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Bias, outrage and extremism percolate in partisan information bubbles

  • FILE - In this Jan. 6, 2021 file photo, a supporter of President Donald Trump gathers to protest in solidarity in Salem, Ore. Statehouses where Trump loyalists have rallied since the Nov. 3 election are heightening security after the storming of the U.S. Capitol this week. Police agencies in a number of states are monitoring threats of violence as legislatures return to session and as the nation prepares for the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. (AP Photo/Paula... Paula Bronstein

  • Newsmax has made inroads by capitalizing on conservative frustration with Fox News. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford Jabin Botsford

  • Police stand guard after a day of riots at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) Julio Cortez

  • Supporters of President Trump face off against police at a rally in front of the California State Capitol building on January 6, 2021, in Sacramento, California. The supporters chanted and yelled QAnon conspiracies at counter-protesters claiming the election results were fraudulent. (John Goodman/ZUMA Wire/TNS) John Goodman

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/9/2021 10:24:32 PM
Modified: 1/9/2021 10:32:06 PM

Back in 2012, which in political terms was roughly 60 years ago, Jason Barabas co-authored a paper titled “Partisan Perceptual Bias and the Information Environment.”

Its findings, published in The Journal of Politics years before anyone could have envisioned a mob egged on by a sitting president breaking into the halls of the Capitol hoping to derail certification of the Electoral College vote, now sound grimly familiar.

“It is, in a word, easy to learn politically congenial facts, and this tendency only becomes greater as media coverage of a topic increases,” Barabas, who in July became the director of Dartmouth College’s Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy, co-wrote with Jennifer Jerit, now a professor in Dartmouth’s government department.

What’s more, even if people who identify as Democrats or Republicans are presented with information sources that run counter to their views, and even if they try to absorb it, they will “scrutinize, counterargue, and reject such information flows. This implies that any increase in media coverage will be nullified and result in little (or no) learning.”

The paper itself is dense with statistics, meant to be read by other academics, but its conclusion — that more news coverage of a political issue appears to heighten a viewer’s political biases — does not bode well for civic life at a time when millions of people believe that the presidential election was stolen and that the QAnon conspiracy theory is true.

Since that study came out, social media and search engine news feeds have made the problem worse, as algorithms present stories to readers based on what they already click on. Partisan news sites — Breitbart, Newsmax, One America News Network and many others on the right; Huffington Post, Now This News, Truthout and many others on the left — have proliferated to the point that readers or viewers often inhabit information bubbles, in which their opinions are constantly reinforced by new information that conforms to their partisan leanings. Debate is less about finding solutions than about scoring points.

The Upper Valley is no stranger to this phenomenon, where some people have grown so attached to their partisanship that they are willing to believe any falsehood that aligns with their beliefs. A Claremont resident outside the polls on Election Day told a reporter that Hillary Clinton was a murderer, a reference to the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi that left four Americans dead while she was secretary of state in 2012. Belief that Joe Biden’s win in the presidential election was fraudulent is also commonplace, despite no evidence of fraud and the reassurance of public figures across the political spectrum — a belief that came to a frightening, deadly head in the Capitol last week.

People are primed to believe falsehoods and conspiracy theories. In 2017, journalist Kurt Andersen wrote about how America’s bent toward magical thinking had led to the “current post-truth moment,” in an article in The Atlantic titled “How America Lost Its Mind.”

“The American experiment,” Andersen wrote, “the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control.”

A partisan history

Barabas pointed out that the country has been here before. In the late 1700s, the press was largely partisan, and the young nation struggled to overcome the constant flood of biased reports. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were meant in part to censor the partisan press of the era, Barabas said. Those acts were short-lived, as voters quickly turned against the Federalists, who had passed the laws and elected their opponents.

The present strength of partisanship, misinformation and political hatred has origins in the 1950s and ’60s, when American power was at its height and details began to come to light about how much the government kept secret from the public.

Dartmouth anthropology professor Dale Eickelman taught a course at Dartmouth called “Secrecy and Lying in Law, Politics and Society.” He looked back to Sen. Joseph McCarthy. “He would use things where people would assume probity,” Eickelman said. “He would say, ‘I have here a list of 1,229 people in the armed forces who are communists.’ ” It wasn’t true, we now know, but it was an attention-getting display of power, one that was ultimately dispelled in public.

The 1960s brought the Civil Rights movement and a reckoning over the Vietnam War, as Andersen recounted.

“For all the fun and all the many salutary effects of the 1960s — the main decade of my childhood — I saw that those years had also been the big-bang moment for truthiness,” Andersen wrote, referring to a word coined by comedian Stephen Colbert in 2004 to describe something that seems to be true, even if it may not be. (That was the same year, Andersen noted, that Republican political consultant Karl Rove referred to “the reality-based community,” and said that proposing solutions based on careful observation was “not the way the world really works anymore.”)

The 1960s gave way to the paranoid ’70s, which saw the 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal, episodes that eroded faith in government and elevated the power of news media.

Then, in 1987, the Federal Communications Commission did away with the Fairness Doctrine, a 1949 rule that required broadcasters to present controversial issues from multiple viewpoints. That paved the way for openly partisan news networks, such as Fox News and MSNBC. Barabas and Jerit, who are married, are working on a paper about the Fairness Doctrine and whether it stifled or aided media diversity.

