After a majority of British voters stunned the political establishment on both sides of the Atlantic by voting to leave the European Union, the media quickly alighted on a narrative to reassure “Remain” partisans of their moral superiority: “Leave” voters, ignorant of the actual implications of their vote, were already regretting their decision en masse.
In August, we addressed the dangers of this kind of blind self-congratulation (which was never really supported by the data): “By trying to delegitimize votes for the likes of Trump, Le Pen, Wilders, and Grillo, or for causes such as Brexit or the Dutch referendum on Ukraine’s association agreement with the EU, as being the products either of external manipulation or of some other form of false consciousness, our elites are refusing to even countenance the underlying causes fueling these sentiments.”
Now that elites worldwide are reeling from Donald Trump’s presidential victory—”Brexit plus plus plus,” the candidate called it—a variation of this narrative is once again taking hold in liberal circles. This time, it’s centered on “fake news”—the idea that Trump’s victory can be chalked up to phony right-wing news websites, which allegedly had an outsize presence on social media networks in the run-up to the election. As with “Bregret,” the obvious implication is that the election of Donald Trump is not a real rejection of the cosmopolitan establishment, because if voters actually understood their options, they would not have elected him.
President Obama appears to be sold on a version of this theory. In a recent New Yorker profile, the outgoing president tells David Remnick that he believes the rise of fact-free right-wing outlets have created scorched-earth resistance to his common-sense agenda by manipulating cocooned conservative voters:
Obama and [his political director] talked almost obsessively about an article in BuzzFeed that described how the Macedonian town of Veles had experienced a “digital gold rush” when a small group of young people there published more than a hundred pro-Trump Web sites, with hundreds of thousands of Facebook followers. The sites had names like TrumpVision365.com and WorldPoliticus.com, and most of the posts were wildly sensationalist, recycled from American alt-right sites. If you read such sites, you learned that Pope Francis had endorsed Trump and that Clinton had actually encouraged Trump to run, because he “can’t be bought.”
The new media ecosystem “means everything is true and nothing is true,” Obama told me later. “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll. And the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal—that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.”
That marked a decisive change from previous political eras, he maintained.
The president has some important insights here. It’s true that the information revolution has changed the way people consume political news and contributed to polarization. It’s true that a handful of dominant magazines and broadcast networks no longer have as much control over the dissemination of information, or as much authority to decide which stories are “objectively true” and which are not. But the implied conclusion—that if Facebook tweaked its algorithms to replace sham publications with The New Tork Times, the rightness of establishment liberalism would suddenly become clear to voters—is deeply, dangerously misguided.
The “fake news” panic confuses cause and effect. Social media might inflame political divisions, but false and sensationalist news outlets aren’t bringing down postwar liberal norms so much as they are a product of those institutions’ weakness. Brooke Binkowski, the managing editor of Snopes, a leading fact-finding website, makes a version of this point in an interview with Backchannel: If the legacy media still had authority, fringe websites peddling fabricated clickbait would not be able to attain so much visibility.
“It’s not social media that’s the problem,” she says emphatically. “People are looking for somebody to pick on. The alt-rights have been empowered and that’s not going to go away anytime soon. But they also have always been around.”
The misinformation crisis, according to Binkowski, stems from something more pernicious. In the past, the sources of accurate information were recognizable enough that phony news was relatively easy for a discerning reader to identify and discredit. The problem, Binkowski believes, is that the public has lost faith in the media broadly — therefore no media outlet is considered credible any longer.
Polls show that trust in mainstream media has been falling steadily for two decades among people on both sides of the political divide. Donald Trump won in large part by appealing to this mistrust. And so long as the media simply blames this crisis of authority on the public’s intellectual inadequacy, its position is likely to weaken further.
Americans often forget that what we think of as the “mainstream media” structure is a distinctive phenomenon that arose in the wake of the Second World War. This period of high social trust and blue model corporate consolidation enabled a handful of outlets to set the tone of the national conversation. But it is hardly the norm for American history. In the early Republic, many of the founders were victims of libelous screeds circulated in the thriving tabloid industry; in the late 19th century, William Randolph Hearst’s sensationalist yellow journalism promoted the presidential candidacy of William Jennings Bryan. Periods of polarization and upheaval do not lend themselves to an all-powerful centrist press.
The populist earthquake rattling political establishments across the West is in large part about repealing the postwar liberal order: Cutting off globalization, dismantling the pan-European project, replacing egalitarian democracy with a kind of nationalistic authoritarian tendency. And just as the populists are exploiting weaknesses in political institutions and assumptions that have been taken for granted for decades, they are also exploiting the vulnerability of the stable legacy media system that supported them.
Both Brexit and Trump were manifestations of cascading failures of the governing elites of the Western world, who pushed too hard for universalistic values and grew fundamentally disconnected from their populations. Saving liberalism will require elite introspection and a deeper understanding of our current crisis of governance. Self-satisfied assurances that anti-establishment voters are clueless—that they didn’t understand the significance of their vote and will now change their minds, or that they could be educated if social media sites simply promoted the right news outlets—are borderline suicidal.