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'Fake News' and Hyperpartisanship
Making sense of how an honest perspective can be hijacked by false narrative and confirmation bias.
Welcome to the Self-Evident newsletter. About a week and a half ago, I mentioned on Twitter that I’d recently written an essay about fake news, confirmation bias, and false narratives centered on my own experience with several viral articles I’d written earlier this year about leaving the Republican Party. I promised to share it as part of a future issue of this newsletter as soon as my professor was done with it. As promised, here it is (only slightly gussied up from its more academic form).
‘Fake News’ and Hyperpartisanship
In the era of social media, the term “fake news” has come to dominate our political discussions. It is variously used to describe nonfactual posts and articles that spread in viral moments, headlines designed as purposeful “click-bait,” or content created by biased media sources under the cloak of neutrality.
There has been a lot of discussion about the rise of “fake news” in recent years, and many observers have posited theories as to what it truly is, why it gains traction, and how it spreads. Many of the chief theories conclude that hyperpartisanship is an underlying factor of the phenomenon. But, I would take such a hypothesis further.
I suggest that hyperpartisanship is the underlying problem, that the “fake news” phenomenon is only one aspect of hyperpartisanship, and that hyperpartisanship is so virulent it can take something that isn’t even actually “fake news” and turn it towards fodder for false narrative and confirmation basis.
I have often observed that America has slid into extreme hyperpartisanship that has severely poisoned the well of political dialogue and, indeed, the whole fabric of American society. My unique experience as a conservative who opposed the nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate in 2016 and who has continued to speak out against the many things he did and said over the course of his presidency, that I strongly disagreed with, has revealed to me the ugly and pervasive nature of dysfunction in American politics.
I’ve lost friends, I’ve had strained relationships with acquaintances and family, and I’ve faced a constant slew of hate from erstwhile political allies as I’ve spoken my conscience and gotten more and more engaged in both political activity and amateur punditry.
But all the while, I’ve continued to face equal derision from Democratic partisans who still consider my conservative philosophy as not only misguided but evil, wrongminded, and a threat. My non-Trump but still solidly conservative stances on social media and in my writing often get me labeled as a Communist by the Right and a Fascist by the Left, often simultaneously.
However, my unique position in this political moment has made me acutely aware of the power of narratives and confirmation bias. If I write an article that’s critical of Donald Trump or the Republican Party, the reality of a conservative viewpoint openly opposing Trump gets my viewpoint spread far and wide by my left-leaning readers and social media followers, but incurs the wrath of many right-leaning readers and social media followers. When I write an article that’s critical of the Democratic Party or progressive philosophy and policy, the situation flips.
Neither side of this partisan divide considers that if they appreciate my insights as reasonable and considered in one aspect that perhaps it may be reasonable and considered in others. Instead, it all comes down to whether or not the article (and, more specifically, the headline) confirms the correct biases and aids in the correct narrative.
The best example of this are two articles I wrote at the beginning of the year, the first when I was considering leaving the Republican Party over the impeachment proceedings in the US Senate and the second when I determined to actually leave it. Combined, the articles were read 9,340 times, and the tweets and posts related to them were liked, shared, retweeted, and commented on over 40,000 times.
But in the aftermath of the recent election, I vocally rejoined the Republican Party and called for re-engagement instead of disengagement in order to renew an important political institution towards healthy political dialogue and vision. Consequently, many of the same voices that trumpeted my stance earlier in the year now lump me right in with the rest of the conservative movement who they deride as racist, fascist, and forever stained by their support for Donald Trump.
Most revealing is how my ability to track visitors to my articles allowed me to see that my article was being reshared, retweeted, and commented on far more than it was being read. My initial elation that my perspective was being so widely shared and discussed turned into dismay as I realized what was going viral wasn’t the words of my articles but the headline's message, namely that a conservative left the Republican Party over Donald Trump. This fed the narrative that the actions of Senate Republicans during the impeachment doomed the party to electoral destruction (a narrative the election results demonstrated as untrue).
Lost in translation was my reason for leaving the Republican Party, which was both to signal a warning to the Utah Republican Party that if they tried to recall Mitt Romney over his vote to remove Donald Trump from office, they would likely face similar defections from the party and also in hopes that such a vocal defection might wake up Republican leaders to the increasingly narrow constituency that was resulting from lock-step support of Donald Trump.
My motivation was to wake up Republicans and encourage them to preserve the vestiges of dignity the party still had and point towards a renewal of principle and future Republican success. Instead, my message, based solely on the headline, became part of a completely different narrative.
While my articles weren’t “fake news” per se, they effectively became so because it fed a false narrative contrary to the actual premise of their content. This is where I would suggest a further expansion of the typical “fake news” hypothesis.
The “fake news” phenomenon isn’t the crux of the problem; the hyperpartisanship is. This isn’t something that’s going to go away simply by encouraging people to be more conscientious of what they share on social media or talk about with their friends.
There was nothing inherently fake about my articles or their headlines. My perspective was an honest one, and I sent it out into the universe in good faith. The problem wasn’t with what I wrote or what I tried to communicate; it was with how it was received and perceived by voracious hyperpartisans looking for an anecdote to feed their appetite for the destruction of a political institution they despised.
Ultimately, the issue is with the political decay in American society that has resulted from weakened political institutions, serial misinformation and lack of foundational political knowledge, and the surrendering of the ideals of pluralism and the free market of ideas by those who instead seek total victory for their positions through electoral victory and the marginalization of disparate political attitudes.
Across the political spectrum, politics has become zero-sum. Whether it’s Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or progressives, leadership or rank-and-file members, the position that has been embraced is, “I only win when they lose. I only have lasting victory when they have lasting defeat. My values only survive if their values are destroyed.”
The “fake news” phenomenon is simply another surface symptom of the far deeper disease eating away at America’s domestic tranquility. We will only secure the future of America’s free society by getting to the root cause of the problem.
We must re-engage with each other and with the institutions that determine leadership and distribute power. We must re-educate our fellow citizens on the value of the free-market of ideas and the philosophical depth behind our form of government. And we must renew the American Dream, the American Spirit, and recommit to the ideals of pluralism and a cultural goal, not of dominance, but of coexistence.
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