Fake News and Tribalism: Your Team Does It, Too

| by Malhar Mali |

I can’t be the first person to have noticed that whenever someone makes a political statement more often than not it’s met with the dismissive response: “Oh, that’s something a Democrat would say,” or “that’s the line of thinking a Republican would adopt.”

Take for example if I said, “Trump’s recent Executive Order or ‘Muslim Ban’ isn’t the same thing as what Barack Obama did in 2011. Stop using that as a defense,” in a room full of Republican diehards, I’d probably be admonished as some type of “liberal snowflake” who could not handle the tough measures that need to be taken to protect America.

Conversely, If I said: “Obama has been a foreign policy disaster. His administration’s refusal to take action in the Middle East has led to the blossoming of ISIS,” in a room full of devoted Democratic Party voters, truth aside, I’d probably be castigated as some type of conservative hick who’s watched too much Fox News.

Here lies one of our problems: instead of first asking whether a statement is true or not, whether it’s possible or provable, we’re fine with branding it as representative of some type of political camp — and then banishing it on those terms. I’m not speaking about everyone, but a sizeable portion of our population engages in this behavior. The thought is, “What my team says has to be true and what their team says has to be false.”

This blind team picking, posturing has morphed into a caveman “us good, they bad” attitude complete with a knuckle dragging inability to entertain an opposing view as true. Instead of analyzing a statement we search for its accompanying features which might lend us its political allegiance.

When we see a piece of information that contradicts our worldview we scrutinize for who’s published it, who’s saying it, and why they might be representing information in a certain manner — and then dismiss it on those terms (some don’t even do the scrutinizing). It can be argued that this in itself is a good practice, that of recognizing the quality and credibility of sources, but my point is that we rarely to never engage in this behavior for our own information outlets.

Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory lends an interesting insight here:

According to cognitive dissonance theory, there is a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions (i.e., beliefs, opinions). When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance.”

We see this in our own behavior. We seek consistencies in the information that we receive — and we search for information which we believe to be true. Which is why we pushback against information that bursts our narrative. Most of us do not actively seek out contrary sources.

Cognitive dissonance is an apt way to describe this phenomenon but adding tribalism creates a better understanding. We are rarely able to accept evidence on an issue that would change our minds because that’s not what our tribe is supposed to believe or stand for. A dissonance arises when alternative information, including facts, disrupts our tribal narrative. This type of posturing becomes even more inflammatory when each side believes they have the higher moral ground, resulting in a collection of self-righteous arguments and attacks.

When it comes to politics, this mindset is throwing our heavily digitized population into wild disarray. Tribalism isn’t a new phenomenon, but it’s being exacerbated by social media: 140 character long bursts, a skim over an article headline, an “angry” reaction on a Facebook post all lend their weight to increasing the “us” vs. “them” mindset.

Social media is especially dangerous because it allows us to virtue signal to our selected tribes, recruit partisans on an unprecedented scale, and to form deep echo chambers (or have them formed by the algorithms which dictate what we see).

Jonathan Haidt, professor of Moral Psychology at NYU, recently noted:

It’s troubling how quickly outrage spreads today — from both sides. Progressives and conservatives duke it out in the comments section of an article while trying to convince one another they’re wrong. Instead of searching for what actually is, they try to convince each other to their own positions. It’s rarely a truth seeking activity.

This tribal mindset also flourishes in our media and how we react to articles and statements. The recent trend I’ve noticed: the excessive use of the term “Fake News.” Both sides of the aisle are now labeling anything that doesn’t fit their narrative as “Fake News.” The question then begs to be asked, what exactly is fake news? Mathematician Eric Weinstein’s “Fake News Theory” offers four types:

Weinstein is a wealth of information on this matter but of particular interest to me are those who believe their team doesn’t engage in “Fake News” — or narrative driven reporting and positioning of statements. For example, accepting Weinstein’s definitions of “Fake News,” the most extreme Brietbart reader will label the New York Times and the Wall Street Journals as “globalist sponsored rags” or with a similar type of label all the while forgetting that the content they’re reading has been highly altered by some vicious editorial staff and guidelines.

But the devout New York Times reader will also happily read along believing they’re at the epicenter of factual reporting while ignoring the rhetorical moves writers make to drive particular narratives in the Times. I’m not saying we need to apply the same level of scrutiny that we might apply to Brietbart or Mother Jones to the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, but If you know anyone who seriously thinks they’re not being fed talking points — guided what to think — I advise you to advise them they are. Understanding the rhetorical angles and narratives a news organization wants you to believe is essential in uncovering its ideological positions.

Why is this important? Because “Fake News” is only going to get worse. We can expect so especially around politically polarized times. Nick Bilton covered this idea in Vanity Fair, where he noted that progressions in technology — things like voice alteration, video editing — are going to get so advanced and easily accessible that it wouldn’t be far fetched to doctor a clip in which Donald Trump voices his pleasure at those infamous Golden Showers. Headlines and articles will assuage the concerns we might have with “our side” all the while expounding and hyping the minuscule mistakes and miscalculations of the other.

Intellectual honesty is the key to breaking free from this tribalism and the primitive mindset of “us good, they bad.” When something fits our narrative or makes us happy, that is when we should pause to assess (See Trump and Golden Showers). This is especially relevant given the climate we’re about to enter. Donald Trump’s presidency is a gold mine for both political sides of the media. There will be groups that make mountains out of molehills and groups that will blatantly ignore his dangerous blunders and decisions. Ultra-progressive outlets will cry wolf and ultra-conservative outlets will laugh at progressive reactions further perpetuating a deranged cycle of anger and mob fury and increasing polarization.

Donald Trump is dangerous enough, and lies enough, for criticism of him to be legitimate. It’s an important point to note with Trump, Spicer, and Conway engaging in blatant falsifications and outright lying.

Tribalism certainly served it’s purpose in the advancement of our species but today it’s slowing down and impinging our discourse. When we begin to hold the truth as contemptible and as something “the other team would say” then we’re headed for murky waters. To not identify with a side or team goes against our very instincts but we need to label statements as whether they are true or false and not meet them with the mindset of “that’s something a liberal would say,” or “that’s something a conservative would say.” We should stop picking teams and start caring about the truth — and if we have to pick a team it should be that of those who pursue the truth.

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Malhar Mali writes about secularism, human rights, politics, and culture. He is the Editor at Areo. You can connect with him on Twitter @MalharMali

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Header Photo: Edwin Andrade

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