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As 2020 Election Approaches, Media Literacy Is More Important Than Ever

Authors Mickey Huff and Nolan Higdon discuss the history of media manipulation in the U.S.

President Trump talks to members of the press on the South Lawn of the White House, August 23, 2019.

Part of the Series

As we approach the 2020 presidential election in the U.S., it is necessary to examine how corporate media coverage of Donald Trump paved the way for some of Trump’s greatest media manipulations. We must also recognize that media manipulation, while in certain ways unique to Trump, has a long history within the U.S. In this interview, Mickey Huff and Nolan Higdon, authors of United States of Distraction: Media Manipulation in Post-Truth America (And What We Can Do About It), discuss that history and what we can do to fight against disinformation.

Samantha Borek: What role have education policies — such as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act and lack of computer literacy programs — played in disseminating misinformation?

Mickey Huff and Nolan Higdon: About four decades ago, many countries in Europe and Asia implemented comprehensive, age-appropriate media literacy education programs. The U.S. simply did not. Now, media outlets, politicians and the citizenry in the U.S. are struggling to catch up on media literacy-related affairs under the guise of fighting the phenomenon of “fake news,” especially after the 2016 election. One of the issues here is that while the phrase “fake news” is a more recent one in the political lexicon, it is hardly a new concept. Fake news is misinformation, disinformation and propaganda. But under the moniker of fake news, it caused a reaction in the public, where over half the electorate believe it is a serious problem, which spurred Congress to urge major media and tech companies to do something about it. It is under this guise of fighting fake news that media literacy has been advanced as the next trend in education.

Perhaps that is a good thing, at least in theory. However, in practice, many of these new media literacy efforts are spearheaded by corporations — such as Sony, Facebook, Google and Nickelodeon (a “kid-friendly” company underneath Viacom) — with a goal of normalizing digital mass media usage rather than teaching students how to critically interact with these technologies and mitigate their potentially pernicious influence. In other words, the recent efforts to increase media literacy in the U.S. have more to do with encouraging use of certain gadgets, products and brands rather than bolstering critical thinking skills and best digital media practices. The efforts have even included forms of censorship online, under the guise of curating and vetting information, where corporate and national security/surveillance industrial complex-backed entities like NewsGuard attempt to tell users what is and is not reliable news with a rating system that totally lacks transparency or rational explanation. Further, social media companies have engaged in deplatforming websites and user pages that often challenge dominant narratives and the status quo, both on the right and left. These measures are dangerous for numerous reasons, including that they act to outsource critical thinking.

United States of Distraction
United States of Distraction, 2019.

Similarly, NCLB shifted our education system away from a more critical pedagogy that focuses on civic literacy to more of a “fill-and-drill” model, one that trains people to be dutiful workers or more obedient and habitual consumers. Whomever determined what was on the tests symbiotically drove the curriculum, thus denoting what was important information, and by default, what was not, which is another form of censorship. Spoiler alert: Those in charge were not teachers or students, they were from the corporate world, the tech sector and advocates of private charter schools. NCLB sought to have students memorize information, take tests, and regurgitate rather than learn to think critically and independently.

Overall, this has made students more vulnerable to misinformation and more reluctant to consider ideas with which they are unfamiliar. The seminal Stanford History Education Group study, which began in 2015 and was published just after the 2016 election, showed that a significant number of students struggled to judge the credibility of online content in particular. We advocate for a “critical” media literacy that explores the power dynamics behind the political economy of media and teaches critical thinking while promoting civic engagement. We believe this will better serve our students than the techno-utopian pedagogy offered by the corporate education advocates and the aforementioned big tech sector.

How has confirmation bias on our news feeds ushered in a “post-truth” era?

While the Oxford dictionary declared “post-truth” as the word of the year in late 2016 (defined as, “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”), we don’t accept that such an era actually exists, and that truth still matters.

The problem facing American society is that citizens struggle to discern facts from falsehoods, news from propaganda. Confirmation bias is a natural human proclivity, but the algorithms in social media and search engines collect data to ascertain and feed our interests, likes and dislikes, and they act to further support what amounts to a “post-truth” sensibility. Social media platforms and search engines use data to promote content that support user viewpoints because studies show people will keep clicking if their views are reinforced and remain unchallenged. The goal of technology companies is to keep users on screens (especially on social media pages and particular apps) where users are sharing data, looking at advertisements and purchasing items. By having worldviews reinforced, people remain contented and continue to click. However, the problem is that as many become more confident in their views, the more they are reinforced online, despite readily available evidence that may contradict them. Further, the memetic rise of “fake news” as a weaponized concept brought with it the normalization of so-called “alternative facts,” which in turn buttressed a “post-truth” worldview, sustained in a perpetual feedback loop of hyper-partisan, media-siloed, filter bubbles that reinforced confirmation bias, fueled by motivated reasoning and inferred justification.

Explain how Twitter offered Donald Trump a unique avenue in controlling his image and diverting the attention of corporate media to avoid political accountability.

