Our Bubble Is Bigger and More Porous Than Theirs

The Columbia Journalism Review is a magazine for professional journalists. It’s been published by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism since 1961. Like it or not, it’s a relatively reliable source of information.

So it was interesting to read about a study they conducted. They analyzed “over 1.25 million stories published online between April 1, 2015 and Election Day”. They “analyzed hyperlinking patterns, social media sharing patterns on Facebook and Twitter, and topic and language patterns in the content of the 1.25 million stories, published by 25,000 sources over the course of the election”. They answered questions like: “If a person shares a link from Breitbart, is he or she more likely to share a link from Fox News or from The New York Times?”

This is what they found:

… a right-wing media network anchored around Breitbart developed as a distinct and insulated media system, using social media as a backbone to transmit a hyper-partisan perspective to the world. This pro-Trump media sphere appears to have not only successfully set the agenda for the conservative media sphere, but also strongly influenced the broader media agenda, in particular coverage of Hillary Clinton.

While concerns about political and media polarization online are longstanding, our study suggests that polarization was asymmetric. Pro-Clinton audiences were highly attentive to traditional media outlets, which continued to be the most prominent outlets across the public sphere, alongside more left-oriented online sites. But pro-Trump audiences paid the majority of their attention to polarized outlets that have developed recently, many of them only since the 2008 election season (my emphasis).

Attacks on the integrity and professionalism of opposing media were also a central theme of right-wing media. Rather than “fake news” in the sense of wholly fabricated falsities, many of the most-shared stories can more accurately be understood as disinformation: the purposeful construction of true or partly true bits of information into a message that is, at its core, misleading. Over the course of the election, this turned the right-wing media system into an internally coherent, relatively insulated knowledge community, reinforcing the shared worldview of readers and shielding them from journalism that challenged it.

In other words, there are bubbles and there are bubbles. As the Republican Party has moved further and further to the right, Republican orthodoxy has increasingly conflicted with reality. Since journalism at its best tends to reflect reality, fewer “conservatives” have been willing to get news and commentary from the most professional sources. This explains the growing popularity of right-wing propaganda sites like Fox News. They’re a comforting alternative to what the right began calling the “mainstream” or “lamestream” media. 

This means that a sizable minority of Americans are now convinced that the most objective sources of news are unreliable. The result is that right-wing politicians can get away with murder. Their supporters are immune to the truth. Meanwhile, liberal or progressive politicians don’t get the credit they sometimes deserve and those of us who pay attention to the traditional media are left wondering how so many people on the right can be so out of touch. 

I’m not saying that newspapers like The Washington Post and programs like CBS Evening News always get it right. Hardly. But the people who work at places like that at least try to get it right. They aren’t committed to supporting one political party at all costs. The result is that if you get your news and commentary from a variety of respected sources, you’ll probably have a fairly good grasp of what’s going on in America. You’ll realize that the Affordable Care Act hasn’t been a “disaster”, for example, and that the American economy is in much better shape than when President Obama took office.

Some will say that we all live in bubbles and we’re all equally biased. It’s easy to express that kind of cynicism, but it’s not born out by the evidence. As the study says, “pro-Clinton audiences were highly attentive to traditional media outlets”, while “pro-Trump audiences paid the majority of their attention to polarized outlets”. There’s a reason that more than 99% of the major newspapers in the United States, hundreds of them, even papers that always endorse Republican candidates, endorsed the Democrat for President, not the Republican. The people who run newspapers and write editorials get their news from a variety of credible sources that at least try to be objective. 

The good news is that most Americans are still open to journalism that does that. The bad news is that millions of right-wingers, including some with too much power, aren’t. I don’t know how to fix this problem. I don’t think anyone does. Here, for instance, is the conclusion of the Columbia Journalism Review article:

Rebuilding a basis on which Americans can form a shared belief about what is going on is a precondition of democracy, and the most important task confronting the press going forward. Our data strongly suggest that most Americans … continue to pay attention to traditional media, following professional journalistic practices, and cross-reference what they read on partisan sites with what they read on mass media sites.

To accomplish this, traditional media needs to reorient … by recognizing that it is operating in a propaganda and disinformation-rich environment.

And then what? Knowledge of the situation is a necessary first step, but what comes next? There will always be a market for fantasy. I suppose all we can do is stand up for reality.

C6vAaB7U8AAIV-k