and MSNBC to see that.

    Additionally, it’s worth noting that news with a political point of view is hardly a new thing. During the Founder’s Era and long after newspapers and other periodicals were blatantly ideological. It was really only in the mass media age that things moved toward something more “objective.” Even then, though, the model of three networks that everyone watched ended up becoming problematic since there were a small number of people deciding what “news” was and what people should think about it. On balance, then, the idea of multiple sources of news, opinion, and entertainment that cable and the Internet have helped created is a good thing. The problem, as I said, is that there seems to be a human tendency to gravitate away from sources that challenge one’s beliefs, and challenge one to think.

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  6. EddieInCA says:

    My mother was a life-long Democrat…

    …until Obama ran for office. Then she voted for McCain/Paiiin.

    Why?

    Because of the myriad of emails and internet “facts” about Obama that flooded her inbox from her more conservative friends.

    In her mind, Obama is an American-hating, Muslim, Socialst Manchurian Candidate who wants to make America a Third World Country.

    She can’t wait to vote for Hilary Clinton; a REAL Democrat, who will undo “all the damage Obama has done to our contry.”

    Can’t make this stuff up.

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  7. Pch101 says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Pew found that liberals are more likely to trust a variety of media sources and have a variety of favorite news sources, while conservatives are more likely to distrust the media, with almost half of them using Fox as their main source of news. The right and the left are not equivalent.

    http://www.journalism.org/2014/10/21/political-polarization-media-habits/

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 27 Thumb down 3

  8. Bob@Youngstown says:

    @Doug Mataconis: It may be just my perspective, so I’d appreciate hearing your thoughts; is MSNBC’s Morning Joe programming with a liberal or progressive bias?
    Is there a similar type of programming (seemingly contrary to the expected bias) on Fox?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 1

  9. stonetools says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Do both sides do it? Yes. But does one side do it much, much more? Yeppers.
    Since the 1970s, the conservatives have steadily built an alternate media universe, where conservative ideas and policies are always right and indeed cannot be questioned.You will find conservative voices on regular media outlets, including MSNBC, questioning Obama; you won’t find liberal voices questioning conservative ideas on Fox News (and certainly not on conservative talk radio).

    On balance, then, the idea of multiple sources of news, opinion, and entertainment that cable and the Internet have helped created is a good thing. The problem, as I said, is that there seems to be a human tendency to gravitate away from sources that challenge one’s beliefs, and challenge one to think.

    This is indeed a problem which most First Amendment advocates didn’t see coming (and often tend to minimize). The ideal of a “marketplace of ideas” in which the the best ideas would win out in the vigorous discussion isn’t really happening. The idealists believed that people would expose themselves to various ideas, and then choose the best from about them after reasoned debate. What’s happening is that people are simply choosing the media sources that support their beliefs, and ignoring or discounting offerings from media sources that that contradict those beliefs. Moreover, they are choosing sides and often defending not only what they believe, but also even what their own sides believe.
    All of this means that maybe there is a need to give the “marketplaces of ideas” concept some institutional support. I would argue that it’s time to bring back the “fairness doctrine”.

    The Fairness Doctrine had two basic elements: It required broadcasters to devote some of their airtime to discussing controversial matters of public interest, and to air contrasting views regarding those matters. Stations were given wide latitude as to how to provide contrasting views: It could be done through news segments, public affairs shows, or editorials. The doctrine did not require equal time for opposing views but required that contrasting viewpoints be presented. The demise of this FCC rule has been considered as a contributing factor for the rising level of party polarization in the United States.[2][3]

    I think in retrospect, the abandonment of the Fairness Doctrine was a mistake. Most people just WILL not expose themselves to information and opinion that challenges their beliefs unless forced to, and earnest appeals by the idealists to do that just aren’t working. The Fairness Doctrine would get at least major outlets back into airing controversial ideas of public interest, and into presenting opposing viewpoints, and that actually would make the “marketplace of ideas” concept work better.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 3

  10. Pch101 says:

    @stonetools:

    The Fairness Doctrine applies to broadcasting, not to print media or the internet. Over the long haul, bringing it back won’t help much because the echo chamber will continue to thrive online, including social media.

