BERLIN – Perhaps the most frustrating question about Donald Trump’s political success is why people keep voting for him even though his statements often don’t withstand the most basic fact-checking. And it’s not just Trump: The Austrian presidential candidate Norbert Hofer appears to be successful in convincing voters that he’s a moderate, conciliatory candidate though the press has written extensively about his history of extreme nationalist statements and leanings.
Why are people so unwilling to accept factual rebuttals? Is it that, as Farhad Manjoo wrote in “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society,” “the creeping partisanship has begun to distort our very perceptions about what is ‘real’ and what isn’t”?
Writing in The Washington Post, Anne Applebaum blamed the social media for making it “easier for politicians, partisans, computerized ‘bots’ and foreign governments to manipulate news.” Fact-checking websites, such as Politifact.com in the U.S. or Stopfake.org in Ukraine, Applebaum wrote, are “one of the best solutions,” but “they work only for people who want them to work, and that number may be shrinking.”
She can say that again; Politifact.com has at times gotten less traffic than Trump’s rather uninformative campaign site. Even in supposedly anti-Russian Ukraine, Stopfake.org, which sets out to debunk Russian propaganda, is far behind the Ukrainian arm of the Kremlin’s “news agency,” RIA Novosti. I doubt, however, that the relative lack of interest in the fact-checking sites — and, by inference, in having facts checked — has anything to do with the social networks turning into prime content suppliers.
The Internet does provide opportunities for manipulation. The recent dispute opposing Facebook and U.S. conservatives may or may not be proof of that, depending on which side one believes, but those of us with roots or an interest in totalitarian societies know this for a fact.
Russia has “troll factories” where people are paid to produce posts and comments praising President Vladimir Putin and assailing his adversaries. China has what a paper published last Thursday by Gary King, Jennifer Pan and Margaret Roberts calls the “50 cent party” — an army that produces an estimated 488 million pro-government social media comments a year. These people — mostly government employees, according to the researchers — don’t get into political arguments: All they do is act as cheerleaders for the Communist Party and its causes to distract ordinary citizens from using the networks to organize protests. It’s a different concept of manipulation than the Russian one, but it distorts the picture, anyway.
Theoretically, a well-funded political campaign could do the same, “seeding” posts and comments to sway public opinion or bully opponents. Yet I doubt that journalist Julia Ioffe, whose profile of Melania Trump brought upon her a flood of anti-Semitic messages, was targeted by an organized campaign.
Moreover, I think the Russian and Chinese governments are wasting their time by trolling and cheerleading. People have always had strong confirmation biases without having to be manipulated: Once you develop a belief, you start looking for information that supports it. The trolls end up preaching to the converted.
Francis Bacon wrote in 1620:
“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects; in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.”
It still works that way: On the Internet, people seek out — and spend more time on — “attitude-consistent” rather than “attitude-discrepant” messages. And the kind of deliberate manipulation that occurs on the social networks doesn’t form the attitudes — it just feeds biases. A political candidate — say, Trump or Hofer — can impress a voter by a single turn of phrase, a factoid from his biography, a gesture, and then negative information about that candidate will only be received reluctantly or rejected.
I suspect I have my own confirmation biases. When North African and Middle Eastern migrants attacked women at the central station in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, I felt an urge to filter out some of the nastier facts. It took some willpower to absorb them.
My biases certainly predate Facebook. The social networks merely have made journalists aware of the workings of these confirmation biases, when before Facebook and Twitter, they largely flew blind, not knowing how the audience perceived their reports. Only a very few readers took the trouble to write to newspapers or even comment on news sites. Then everything was suddenly out in the open: A writer could easily get feedback from readers, argue with them, get trolled and abused by them.
I have often been shocked by how many people read things into my columns that I never intended, or never read beyond the headline, or place me squarely into a certain political camp that in fact wouldn’t be happy to have me. I’ve been called a liberal (add your favorite expletive) by U.S. conservatives, a Wall Street flunky by socialists, a Putin supporter by Ukrainian patriots and a traitor by Putinists. Many in my trade can attest to similar experiences. The effect is to create the impression that the world has changed, become more polarized, perhaps even dumber. That impression is probably false: It’s as if we have put on glasses after years of myopia, and we see in great detail what has always been there.
There’s no point worrying about this too much: I know which of my columns will draw hate mail and angry comments from a particular camp, but I’m secure in the knowledge that I’m not addressing any of these camps. Open-minded people, those with an interest in gathering facts and making a decision, always are a minority. As often as not, they show up in polls as undecided. The finer-tuned messages that media send out, the ones that are not meant to feed pre-existing biases, can only be useful to them. It’s a relatively small audience, but it’s an appreciative one.
Based in Berlin, Russian writer Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of five books.
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