The Trump administration has spent the week bashing the media, or “Fake News” as he calls it, with attacks on CNN, the Washington Post, and “Fake News” in general. It’s been the theme of the week from both the POTUS himself, and his various surrogates. And impulsive as it may seem, I suspect that there is often times a method to his madness. And yet sometimes, there’s just madness.
Although discredited himself for plagiarism and material “recycling,” I still find that Jonah Lehrer, author of such bestselling books as “How We Decide” and “Proust was a Neuroscientist,” explains the method used by the Trump administration very well in his May 21 blog post titled, “Is Facebook Bad for Democracy.” Referencing a new paper by a team of Italian researchers at the IMT School for Advanced Studies …
“They began by identifying 413 different Facebook pages that could be sorted into one of two categories: Conspiracy or Science. Conspiracy pages were those that featured, in the delicate wording of the scientists, ‘alternative information sources and myth narratives—pages which disseminate controversial information, usually lacking supporting evidence and most often contradictory of the official news.’ Science pages, meanwhile, were defined as those having ‘the main mission of diffusing scientific knowledge.’”
“After just fifty interactions on YouTube and Facebook, most of these “independents” started watching videos exclusively from one side. Their diversity of opinions gave way to uniformity, their quirkiness subsumed by polarization. The filter bubble won. And it won fast.”
“Why does the online world encourage polarization? The scientists focus on two frequently cited forces. The most powerful force is confirmation bias, that tendency to seek out information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs. It’s much more fun to learn about why we’re right … than consider the possibility we might be wrong … Entire media empires have been built on this depressing insight.”
“The second force driving online polarization is the echo chamber effect. Most online platforms (such as the Facebook News Feed) are controlled by algorithms designed to give us a steady drip of content we want to see. That’s a benign aspiration, but what it often means in practice is that the software filters out dissent and dissonance … ‘Inside an echo chamber, the thing that makes people’s thinking evolve is the even more extreme point of view … So you become even more left-wing or even more right-wing.’ The end result is an ironic affliction: we are more certain than ever, but we understand less about the world.”
Clearly, the Trump administration’s messaging regarding “Fake News” enhances both confirmation bias and the echo chamber effect. Understanding the power of those phenomena may help explain why Trump’s approval ratings aren’t actually lower. Or perhaps it is when the President gets off message, as he did today by tweeting about Morning Joe’s Mika Brezinski, saying that she was ‘bleeding from a face lift,” the polarization that he engenders takes a hit
In a study by Maia Young and her colleagues at UCLA, they explored whether anger enhanced confirmation bias, or made people open their minds more. Surprisingly, the latter turned out to be the case. When in the throes of anger, one is in an antagonistic, nit-picking frame of mind. Add in an element of objectification, as Trump did with his “facelift” comment, and who knows how women who support him may respond?
Will they see cosmetic surgery (however untrue it may be in this case) as a perk of the media elite, thereby reinforcing Trump’s “Fake News” theme? Or will it, combined with this week’s “Nice Smile” comment to an Irish reporter, make female supporters reach an anger threshold that causes them to examine their beliefs more closely?
Since the President has well-documented history regarding women, I’m betting on the former.
But you never know.