    If you force Limbaugh et. al. to have liberal guests, then the host will simply shout over them and turn down their mics. FCC efforts to impose fairness on them will simply convince them that the government is out to get them.

    That genie is out of the bottle. What liberals need to do is to improve their messaging so that it appeals to moderates. Focusing on the minority of the population that is bats*hit crazy is a waste of time — they thoroughly enjoy being neurotic and do not want anyone to take away their fun.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 3

  11. grumpy realist says:

    @Bob@Youngstown: I’d put “Morning Joe” in Slap-his-face-because-he’s-so-smarmy category.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  12. JKB says:

    Seems one of the biggest problems is not outright hoaxes but headlines. I’ve seen an increase in the headline designed to draw clicks that is in almost complete opposition to the body of the story, or the story is far less startling. This has become endemic in the MSM and the so called “media of record” as well. Throw in that most stuff is not read but comes in feeds with misleading excerpts and you have most “conversations” not about substance but about hype.

    Example, all over we see “Middle Class Decline”, but if you look at the numbers, it is true, the number of people with a middle class income has declined. So has the number of people making less than $50k. But the number earning over a $100k has increased.

    So the headline is truish, but is designed to feed on fears rather than inform.

    Middle Class Rising would be more accurate.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 3

  13. @stonetools:

    The government has no business forcing broadcasters to edit their programming based on content. For any reason as far as I’m concerned, but especially when it comes to political and social commentary.

    And, as someone has already pointed out, the Fairness Doctrine would never applied, and cannot really be applied, to cable, satellite, or subscription-based broadcasting. Thankfully.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

  14. stonetools says:

    @Pch101:

    The Fairness Doctrine applies to broadcasting, not to print media or the internet. Over the long haul, bringing it back won’t help much because the echo chamber will continue to thrive online, including social media.

    It won’t solve everything ( nothing will) but it would help , maybe a lot.

    What liberals need to do is to improve their messaging so that it appeals to moderates.

    I ‘m with you 100 per cent here. Liberals just really suck at propaganda ( the politically incorrect term for messaging). Now to a great extent this has been that liberals in general-and the Obama Administration in particular- believed that “good policy makes good politics” and that the job was done once they got good policies into place. These good policies would just sell themselves, so the reasoning went. Sadly, relentless right wing propagandizing by Fox News and right wing talk radio to their captive audiences convinced enough Americans that those good policies were disastrous that the Republicans made huge political gains.
    Liberals need to up their game, but that point i!m just not sure they are capable of it. IMO, liberals have right policy wise on just about everything in the last ten years-and have lost ground, politically. I blame incredibly competent messaging on that, and I don’t see liberals turning that around anytime soon.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 2

  15. Barry says:

    “Second, while middle aged conservatives may be especially prone to this behavior right now given a Democratic president and rapid upheaval in social norms, the phenomenon is widespread across age and ideological cohorts.”

    When was it not largely a right-wing phenomenon?

    During the days of the John Birch Society, McCarthy and the Klan?

    During the Nixon years?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 2

  16. stonetools says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    The government has no business forcing broadcasters to edit their programming based on content. For any reason as far as I’m concerned, but especially when it comes to political and social commentary.

    It’s a good thing the fairness doctrine isn’t about the government doing that, then. But hey, beating straw men is fun, so I understand what you did there. the Supreme Court spoke on this here, and it upheld the FCC’s right to enforce the doctrine as not an infringement of the First Amendment.

    The FCC’s statutory mandate to see that broadcasters operate in the public interest and Congress’ reaffirmation, in the

    Page 395 U. S. 368

    1959 amendment to § 315 of the Communications Act, of the FCC’s view that the fairness doctrine inhered in the public interest standard, support the conclusion that the doctrine and its component personal attack and political editorializing’ regulations are a legitimate exercise of congressionally delegated authority. Pp. 395 U. S. 379-386.

