During the 2016 Presidential Election process, there was a near complete disregard for what was true (post-truth) and a massive surge in the promotion of false and misleading news items that pretended to the true (fake news). This was further amplified by the viral spread of sensationalist nonsense on social media. Even worse, many of those systems were run by mindless algorithms designed to monetize individual preferences and feed their users information that conformed to their own ideological biases (social media filter bubble). Together, this has become known as the misinformation wars.
Many of these things are not new and has plagued scientists, doctors, skeptics and other science advocates for many years. However, there was decidedly a massive surge that happened in recent years. People and groups that promote pseudoscience and bigotry managed to manipulate the mainstream media into giving them a ton attention and free publicity. These groups could then counter by spreading demonstrably false narratives in their filter bubbles to build what was and is essentially an anti-reality grassroot movement.
The rise of government-approved “alternative facts”
The classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (often just titled “1984”) written by George Orwell (1949) portrays a horrific dystopia where enormous police states engage in constant war, massive propaganda and misinformation campaigns and historical revisionism. They also carry out pervasive language manipulation, mass surveillance and even destroying opposing evidence. At its core is a thriving personality cult. Although the current United States administration has not developed into the terrible police state of Oceania yet, it is incredibly telling that 1984 is the current #1 best-seller in the category of Books on Amazon.
Shades of 1984 became discernible during a Meet The Press interview (22 Jan 2017) with NBC journalist Chuck Todd and senior Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway about the size of the audience for the Trump inauguration. Previously, the White House press secretary Sean Spicer had made the false claim that “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.” and was rightly questioned by the mainstream media. The Trump administration were struggling to defend the statement after facts emerged that showed that it had fewer people watching it than the Obama inauguration. Snopes has fact checked this issue in greater detail and the statement is either demonstrably false or unproven depending on what rationalization is considered.
This might just be one of the first clear cases of government pushing trivially false claims as “alternative facts” despite the fact that it had been debunked by reputable fact checkers.
Why is this exceptionally unsettling?
People might not care that much about the details of the crowd size and think this was just a passing remark. However, it might contribute to setting an equally remarkable and dangerous precedent.
It is in many ways a subtle declaration of war against not only the mainstream media, but against reality itself. The falsehood is not being pushed as “the facts” and then the discussion remains focused on evidence. Instead it is promoted as an “alternative fact”, in much the same way that ineffective and harmful alternative medicine is falsely pushed as an “alternative” to real medicine.
Conway is suggesting that her “alternative facts” are at least as valid as the real facts about the crowd size and the other claims that the White House press secretary got wrong. It is a pseudointellectual attempt to obfuscate instead of providing clarification. To a large degree, this general tactic is shockingly effective in its reach and influence.
While many news organization are trying to fact check Trump, promoters of conspiracy theories such as Alex Jones and InfoWars are rapidly becoming the core “alternative news” source. Jones, of course, is a 9/11 truther and has stated that he thinks the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax. In particular, they have defended the false claim that there were millions of undocumented immigrants voting for Clinton despite the fact that it has been completely debunked.
What can the mainstream media do now?
The mainstream media has quickly become to wake up to the gargantuan problem with these kinds sustained misinformation campaigns. They are struggling with how to understand, handle and respond to them and who could blame them? In many ways, they are partially responsible for not only the rise of Trump but also the volatile and irresponsible attitude to scientific facts. They provided a ton of free advertisement for Trump who ran one of the cheapest presidential campaigns in recent history.
Perhaps worse is that their sloppy reporting on scientific/medical issues (such as diets and sensationalized findings on e. g. what might contribute to or protect against cancer), their false balance between science and nonsense, their non-stop clickbaiting for ad impressions and their shameless reporting on pseudoscience and quackery (such as promoting psychics or fake treatments) desensitized a lot of people to not only science as a process but also facts generally. Many people probably came to believe that well-supported facts were somehow something that changed from week to week.
Scientific skeptics have faced similar misinformation campaigns from proponents of dozens of different forms of pseudoscience from anti-vaccine crankery to Holocaust deniers. Mainstream media is now slowly starting to wake up to this dreadful reality.
Welcome to the skeptical movement. Now it is time that they radically improve the way they do their work. No more promotion of pseudoscientific nonsense, no more annoying clickbaits, and no more sloppy science and medicine reporting. These are some of the things that they need to do to turn it around if they want to stay relevant.