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Dangerous Nonsense

Image: Nancy Ohanian

No reasonable person would believe the words that come out of Tucker Carlson's mouth. This assertion was made by Carlson's lawyers, defending him in a slander suit. The judge, a Trump appointee, embraced the claim that Mr. Carlson's Fox News show is of such a "tenor" that viewers should realize that he's not stating facts when discussing topics. She explained in her opinion statement that given Mr. Carlson's reputation, a reasonable viewer is skeptical about what he says. According to the judge, the case did not meet the essential criterion of malice required for a defamation claim. The judge noted that he is engaging in exaggeration and non-literal commentary. In this sense, Mr. Carlson's discourse and analysis may be equated with nonsense. And a reasonable audience should know that. Thus, he's not culpable.

 Sydney Powell, Trump's former campaign lawyer, takes the same defensive position in a defamation lawsuit against her by Dominion voting machine company. Her legal team asserts that no reasonable person would believe her wild claims that widespread election fraud occurred. Therefore, accountability should not be an issue. This strange "no reasonable person would believe me" defense comes from within the realm of jurisprudence, not media punditry.

Dominion also filed a defamation lawsuit against Fox News in March. The election technology company claimed that Fox News and Fox Business cable networks actively spread false claims ("radioactive falsehoods") that Dominion modified vote counts in favor of Mr. Biden. The purpose? To boost the network's ratings. In response, Fox News Media cited pride in its 2020 election coverage and claimed the lawsuit was baseless. Will Fox eventually seek the defense that a reasonable audience can distinguish between fact and fiction? No disclaimer required?

The Reasonable Audience

Infused with false and inflammatory rhetoric from biased media punditry and social media outlets, Trump supporters stormed the Capitol as Congress worked to certify the election results. The assault had the appearance of a dark, horrific clown show. Thousands arrived near the Capitol grounds, listened to Trump reiterate delusional beliefs about election fraud, then overran the ill-prepared defensive line of Capitol police, essentially terrorizing elected officials before fading away into the backdrop of an America dotted with Thank You, Trump billboard signs.

Five people died. Many others suffered physical and psychological damage. An atmosphere of shame and embarrassment settled over much of the nation. 516 of the alleged rioters have been arrested in the federal investigation. They face the reality of being considered members of a reasonable audience who should differentiate truth from bull manure. Some, apparently unaware that they should readily distinguish fact from fiction, verified news information from opinion, now claim that Fox News and social media misled them by amplifying lies of a stolen election.

Neil Postman Saw It Coming

Neil Postman prophesied in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death that public discourse will eventually devolve into dangerous nonsense due to the shaping influence of modern media technology. Postman, a professor of communication theory at NYU until his death in 2002, emphasized the negative impact of modern media—primarily television—on public discourse. Essentially, Postman illustrated that a culture's media technology shapes the way information is delivered and how a culture understands it. Television emphasizes visual presentation, short attention span, style over substance. It is principally geared for entertainment, not the expression of ideas to be thoughtfully synthesized and analyzed. Everything becomes reduced to entertainment—politics, news, history, religion, athletics, commerce, even education. We become unable to tell truth from lies. Logic and reason disintegrate.

Postman's prescient writings came at the cusp of the internet era. Today, internet-social media platforms network the planet and further accelerate the amplification of our beliefs and habits. Their algorithmic formulas prey upon our confirmation biases and lead us even deeper into polarized echo chambers whereby truths and lies merge.

With the addition of social media technology, disinformation spreads at speeds and magnitudes of influence never before experienced in human history.

With the addition of social media technology, disinformation spreads at speeds and magnitudes of influence never before experienced in human history. Emotions supersede rational thought. So great has been the impact of today's media technology that "post-truth" was heralded by Oxford Dictionaries as the 2016 word of the year. The distinction highlighted that our media-influenced society had reached a stage whereby objective facts have become increasingly less influential "in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief."

 Public discourse has devolved into a state in which television and radio media punditry and social media normalize lies and disinformation. The apparent defense of such effusive ranting is that we, the audience, should know better than to believe what we hear or see. It's show biz. Social media’s goal of monetizing data seems to abdicate tech giants of accuracy in the data that flows with firehose intensity through their platforms.

The Audience Is Not So Reasonable

The concept of a reasonable audience that rationally differentiates between fact and fiction of news information is a myth. Evidence of such irrationality is ample. A recent Pew Research Center study investigating the news consumer's ability to distinguish between factual news and opinion revealed significant limitations in an audience's capacity to recognize fact from fiction. Confronted by five factual statements and five opinion statements, a majority of Americans correctly identified at least three of the five statements in each set. This result was not much better than random guessing. Twenty-five percent of Americans got most or all wrong. Far fewer Americans got all five correct.