    2. The fairness doctrine and its specific manifestations in the personal attack and political editorial rules do not violate the First Amendment. Pp. 395 U. S. 386-401.

    (a) The First Amendment is relevant to public broadcasting, but it is the right of the viewing and listening public, and not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount. Pp. 395 U. S. 386-390.

    (b) The First Amendment does not protect private censorship by broadcasters who are licensed by the Government to use a scarce resource which is denied to others. Pp. 395 U. S. 390-392.

    The bolded part is what’s missing in the various attacks on the fairness doctrine. The viewing public’s interest in being exposed to controversial ideas and to opposing viewpoints isn’t served by a network monopolizing a scarce resource that censors ideas and viewpoints that it doesn’t like, which is pretty much what Fox News does. It’s worse because Fox News has used that scarce resource to create and mould an audience that is a substantial part of the electorate.

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  17. stonetools says:

    @stonetools:

    y. I blame incredibly competent messaging

    Dammit autocorrect. Should be “incredibly incompetent messaging.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  18. @stonetools:

    I fully understand the legal arguments that have been made in favor of the so-called “Fairness Doctrine.” I just happen to disagree with them.

    Additionally, the fact that something is legally permissible does not mean it is good policy, or that it should be done. I find all of policy arguments in favor of the so-called “Fairness Doctrine” to be insufficient when balanced against the freedom of speech and property rights concerns involved. So, even if the law is on your side, I think your policy is a very bad idea that I would oppose as strongly as possible if it were ever seriously likely that the policy will return. Fortunately, even if a Democrat returns to the White House after the 2016 election, that is exceedingly unlikely.

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  19. James Joyner says:

    @Pch101: @Ron Beasley: @Pch101: @Barry: In the US, the behavior is likely disproportionately conservative/rural/older for reasons already noted. But the research, based in Italy, found a lot of the same behavior on the left. Isolating ideology wasn’t the focus of the study.

    From the rise of the modern, “objective” press in the United States in the early part of the last century, it has tended to be dominated by a mainstream left orientation, albeit a pro-business one. That’s natural for a lot of reasons, notably the location of the dominant media centers in major metropolitan areas. But that hasn’t been the case in much of Western Europe. The reaction is to find outlets that support one’s own views, regardless of ideology. It just so happens that the mainstream outlets in the US lean left.

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  20. Pch101 says:

    I find all of policy arguments in favor of the so-called “Fairness Doctrine” to be insufficient when balanced against the freedom of speech and property rights concerns involved.

    The airwaves are public property. They are licensed to broadcasters conditionally, not owned.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 2

  21. Pch101 says:

    @James Joyner:

    From the rise of the modern, “objective” press in the United States in the early part of the last century, it has tended to be dominated by a mainstream left orientation, albeit a pro-business one.

    Paul Harvey and Joe Pyne were leftists?

    The traditional US print media was largely local and dependent upon advertising revenue, hence the focus on neutrality — sales were maximized in a given market by avoiding offense. The broadcast media was subject to the fairness doctrine, which encourages point-counterpoint formats with views presented along mainstream center-left vs center-right lines at the expense of extremists.

    Rupert Murdoch changed the game by bringing the English print tradition of overt opinion-news to the US mass media.

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  22. stonetools says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Ok, we will have to agree to disagree. But I think it is certain that the rise of Trump and Trumpism is indelibly linked to the the rise of a right wing media universe where objective reality is just disregarded if it contradicts conservative dogma. I also think it is a near certainty that a political leader will soon arrive who is more evil and better than Trump at taking advantage of a propaganda channel and its captive audience that will believe only what he and his channel preaches. If that audience is big enough, that person will become President of the United States-and he won’t care about our little debate about freedom of speech.

    We all like the wonderful idea of an efficient, perpetually self regulating free market of ideas. It seems to me that this is as much a fantasy as an efficient, perpetually self regulating financial market. Sometimes intervention is needed for markets to work properly and in the best interests of the public. It seems we might have to learn that lesson-again.