What seems clear, though, is that ending the Fairness Doctrine enabled our current partisan media environment. There are calls now and again to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, but “it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle,” Barabas said.

Charles Perkins, the former executive editor at the New Hampshire Union Leader, now retired in Enfield, has watched this atmosphere develop and called it “a major problem.”

“People are comfortable in their social and cultural bubbles, and they seek out media that’s attuned to their cultural and political beliefs,” Perkins said in a phone interview. The explosion of media sources over the past 50 years has left people swimming in a turbulent sea of news, commentary, opinion and entertainment.

Days of outrage

There used to be a limited number of voices: major newspapers, evening news broadcasts anchored by the likes of Walter Cronkite. Most of those sources represented the center of political thought, or were slightly left of center.

Now, outrage is the order of the day.

“The Trump era has been dispiriting,” Perkins said.

He’s seen many people who have refused to analyze the administration’s policies because they can’t get past Trump’s persona, he said, while Trump’s supporters have often accepted without question any absurd claim he makes.

“They’re trusting their gatekeepers ... and not using common sense,” Perkins said.

Information bubbles might not be as big a problem as pure partisanship. In a paper he co-wrote, another Dartmouth political scientist, Brendan Nyhan, argues that concern about media “echo-chambers” is real, but overstated. “Only a subset of Americans are devoted to a particular outlet or set of outlets; others have more diverse information diets,” sayd he paper, published by the Knight Foundation.

Though in a Washington Post column on the same subject, Nyhan concluded that “the challenge is not that most people don’t see the truth — it’s that partisanship undermines accountability. Americans are all too willing to forgive political falsehoods from partisans on their side of the aisle.”

And Margo Baldwin, president and publisher at Chelsea Green Publishing in White River Junction, said she sees the censoring of social media and other forms of free expression as a graver danger than any ideological bubbles people might put themselves in.

“I think we’re in a bad spot,” she said. “We can’t talk to each other.”

Online media seems made less for discussion and more for sensation, which drives page views and therefore revenue. Even if there are politicians who want to foster conversation about the pressing issues of the day, “I don’t think they know what to do about it, either,” Baldwin said.

The internet outrage has had an effect on book publishing. Chelsea Green is going to publish a book by feminist author Naomi Wolf that was dropped by Houghton Mifflin after an online campaign by a British author who called her scholarship into question.

Baldwin said her company’s thinking is that they publish books, not authors. An author might not be a perfect person, but they might write a worthy book.

“Our ethic is you decide on the book to publish,” she said.

On that basis, she said, the decision last week by publisher Simon & Schuster to drop publication of a book by U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., was wrong, even though Hawley led the objections to the certification of Joe Biden as the next president on Wednesday.

“I would not do that,” she said.

Baldwin said she doesn’t see any way to bring the nation together.

“There is a serious, deep divide in this country. It’s almost completely divided in half,” she said, and the coronavirus pandemic only makes it worse by keeping many people at home.

Levar Cole sees sources of hope, though. After earning an undergraduate degree in criminal justice and public policy from Radford University, and a master’s in public policy from George Mason University, Cole worked in policy roles at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and at the Department of Homeland Security. He and his wife and kids now live in Chelsea, where he is a member of the Selectboard. He ran for the Vermont House as a Republican last year, losing in the primary.

As a conservative, he has been in classrooms where he had no ideological allies. He recalled a lecture by Mark Brzezinski, who later served as ambassador to Sweden during the Obama administration. “He said, ‘George Bush can’t get reelected against John Kerry,’ ” Cole recalled. He felt Brzezinski wasn’t taking values into account, (though, to be fair, he might not have taken the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” into account, either).

Cole’s point, particularly after the storming of the Capitol last week: “When people tell you that there’s discontent, whether you believe them or not, take them at their word.” People are talking about a civil war, he said. “If people are saying there’s a civil war, then you have to ask, ‘What’s so bad?’ ”

Instead, what happens is we say that people are crazy and write them off, he said.

“We think we’re all rational actors,” he pointed out, but everyone has beliefs that push them to act.

Cole’s reading habits take him above the fray. He was recently reading to his kids, ages 8, 9 and 11, a piece of funeral oration by the Athenian statesman Pericles.

“One of the things that always stood out to me was the Athenian chastisement of people who aren’t involved in politics,” he said. They were regarded as useless.

“We’re all obliged as part of citizenship to do what we can to guarantee the future of the republic,” Cole said.

He also shuns social media. That might be part of the solution, and there are others.

Perkins said local news coverage needs strengthening. Without an understanding of how one’s hometown and state governments function, “it’s hard for people to have the savvy to understand national issues,” he said.

Education is also important, according to Eickelman, the Dartmouth anthropology professor.

“The long-term issue is to really take more seriously what we mean by civics education and how we run things,” he said, adding, “The way our values are sustained is by engaging them with the issues of the day.”

Cole got rid of his family’s television a couple of months ago. He said he wonders how the important conversations about key issues are going to take place while so many of us are sequestered by the pandemic.

“We all have an obligation to each other to talk about it,” he said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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