A December Quinnipiac University Poll revealed that three out of four republicans believed the claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election despite no evidence. In the realm of media punditry or social media, one might hear that Antifa groups were responsible for the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Or that protestors were "zero threat" and were actually "hugging and kissing the police and guards." In our fragile hold on social reality, some Republican elected officials are attempting to revise the narrative of the Capitol assault, insinuating that rioters had been Antifa groups and Black Lives Matter. Law enforcement agencies have debunked such implausible assertions.

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Loss of Shared Reality

In a culture rife with misinformation and disinformation, the shared reality necessary for a democracy to function implodes. In such a fractured existence, conspiracy theories take root while people try to make sense of a confusing world. In particular, those who feel left behind or forgotten by society and government hunger for a narrative in their lives that makes sense. During these periods of heightened angst, demagogues lurk to exploit the public discontent.

When fact and fiction seemingly blend in a society, bizarre narratives arise. Power is not ingrained in the story's credibility but in how well it provides psychic relief and promises some form of redemption. In this world, masters of propaganda thrive. The influence of facts and logic diminishes into thumbnail size. A strange, new reality materializes whereby people believe elections are stolen though there's no evidence. People rebel against scientifically backed guidelines in a pandemic—mask-wearing becomes a threat to liberty rather than a means to saving lives; the coronavirus pandemic becomes a coverup to implant trackable microchips in the population. People believe an opposition party is a cabal of Satin-worshiping pedophiles, and everybody other than Us is the demonized enemy.

The virus of misinformation, better known today as fake news, is nothing new. History is replete with false news narratives, ranging from the outlandish, such as The New York Sun's "Great Moon Hoax" of 1835 making claims of alien life on the moon, to the horrific, such as Nazi anti-semitic propaganda. Modern media infrastructure unimaginably accelerates the speed at which information is spread, the magnitude of its influence, and the scope of its delivery.

Media Literacy Education, Public Health Warning Labels, Grassroots Projects, and (Oh My) Government Regulations

So great is the concern about media misinformation that half of Americans see it as a more significant threat than terrorism, illegal immigration, violent crime, or racism. If we can agree that misinformation spilling through our media and social network platforms threatens our survival as a nation, perhaps we can manage to work together to fight it. Or are we too polarized, too immersed in tribalism to even agree on the agreeable? Such a question may prove to be one of the most important of this century. The answer may very well determine whether democracy survives.

Pragmatic and creative interventions to combat misinformation already exist and await the hands of leadership and grassroots activists. Media literacy programs that might inoculate against virus misinformation are being envisioned in K-12 public schools. Teaching critical thinking that encompasses such skills as fact checking, source validation, discerning bias and propaganda. A 2019 Rand Report provided research supporting participant's increase in resiliency to disinformation after participating in media literacy programs.

A rather outside-the-box thinking has been the issuing of public warning labels to media punditry programs. For example, Joe Ferrulo, former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution, penned an insightful article, Cable 'News' Punditry Should Come With Warning Labels in which he focused on the crucial reality that many cable news viewers have trouble separating fact from opinion. If one argues that some form of public health warning for media punditry is absurd, then one must argue that it is ridiculous for a reasonable audience to believe Satanic, cannibalistic, child-trafficking pedophiles rule the world or that assaulting the Capitol based on media-amplified lies of a stolen election is absurd.

Small Davids confronting Goliaths of distortion are rising. Initiatives, such as Living Room Conversations, AllSides, CivilPolitics.org, Hi From the Other Side, Mismatch, and the Village Square, have a nonpartisan mission to encourage politically dissimilar Americans to interact respectfully. The goals are not to forcefully change the beliefs of the other, but through respectful interaction, come to realize what may have been lost, that we're all endowed with the face of humanity. 

As the public becomes more distressed by the toxicity of media misinformation, calls arise for tighter regulation of media sources. Giant media conglomerates control the bulk of information we see and hear, reducing the public’s exposure to diverse ideas and increasing exposure to bias. Efforts to de-monopolize these giants are in place but face tough battles. Reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine is being bandied, a policy that before its Reagan repeal in 1987 stressed diversity of opinions through public media. These are legislative quests that honor the sanctity of free speech but also understand that lies and distortions cloaked within the veil of the First Amendment can destroy the body politic. Ultimately, the reverberation of lies can “echo chamber” us to death.

To Act or Not

Fact and fiction blend dangerously in the modern media age. Disoriented by the confusing mix of information, we become numb to take action. But our nation’s greatest challenge may be to to confront the effusion of misinformation. Without the stabilizing force of a shared reality—a quest to honor truth—the tasks of meeting climate change, income inequality, immigration, racism and so on are reduced to theatrical pandering. Democracy dies.

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Neil Postman's words may be the most prophetic of our times: "When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility."

Most of us want the truth. In that shared desire there must dwell the energy to join hands and combat the misinformation virus. If not, wordlessness awaits.

Mack Green