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  23. @Pch101:

    Rupert Murdoch changed the game by bringing the English print tradition of overt opinion-news to the US mass media.

    Reached for comment, the corpse of William Randolph Hearst chuckled.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  24. James Joyner says:

    @Pch101: I’d never heard of Joe Pyne, who came before my time and didn’t rise to the level of, say, Edward R Murrow. Harvey was a commentator in the tradition of Andy Rooney, not a news anchor. There were the anomalies like Buckley’s “Firing Line” on PBS, but it was comparatively a fringe show compared to, say, “60 Minutes.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  25. Pch101 says:

    @stonetools:

    It won’t solve everything ( nothing will) but it would help , maybe a lot.

    At one time, there were three major TV networks, a common national campfire that provided most people with their networks. Now we have the internet and social media taking over while network news declines in its reach and influence. (The audience is still large, but it is declining and aging.)

    Conservatives already don’t trust the major networks. Impose the fairness doctrine on the majors, and conservatives won’t see the results because they don’t watch them.

    The thing about the far right is that it defines “bias” as information that doesn’t reflect the opinions of the far right. The whole thing is Orwellian — material that is biased in their direction is “fair and balanced,” while material that doesn’t echo their views is “biased.” There is no reaching people like that — they just aren’t very bright.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  26. Pch101 says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    The yellow journalism era faded out after the Spanish-American War.

    In England, national newspapers have long competed against each other based upon political slant, with less dependency upon ad revenues and greater dependency on revenue from sales. The US does not have this tradition of national newspapers, and its local print media has been driven by the desire to avoid offending advertisers.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  27. CSK says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    “A Hearst newspaper is like a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.”

    — Arthur James Pegler, circa 1918

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  28. Ron Beasley says:

    I would certainly qualify as a liberal but I post at The Moderate Voice and OTB are the American Conservative are the blog I read most often. I don’t normally watch cable news. I haven’t read KOS for years. I co blogged with Jazz Shaw for several years. Hillary Clinton is too right wing for me on foreign policy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  29. James Joyner says:

    @Pch101:

    The thing about the far right is that it defines “bias” as information that doesn’t reflect the opinions of the far right. The whole thing is Orwellian — material that is biased in their direction is “fair and balanced,” while material that doesn’t echo their views is “biased.” There is no reaching people like that — they just aren’t very bright.

    Yes and no. In the early days of Fox, the main news shows like Brit Hume’s “Special Report” were pretty straightforward newscasts that filled a legitimate niche. The three major networks and CNN represented a slanted, bicoastal view of America that the rest of us didn’t recognize. Over time, the network transmogrified into Conspiracy TV and really pandered to its perceived audience, becoming something other than a news network. But it was true that the big networks, PBS, NPR, etc. were inherently biased against the views of middle America.

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  30. Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

    @Ron Beasley: Same here. I am an European Green Party voter and even I can’t really read Mother Jones due to it’s unpleasantly biased tone.

    And that’s why I’m so sorry to hear about your blog fatigue @James Joyner. There are few places out there where I can check my assumptions without running head-first into “the crazy”. This blog (and your articles in particular) are one of the few fresh breaths of air left on the internet that I could find (one of the others being Sullivan until he closed shop).

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  31. Pch101 says:

    @James Joyner:

    But it was true that the big networks, PBS, NPR, etc. were inherently biased against the views of middle America.

    I don’t even know what that means. Is the network news supposed to beat the drum for prayer in school and against civil rights instead of just reporting what votes were cast in Congress, the path of the latest hurricane and who died in the latest plane crash?

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  32. stonetools says:

    @James Joyner:

    The three major networks and CNN represented a slanted, bicoastal view of America that the rest of us didn’t recognize.

    Nonsense, really. Those networks really were trying to report objective truth, and to represent the views of Middle America. Certainly, most left wing media outlets thought of them as being too conservative and as beholden to corporate interests.