Much like the radio for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” and television for President Ronald Reagan, known as “The Great Communicator,” Trump figured out how to optimize a now-digital and social media age to his political advantage. Trump’s team recognized that decades of conservative attacks against the press (such as labeling them derisively as the “liberal media”) coupled with a lack of news literacy programs in the American education system, along with the simultaneous gutting of investigative journalism, left many Americans ignorant about what even constituted news and journalism. In fact, many conflate social media, which are advertising and data collection/surveillance companies, with news outlets. Trump tapped into this ignorance, branding his Twitter feed as a news source to counter the “fake” news media. He uses sensationalistic stories and claims both in person and on social media (like claiming that Obama was not born in the U.S.) as a means to draw attention to his brand and social media feed. Soon, users, especially partisan ones, depended upon his feeds for information, making an end run around the so-called Fourth Estate. We found one 2018 study that showed Republicans overwhelmingly trusted Trump over professional journalists for accurate news (another exercise in confirmation bias).

That said, major news outlets have been somewhat complacent, performing a lazy, passive form of journalism where they start the news day by breaking down the latest from Trump’s Twitter feed, sometimes for hours, with analysts and fact-checkers endlessly speculating. All this does is allow Trump to control the news cycle, distract the media away from other substantive issues, and gain further support and attention, not to mention more likes, clicks and shares on social media.

How did hyper-partisanship in corporate media during the 2016 election prove to aid Donald Trump?

Hyper-partisanship has increasingly shaped American politics and attitudes toward the press in the past half-century. Going back to at least the early 1970s, with Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, the notion of a “liberal media” was used to allow conservatives to deny inconvenient facts in the news media and seek out a confirmation bias, filter-bubbled media ecosystem of its own.

This strategy to combat and counter public institutions (like the free press and education) by creating privately controlled ones that had a conservative, pro-market bent, was further outlined in the Lewis Powell Memo of 1971 (Nixon later appointed Powell to the Supreme Court). It was too difficult to convince the American public to adopt such an economic vision because it benefited the few at the expense of the many. So instead, some more radical conservatives worked to discredit those that exposed the intellectual weaknesses of their ideology, such as the free press, whom they labeled the “liberal media” and later “fake news,” which Trump attacked as “the enemy of the American people.”

The lack of public trust in journalism was further worsened with the advent of hyper-partisan news outlets, such as Fox News and Breitbart on the right and MSNBC and The Huffington Post on the more liberal end of the ideological spectrum. This has helped foster an epistemological crisis where people don’t know whom to trust in many ways, which drives them to challenge the validity of certain news stories based on their potential political implications rather than their underlying factual evidence.

During the 2016 election, there was lopsided coverage of the candidates, particularly Bernie Sanders. His campaign events often weren’t covered in favor of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton — and more so in Trump’s favor. How has this shifted somewhat as we go into the 2020 election cycle, particularly in the Democratic candidate field?

It has not shifted at all. The corporate press has still chosen Biden, Warren and Trump for the majority of coverage despite the largest fundraising and crowds coming from Bernie Sanders. Even the so-called public media exercise such exclusion. NPR’s “Morning Edition” recently ran a lead segment on the famous Liberty and Justice Celebration in Iowa where Democratic contenders volley for pole position (where Obama broke out of the pack with an influential speech in 2008). Sanders, who is one of the top candidates in the running, wasn’t mentioned at all. A lot of attention to Biden and Warren, others much further down the pack, but no mention of Sanders — at all.

The impeachment hearings have made it worse, as now media narratives around the election will focus on Trump’s criminal behavior, whether or not this is another “witch hunt,” and on Biden and his son in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the other candidates, important stories such as the coup in Bolivia, and crucial issues such as, women’s rights, climate crisis, LGBTQI rights and immigration will be siloed through the prism of the current political theater around impeachment, when not outright ignored.

As more independent media outlets shutter, what does the landscape look like for holding Trump, and politicians like him, accountable?

“We the people” are really the last defense. While we fear that perhaps we have elected candidates that may actually reflect a major shift in our societal values, we don’t believe that is the case. Trump did not win the popular vote, not even close. We need to reestablish a commitment to principles ensconced in the Bill of Rights and let those inform our voting and decision-making instead of party affiliation and the subsequent hyper-partisanship it feeds. Do we care about human rights and peace? Social justice? Racial justice? Equality for all? Economic opportunity? The rule of just laws? If so, those need to be the focal points of our discussions, not candidates’ personalities and catchphrases. Instead of chanting “I’m With Her” or “Lock Her Up” or “Make America Great Again” or “Hope and Change,” we need to identify which candidate might be most prone to being influenced by voters agitating them to do the will of the people, not the corporations and their armies of lobbyists. That is how representative democracy works. These public officials are our employees, not our significant others. Do not worship them, or get sucked into the cult of personalities. Instead, persuade them to do their jobs with factual evidence. Once officials are in office, do not cheer on the electoral victories. Instead, engage in activism and protest to help move them to pass legislation in the public interest, reinforcing rights that were hard-won historically (and many of which that are now evaporating before our very eyes). Anything else amounts to political theater.

In United States of Distraction: Media Manipulation in Post-Truth America (And What We Can Do About It), we have an entire chapter titled “Make America Think Again” where we highlight major public media initiatives, champion efforts to jump-start local investigative journalism, expound upon the importance of protecting and encouraging whistleblowers, as well as share numerous resources, organizations and scholarly works that further how we can mitigate our current “United States of Distraction,” understand and combat media manipulation in post-truth America, and remember that there is a lot that we can do about it.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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