Facts are foundational to our democracy. We turn to them to help us lift the veneer of hypocrisy that characterizes modern politics. Following this election, however, it seems that facts no longer have the ability to compel policy or sway public opinion.
According to PolitiFact, a staggering 70 percent of President-elect Donald Trump’s statements are verifiably false to a degree. In fact, the Trump campaign has thrived on the spread of fake news on social media, and the increasing popularity of semi-legitimate news outlets like Breitbart that spin stories in their preferred candidates’ favor. An increasing — and baffling — disrespect for objective truth seems to be the leitmotif of the 2016 presidential campaign.
Trump has made the problem more salient with his blatant disdain for facts and ability to spin the truth. But this problem is not new. Past presidential administrations have witnessed a decline in the influence of traditional media outlets, and the flourishing of media outlets that propagate false or highly biased news across the Internet, like Breitbart and Drudge Report. We are now reaping the consequences of living in a post-truth society.
In past elections, presidential candidates, regardless of political leanings and party identity, at least agreed on facts. They could, and would, disagree on the causes of unemployment, but could at least agree that the unemployment rate was 4 percent. An inability to even agree on facts indicates a serious problem in our political system. It shows that different parties do not just have varying ideas on how to fix the world in which we live; they live in altogether different worlds.
It would be easy to blame this phenomenon on the recent wave of populist movements that promote the spread of misinformation because they know that it feeds into their image. The reality, however, is more complicated: There is an oversupply of differing facts, viewpoints and media outlets with varying degrees of trustworthiness inundating us daily with an overwhelming amount of information. The result is not a flourishing of speech and educated opinions, but rather the spread of fake news.
Earlier this year, BuzzFeed released a study showing that in the final three months of the presidential campaign, top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than top stories from major news outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News and others.
That is a problem when 44 percent of American adults say they get their news from Facebook, according to a Pew Research Center study. Instead of turning to reliable media outlets, people turn to Facebook, where — in addition to the echo chambers that flood their newsfeeds with opinions similar to theirs — they are also inundated with fake news items like “Wikileaks CONFIRMS Hillary sold weapons to ISIS!”(the highest-performing fake news story leading up to the election).
This post-fact phenomenon creates some chilling possibilities for our democracy. Once facts cease to be inherently powerful, how will we reach any consensus on the nature of social, economic and environmental problems, let alone agree on the solutions? And if voters are strategically fed misinformation about their candidates, does their vote really count as part of the democratic process?
President Barack Obama himself warned of the dangers of this phenomenon earlier this month: “If we are not serious about facts … if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.” Reinvigorating our democracy should, in theory, be a bipartisan issue — and restoring the public’s trust in facts is a good place to start.
The spread of false news is one of many issues leading to the disenfranchisement of the American people and the diminishing of our democratic system. But we cannot be active and committed agents in our democratic process if we are not armed with the facts that enable us to make informed decisions. Combating the spread of fake news should, therefore, be one of our highest priorities in strengthening our democratic system.
Annabelle Timsit is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. This is the final installment of Use Your Words.
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