    But it was true that the big networks, PBS, NPR, etc. were inherently biased against the views of middle America.

    So “Face the Nation”, “All Things Considered”, and “PBS Newshour” are biased against the views of Middle America? Seriously? Honestly, you sound here like Bill O’Reilly. Tell me again what network “Firing Line” and “Wall Street Week” were on, and if the “Nightly Business Report” is some kind of left wing screed?

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  33. grumpy realist says:

    I get my news mainly from reading the news feed on Google, a few blogs such as OTB and TAC, and the Financial Times. Oh, and the fish wrap known as the WSJ but mainly to see how they’re going to slant the news yet once again. They’ve really gone downhill.

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  34. James Joyner says:

    @Pch101:
    @stonetools:

    News outlets don’t merely report, they frame people’s understanding of the world by their selection of stories, the emphasis they place on them, and the way in which they cover them. NPR, which I liked a lot even when I was much more socially conservative, clearly had a leftist agenda on issues like capitol punishment, homosexuality, gun control, and abortion. They’re quite fair, I think, to their guests but they approached the news—and shaped the news—from a very leftist sensibility.

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  35. stonetools says:

    @Pch101:

    The thing about the far right is that it defines “bias” as information that doesn’t reflect the opinions of the far right. The whole thing is Orwellian — material that is biased in their direction is “fair and balanced,” while material that doesn’t echo their views is “biased.”

    Indeed. a problem too is that conservatives have worked the MSM so much that they are now afraid of pointing out objective truth,because they are afraid of being accused of bias. Witness the refusal of the mainstream media to call out Carla Fiorina for her lies about Planned Parenthood, etc. Take this statement:

    To wage war, we need a commander in chief who has made tough calls in tough times and stood up to be held accountable over and over, not first-term senators who’ve never made an executive decision in their life. One of the things I would immediately do, in addition to defeating [ISIS] here at home, is bring back the warrior class — Petraeus, McChrystal, Mattis, Keane, Flynn. Every single one of these generals I know. Every one was retired early because they told President Obama things that he didn’t want to hear.

    There is no question that this statement is 100 per cent manufactured falsehood. Yet AFAIK no major news network has yet called it a lie. Why? Presumably, because they are afraid of “showing bias” whereas actually , they would simply be telling the truth. That is why these days, Republican candidates are free to simply lie their a$$es off. They know they are not going to be held to account. When the media timidly tries to do so, they get shouted down for “showing bias. ” Circling back to the OP, THAT is why you can’t debunk hoaxes. How can you debunk hoaxes if people dispute that there is something such as objective truth?

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  36. stonetools says:

    @James Joyner:

    NPR, which I liked a lot even when I was much more socially conservative, clearly had a leftist agenda on issues like capitol punishment, homosexuality, gun control, and abortion. They’re quite fair, I think, to their guests but they approached the news—and shaped the news—from a very leftist sensibility.

    Maybe you want to consider that on these topics, reality has a liberal bias? Maybe conservatives are just wrong on these issues and and an evidence based approach to these topics shows that they are wrong?

    Meanwhile, here is what a leftist thinks of NPR:

    In the process, it’s gone decidedly mainstream. True, in story selection and sound, NPR retains a tincture of elite liberalism. (Anyone seeking evidence need only listen to the insufferable “Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!”) But as its critics on the left contend (yes, there are lots of them too, every bit as over-heated as those on the right), on NPR these days there’s far more comforting the afflicted than afflicting the comfortable. NPR has traded much of its early edginess and eccentricity for reach and respectability, stability, and an almost compulsive inoffensiveness. (When, not long ago, Leon Panetta called Osama bin Laden a “son of a bitch,” NPR felt compelled to bleep out the “bitch.”) Apart from the occasional stories about gays or Palestinians (and maybe even gay Palestinians), there’s precious little on NPR these days for conservatives really to hate. For them, despising NPR and cutting off what amounts to the few pennies it collects from the federal budget has increasingly become more a matter of pandering, or habit, or sophomoric sport, than of conviction or serious policy. The editor of the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol, once confessed to former NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin that he really didn’t believe NPR was liberal; he just said so “to keep you guys on the defensive.” And that still seems true.

