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Who’s Afraid of Donald Trump? | America Elects a Fact-Free President

[Writer’s note: The following article was written as my weekly column named Online/Offline for The Nation newspaper, Sri Lanka. It was submitted within hours of the US presidential election being concluded and results becoming known on 9 Nov 2016. The column was accepted and lined up for publication on the newspaper’s print edition for the weekend of Nov 12/13, but was pulled out at the last minute. Apparently the management was concerned about the column depicting the US president elect in a ‘bad light’.

 I was completely taken aback by this reasoning. As a long term chronicler and critic of information society, I had merely used the US presidential election as a ‘news peg’ to discuss an Internet-driven phenomenon that is not unique to the United States or to electoral politics. Rather, it is something that should concern open societies everywhere.

To withhold the column on an interpretation that it is negative about the US president elect is a meaningless act of self-censorship by a supposedly independent media outlet in a sovereign nation. Far more devastating critiques of Mr Trump have appeared in the mainstream and online media in the US, where the First Amendment to the Constitution safeguards basic freedoms including the freedom of speech and press freedom. Despite recent onslaughts on freedoms, the American public sphere still retains sufficient space for discordant voices.

I acknowledge that as a freelance writer, I get published only at the discretion of editors and publishers of media outlets. At the same time, columns are meant to capture informed opinions of their writers – it is universal practice that opinions in columns are not necessarily those of the media outlet’s editors or the holding company. If those managing media companies do not understand this basic tenet and try to stifle any criticism of centres of power and authority, it sure bodes ill to media freedom and open societies.  – Nalaka Gunawardene]

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America Elects a Fact-Free President

In the presidential election this week, US voters just elected an unorthodox, unlikely and unpredictable head of state.

There are many ways of analysing this result. I see it as a largely fact-free election choosing a (mostly) fact-resistant winner.

Ahead of the first presidential TV debate, Donald Trump apparently warned that Hillary Clinton was scheming to “rig the debate by using facts” wrote Andy Borowitz, an author and comedian in The New Yorker magazine in late September.

“You just watch, folks,” Trump was quoted as saying. “Crooked Hillary is going to slip in little facts all night long, and that’s how she’s going to try to rig the thing.”

Actually, Borowitz just made it up – he writes satire! But it was uncannily close to reality. Many Trump loyalists kept blindly cheering the Republican candidate despite well documented concerns about his competence, temperament, moral conduct and financial track record. They ignored his many inconsistencies, contradictions and lies – even when exposed by America’s indefatigable fact-checkers.

How did a society with an abundance of information sources get to this point? What role did the web and social media play in that decline? And what cautions for the rest of the world?

These questions must be debated long after the dust has settled on this highly contentious election.

We now realise that the web is a mixed blessing. It sure has democratised information, ending the era of gate-keeping by media companies and salaried journalists who decided what news was reported, and how. Today, bloggers and social media influencers compete with mainstream media outlets for news, analysis and opinions.

At the same time, the web — now used by half the world’s population — has made it much easier for crackpots and charlatans to peddle their tall tales and dark stories. Modern myths and misconceptions also find a fertile ground online.

“Have social media ‘turbo-charged’ Sri Lanka’s spread of superstitions, myths, myth-based cottage industries and pseudoscience?” I asked in a speech at the Science, Technology and Society Forum in Colombo in September. My own answer was a depressing yes – and that in a society where only 30% currently gets online.

In the developed world, Americans have long been notable for their credulity. Far right wing media have been fact-resistant for years, but at least they were monitored by fact-checkers. Such tracking is impossible with thousands of online outlets for news and views.

In 2008, Farhad Manjoo, a South African born American journalist and author, argued in a book titled True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society that the internet would usher in a “post-fact” age. He saw, even then, how Americans had begun to organize themselves into “echo chambers” – in which information, ideas or beliefs are amplified by transmission and repetition inside an “enclosed” system. In such spheres, different or competing viewpoints are dismissed, disallowed or under-represented.

“Eight years later, in the death throes of an election that features a candidate who once led the campaign to lie about President Obama’s birth, there is more reason to despair about truth in the online age,” he wrote in a New York Times analysis last week.

Others agree. “The strongest bias in American politics is not a liberal bias or a conservative bias; it is a confirmation bias, or the urge to believe only things that confirm what you already believe to be true,” wrote Emma Roller, a former reporter, in a recent New York Times op-ed.

She added: “Not only do we tend to seek out and remember information that reaffirms what we already believe, but there is also a ‘backfire effect’ which sees people doubling down on their beliefs after being presented with evidence that contradicts them.”

In this melee, the old adage of news media – that facts are sacred, but comment is free – seems forgotten. Part of the problem is that there are too many outlets for news: the promise of ‘marketplace of ideas’ has not quite worked out.

Research shows that when confronted with diverse information choices, people usually do what feels easiest: absorb information that confirms own ideas, and leave out the rest.

Fact-free thinking is affecting not only political discourse, but the entire public sphere. It is also undermining the integrity of established media houses.

Bashing the new media won’t solve the problem, though. We just need to find ways to enhance both media literacy and cyber literacy everywhere.

Nalaka Gunawardene is a science writer, blogger and development communication consultant. He tweets from @NalakaG