evolving ecological media culture(s)

Truth, trust, and the election


While last week’s election has resulted in the announcement of a new president and vice-president, with leaders of many countries around the world recognizing those results (and with global markets rallying their apparent support), the current Trump administration has not recognized them. As with the debate over the scientific veracity of climate change, what we have with this election is two sides, each of which has decried the other as a source of disinformation.

President Trump and his proxies have repeatedly claimed to be victorious and accused the Democrats of “stealing” the election through massive “fraud,” with the “mainstream media” complicit, censorious, and biased in the Democrats’ favor. All of Trump’s supposed enemies—in the Democratic party, among Republican “never Trumpers,” in the media, and ensconced in various levels of government—are taken to make up a “deep state” that is untrustworthy, nefarious, and committed to stopping his administration from continuing what they have “started.”

On the other side, the election has been taken to be fair, having played itself out more or less according to expectations — with in-person balloting showing more support for Trump, and mail-in ballots, which in most states were counted later, showing significantly more support for Biden (albeit with pollster projections somewhat off, as in 2016). (One of the possible reasons suggested for that degree of polling error is QAnon; more on them below.) The fairness of the election, despite known challenges, has been confirmed by international observers. The margin of victory for Biden is clear and Trump’s protestations are taken to be largely or completely unfounded and intended to disinform the electorate and rile up his base of supporters. This interpretation has been more or less accepted by most major media organizations, with governments around the world supporting it through their congratulatory statements to the Biden-Harris team.

As with the issue of climate change (and to some degree with Covid-19), the questions surrounding these election results, especially for media attempting to cover those results, are therefore: which side should we trust, and why? Is there a factual basis for deciding between them, or should both sides be given “equal air time,” with voters and observers being left to “make up their own minds”?

Media responses to this dilemma have varied. Among traditional broadcast media, some, such as Fox News, have attempted to air “both sides,” with select hosts (such as Trump supporters Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Laura Ingraham) emphasizing the pro-Trump side, but with some commentators airing skepticism. Most media, however, including the “big three” longstanding broadcast networks (NBC, CBS, ABC) as well as MSNBC and PBS, have aired both arguments, but effectively “normalized” the “fair election” and “Biden victory” narratives. All have provided justifications for why they should do that.

A case in point: all major networks with the exceptions of CNN and Fox News cut away from President Trump’s Thursday evening “stolen election” speech to provide immediate fact checks, effectively disallowing him from airing his grievances in toto (which the Trump campaign later called censorship). Most major media, national as well as international, have continued to fact-check Trump’s “fraud” narrative to show that his claims have been “dishonest” and poorly founded or completely unfounded. Several media outlets created pages to track “viral misinformation” during the election and post-election process. The New York Times’ “Tracking Viral Misinformation” page is emblematic of these, covering claims (almost all of them pro-Trump) with detailed critical responses.

All of this marks a partial shift from how the major media covered the election in 2016. If we extend the climate change coverage analogy, the equivalent in climate change coverage might be that prominent climate deniers would be cut off when making their most egregious claims, their voices substituted by news anchors summarizing the latest consensus findings of the IPCC and other scientific organizations. (Question for consideration: How well does that analogy hold? And might the networks have learned something from their previous “equal time” coverage of issues like climate change and, more recently, the pandemic?)

Meanwhile, social media, including Twitter and Facebook, which typically provide a forum for any speech, have attempted to be more “hands on” than they were in 2016, with Twitter labeling and effectively demoting many posts by the president and his followers, and Facebook (in the initial stages) providing indicators that the election has not yet been called. Still, content considered to be dangerously disinformative has spread widely through social media.

Debates over social media regulation will undoubtedly continue, as will the efforts of (dis)information warriors to spread conspiratorial memes and narratives. For instance, while its supposed leader “Q” has remained silent all week, QAnon followers have been actively discussing options including possible armed defense of President Trump. (See Q watcher Marc-André Argentino’s Twitter feed for a taste of that, or just follow the QAnon threads in forums of the QAnon network and of the critical/skeptical subreddits of “Qult” watchers and QAnon “casualties.”)

A good overview of election week media coverage can be found in the segments on this past week’s On the Media. Diversity in media coverage can also easily be followed in Google News and more specialized web sites, like the Pew Research Center’s daily media news briefing. Ostensibly non-partisan web sites, from PolitiFact, The Columbia Journalism Review’s The Kicker, and Snopes to the intentionally spectrum-straddling AllSides, continue to fact-check as well as contextualize major claims and narratives surrounding the election. (It’s not always acknowledged that the late-night comedy world also has its political spectrum, but this week’s reports from Trevor Noah, Seth Meyers, SNL, and especially the emotional Stephen Colbert are worth watching, even if there are no name-brand conservative comedians to “balance” one’s diet with.)

All of this makes the question about the changing role of media today very incisive. What, if anything, should media outlets do to fact-check, demote, dispute, and/or censor political speech that is aimed to disinform or even provoke potential violence? How should the different sides in an epistemologically unequal debate be treated? And how do we measure that epistemological inequality, on issues from climate change and pandemic science to empirically verifiable evidence of electoral behavior?

At a time when information flows freely, even chaotically, in so many forms — many of them disinforming, misinforming, or malinforming — both traditional and digital media are struggling to create economically viable systems of functioning. (I’m tempted to say they are “flailing around,” to echo Anderson Cooper’s controversial but colorful metaphor for Trump’s behavior this week. The president may be doing that right now, but haven’t media been doing it for years?)

Some observers have begun wondering how a Biden election will affect the media ecosystem. The New York Times’ media columnist Ben Smith calls this the “end of an era,” arguing that conservative media will be “energized” even as media undergo further soul-searching under pressure from the digital economy. Assuming the Biden victory is accepted without armed or other kinds of confrontation, we will still face the question of how to make sense of the Trump presidency. Will it end up being a brief interregnum between periods of what Thomas Kuhn might call the “normal science” of political bureaucracy, or is it indicative of deeper and less resolvable shifts in technology, economy, politics, and culture?

I’ve already expressed my view that QAnon will not only not go away (at least in its larger cultural impacts), but that it is a harbinger of the kinds of mixes of politics, culture, and religiosity that we can expect in an era of dramatic socio-ecological challenges and convulsive media-technological shifts. The arrival of a post-Trump era may temper us momentarily, but we will be lucky if it does serve as an interregnum between one crisis (of disinformation, polarization, and coronavirus) and the next.

Meanwhile, for those who aren’t convinced that Trumpism is on its way down, at least temporarily, Richard Hall’s “I saw Donald Trump’s presidency come crashing down at the Four Seasons Total Landscaping” may provide much needed inspiration (with its architectural perfection echoed here). Reasons for pessimism are, of course, easy to find as well.

And for those who’ve had enough of election coverage, there’s the New York Times’ election distractor web site. Everyone deserves a little election stress relief.

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