    Frankly, even if we concede NPR,then what about CBS, ABC, and NBC? How can they being considered anti Middle America?

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  37. Ratufa says:

    @Pch101:

    I don’t even know what that means. Is the network news supposed to beat the drum for prayer in school and against civil rights instead of just reporting what votes were cast in Congress, the path of the latest hurricane and who died in the latest plane crash?

    Networks, whether Fox, CBS, NBC, or ABC, don’t just “report” the news. They decide what stories are significant, and how the stories should be reported. An obvious example of this is how most networks marginalized critics of the Iraq war. I posted a long list of possible reasons for that in another discussion:

    http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/news-media-mostly-ignoring-iraq-war-critics/#comment-1944576

    With regards to James’s comment about mainstream media marginalizing the views of middle America, I think that’s too broad of a statement. Though I haven’t watched much network news for a a few years, my anecdotal impression is that 1) Network news tends to be biased towards the views of the political classes (e.g. elected officials, party leaders, and professional pundits) as opposed to the views of more average Americans and 2) There is an ideological bias on social issues (prayer, guns, gay rights, etc), depending on the network.

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  38. Pch101 says:

    Networks, whether Fox, CBS, NBC, or ABC, don’t just “report” the news. They decide what stories are significant, and how the stories should be reported. An obvious example of this is how most networks marginalized critics of the Iraq war.

    If it blew up, got shot, killed something, was invaded or came out of the government, then it’s mainstream news. A lot of news is merely an extension of government press releases and press conferences (which is one reason why weekend and holiday news are a lot slower — the government is usually closed.)

    If you want a debate, then there are other sources for that — there is no shortage of opinion media in the United States, including the op-ed sections of the mainstream print media.

    my anecdotal impression is that 1) Network news tends to be biased towards the views of the political classes (e.g. elected officials, party leaders, and professional pundits) as opposed to the views of more average Americans and 2) There is an ideological bias on social issues (prayer, guns, gay rights, etc), depending on the network.

    Typical coverage of issues consists of a soundbite from the supporters and another soundbite from the opposition, with little regard for whether one of them is simply wrong on the facts.

    If network news can be accused of anything other than its lack of depth (in the US, only PBS bothers to spend more than a minute on issues of the day), it’s in its false implication that there are two sides of every story, when there sometimes isn’t. The idea that climate science is debated where it counts, i.e. among those who know science, is completely nonsense, yet the media just doesn’t come out and tell the audience that the opposition to climate science comes from business interests and political conservatives, not from those who know enough to offer an opinion that is worth a damn.

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  39. Pch101 says:

    @stonetools:

    There is no question that this statement is 100 per cent manufactured falsehood. Yet AFAIK no major news network has yet called it a lie.

    The typical approach of the mainstream broadcast media is to report soundbites, rather than to fact check the statements. This particular statement has blown back on Fiorina because the subject of her comment went on record to refute it, so it has made the news.

    But generally speaking, you’re right. The mainstream media rarely comes out to debunk a statement directly because they’ve allowed themselves to be cowed by the right to avoid the alleged appearance of bias.

    If it was up to me, I would ignore or reject the attempts to be bullied. If a Republican rep makes a false statement and resents being corrected, then the appropriate response would be for the network to point out that the best way to avoid being corrected in the future is to avoid making false statements.

    (Of course, independence of the broadcast news divisions has always been a problem as even Murrow knew, so this display of courage isn’t likely to happen.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  40. Great Post! Thanks for this. Can I email you and ask for couple of question? 😀

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  41. MarkedMan says:

    James is right – NPR does have a progressive bias. Not because it sets out to twist things that way but,, as someone else pointed out, simply by choosing and framing certain stories. But I would contend that the average NPR listener expects the reporting is always made up of fact, and that it continuously strives to reach the truth. I also think (or maybe just like to think) that if NPR were revealed even a few times to have twisted and distorted facts it would lose its listeners. This is what is so strange to me about the people who live in the Fox News bubble. Time after time they are shown that Fox misleads them – but they simply don’t care. I just don’t get that.

