Jack Shafer of Politico has the best piece yet examining the post-election phenomenon of “fake news” panic—the idea, which spread rapidly among establishment figures in the wake of the election, that Americans were fooled en masse into voting for Donald Trump by nefarious propaganda, funded in part by the Russians. His key contribution is to highlight the elitism at the heart of this idea:
The shrillness of the propaganda debate reveals a deep distrust of citizens by the elites. The Ignatiuses and Stengels of media and government don’t worry about propaganda infecting them. Proud of their breeding and life experience, they seem confident they can decode fact from fiction. What they dread is propaganda’s effect on the non-elites, whom they paternalistically imagine believe everything they read or view. But they don’t. The idea that naïve and vulnerable audiences can be easily influenced by the injection of tiny but potent messages into their media feedbag was dismissed as bunk by social scientists as early as the 1930s and 1940s. According to what academics call the hypodermic needle theory (aka magic bullet theory, aka transmission-belt model), there is little evidence that the public was the defenseless prey of mini-doses of propagandists. Larger doses don’t seem to be very effective, either.
We noted earlier this week that elite media figures actually were fooled on a large scale by a fake story about fake news because it seemed to confirm their pre-existing assumptions. Everyone is vulnerable to misinformation and spin—to suspend disbelief when it is convenient to do so. As Shafer says, the self-righteous conceit behind the sudden preoccupation with fake news is that this tendency is somehow more pronounced among Trump voters than everyone else—indeed, that many people could only have voted for him because they were misinformed.
To be sure, sensationalist websites and tabloids and inflammatory social media accounts, often peddling falsehoods, have proliferated over the past few years, as the edifice once known as the “mainstream media” starts to lose authority. Part of this crackup is driven by technology: As it becomes cheaper to transmit information, and as the economy becomes more dynamic, the consolidated mainstream media companies that came into being after the Cold War are facing more and more competition.
But the collapse in public trust in the mainstream press is also driven by politics and social divides. Much of the public believes that big city reporters do not understand them or their way of life, and hold their values in contempt. And the degree of hysteria that media elites are exhibiting about “fake news,” and the rubes who were supposedly taken in, will only reinforce this perception further.