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  42. Barry says:

    @James Joyner: “But the research, based in Italy, found a lot of the same behavior on the left. Isolating ideology wasn’t the focus of the study.”

    If you have to leave the US to find ‘both sides do it………………’

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  43. Stonetools says:

    @MarkedMan:

    The Fox News listeners tune in to be confirmed in their biases and to be assured that their beliefs are true, even if they are not. That is why they don’t care that Fox is misleading them. You are correct that NPR listeners expect that they are getting objective reporting from their news, and usually they are. I think that NPR is far more objective in its news coverage than Fox, and it’s listeners prefer it that way. I guess it’s accused of bias because it isn’t doing “Isn’t America wonderful ” stories every day, and that’s considered “progressive bias”. Says it all, really , in terms of how far the Overton window has moved.

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  44. Stan says:

    @James Joyner: “From the rise of the modern, “objective” press in the United States in the early part of the last century, it has tended to be dominated by a mainstream left orientation, albeit a pro-business one. That’s natural for a lot of reasons, notably the location of the dominant media cent”

    I’ve been a reader of the New York Times and the Washington Post since the late 50’s. From what I’ve seen, both papers are strong defenders of civil liberties and both are more tolerant of deviations from social norms than most Americans. But until recently I’ve never regarded either the Times or the Post as particularly liberal when it comes to economic issues. So I have difficulty deciphering the passage I’ve quoted above. How can a newspaper be both leftist and pro-business? Something doesn’t compute.

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  45. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @stonetools: In fairness, though, we should also remember that the people who brought us the First Amendment and the marketplace of ideas also envisioned a country where the people who would go to said market and buy and sell ideas were going to be mostly landed gentry and shopkeepers. This whole idea of someone such as, for example, myself–an early retired low-wage functionary the part of my career where I wasn’t a blue collar laborer doing a job a person with a sixth-grade education could perform–allowed in as a co-stakeholder with people who did important work and actually held property and business interests was probably outside of the scope of what the founders were imagining would happen.

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  46. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Pch101: I see that comment by Joyner as part and parcel of his “America is no longer a center-right nation” blather. He has a mind numbingly large blind spot regarding where “center” currently exists in the nation where Trump is considered as a serious candidate by a larger and lager segment of poll respondents.

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  47. MarkedMan says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker: @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker: if I remember my history correctly the press was even more hysterical and extreme in the country’s early days than it is now. I think you are correct that the founders didn’t envision such a wide ranging suffrage but the press back then was less a marketplace of ideas and more a cesspool of slander.

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  48. Rafer Janders says:

    @James Joyner:

    But it was true that the big networks, PBS, NPR, etc. were inherently biased against the views of middle America.

    What views were those? Please be specific.

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  49. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @CSK: It might help to have suitable punishment posted on the Internet. I’m thinking of the scum (already forgot his name) last week who made a splash that the Sandy Hook shootings were a hoax. Personally, he needs a bath in hot tar, followed by chicken feathers – with a YouTube video as the cherry on top.

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  50. Rafer Janders says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:

    I see that comment by Joyner as part and parcel of his “America is no longer a center-right nation” blather. He has a mind numbingly large blind spot regarding where “center” currently exists in the nation

    It’s immense, that blind spot. A year or two ago he and I had a long argument about an off-hand comment of his that the Democrats regained the White House in the 1990s because they stopped nominating, in his words, “hard left” candidates. When I challenged him to name who those supposed “hard left” candidates were, he said….Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and Mike Dukakis.

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  51. gVOR08 says:

    I have come to believe that modern US politics has come down to reason v/ unreason. That Democrats have, by and large, evidence based policy preferences while Republicans have policy preferences based on supply side econ, science denial, and foreign policy based on end times nonsense.

    Several months ago I read Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. Kirk went on at some length that the real enemy of Conservatism is “positivism”, per Wiktionary (philosophy) A doctrine that states that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge, and that such knowledge can only come from positive affirmation of theories through strict scientific method, refusing every form of metaphysics. Kirk identified Michael Faraday, along with Darwin, as having “severed (the world) from its roots”. Imagine my surprise at learning that a) Kirk agreed with me that reason and objective reality were the enemy of conservatism, and b) that he was explicitly on the side of unreason. Now Kirk would have put it that he was on the side of some higher truth that I, as a liberal, am too coarse and stupid to understand. However Kirk was unable throughout his very long book to articulate this higher truth, so I don’t think it’s just me. And he was quite explicit about science being the enemy.

    I don’t think, James, that you can find from any intellectual pillar of the left a comparable statement that objective reality is the enemy of liberalism. No, both sides don’t do it. And it has been so for a long time.

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  52. Pch101 says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    When I challenged him to name who those supposed “hard left” candidates were, he said….Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and Mike Dukakis.

    Clinton certainly did say that “the era of big government is over” in an effort to win back Reagan Democrats and compete with the GOP.

    But that certainly doesn’t support the argument that Jimmy Carter (i.e. the guy who launched the US’ anti-Soviet efforts in Afghanistan, formalized the US position that it would wage Middle East wars in order to protect “our’ oil, and hired Paul Volcker to run the Fed) was on the far left.

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  53. gVOR08 says:

    @MarkedMan:

    This is what is so strange to me about the people who live in the Fox News bubble. Time after time they are shown that Fox misleads them – but they simply don’t care. I just don’t get that.

    That’s what I find so amazing. I resent being lied to. Apparently others react differently. Or I guess it’s really that they simply won’t admit to themselves that they’ve been lied to. We’ve always been at war with East Asia.

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  54. James Joyner says:

    @Barry:

    If you have to leave the US to find ‘both sides do it………………’

    The entire report is based on a research study conducted in Italy; I’m referring to that same study.

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  55. Rafer Janders says:

    @Pch101:

    But that certainly doesn’t support the argument that Jimmy Carter (i.e. the guy who launched the US’ anti-Soviet efforts in Afghanistan, formalized the US position that it would wage Middle East wars in order to protect “our’ oil, and hired Paul Volcker to run the Fed) was on the far left.

    Yeah, James’ Overton Window had shifted so far to the right that he’d identified the most mainstream centrist Democrats as “far left,” and once he’d take that position there was nothing I could do to shake him from it.

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  56. SKI says:

    @James Joyner: It is only leftist if you are conceding that reality has a liberal bias…

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  57. gVOR08 says:

    Pretty much nobody saw the movie Truth, so I won’t feel guilty about a spoiler. In explaining what’s happening Robert Redford as Dan Rather talks about how news had always been a money loser. In return for their licenses to use the public airwaves the networks broadcast news as a public service. And they could do good journalism because there was no pressure to do otherwise. But he was one of the principals in 60 Minutes, which turned a profit. He explains that he was there when they discovered news could make money. Once that happened, then they were like the rest of the network, under pressure to make more money. If the MSM have a bias, it’s to peddle papers and otherwise please their corporate masters.

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  58. Barry says:

    @Doug Mataconis:”Reached for comment, the corpse of William Randolph Hearst chuckled.”

    Who has been dead for how many decades now? IMHO, this is like talking about the ‘Taft’ wing of the GOP, and trying to make a case that there is non-warmongering wing of the GOP.

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  59. Deserttrek says:

    @Ron Beasley: everything every demoncrat says and does is correct and all their name calling and smearing is being constructive ….. Ron get some fresh air and say no to being a bigot

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  60. gVOR08 says:

    @Deserttrek: I believe, sir, that you’ve mistaken this oasis in the intertubes for POLITICO.

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