Friday, January 8, 2016

A World of Misinformation-- Life in a Post-Factual Society

I know I've mentioned this before, but if there's one thing I continue to be disappointed about, it's how little the facts seem to matter in our modern world.  There is a famous quote I've always liked; it was most recently attributed to the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, circa 1988, but as it turns out, versions of the quote go back to 1946, when American financier Bernard M. Baruch first said it.  The point of the various versions is basically this: we all have the right to our own opinion, but none of us have the right to our own facts.

When I was growing up (and no, it wasn't that long ago), honesty and trustworthiness still mattered. A politician or a celebrity or a high-profile business executive who lied or distorting the facts was harshly criticized, both by the media and by the general public.  A newspaper that didn't get its facts right, or one that confused publicity with accurate information, was also criticized.  And contrary to what a number of my friends insist, this has never been partisan-- there are Democrats who have lied, Republicans who have lied, celebrities who have lied, and corporate executives who have lied.  (And then there's Donald Trump, who is in a classification all his own, having at various times in his life been a Democrat, a Republican, a celebrity, and a corporate executive, and who has created his own reality everywhere he went.)

When Bill Clinton lied about not having sex with "that woman" (Monica Lewinsky), GOP partisans in congress were gleeful because they thought they saw an opening for removing him from the presidency. But most Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, weren't gleeful at all; in fact, a majority of us did not agree that he deserved to be impeached, and surveys showed that repeatedly. It cannot be denied, however, that many Americans were bitterly disappointed that the president had lied, as well as that he had cheated on his wife.  Sad to say, other presidents from both parties had lied about sex before; but a less nosy media from a more innocent time did not ask about presidential mistresses.  And then it changed.

Beginning in the 1990s, attitudes about what should or should not be discussed in public were suddenly in flux. Serious newspapers and news magazines that had never before trafficked in gossip or scandal, and always tried to verify the facts, suddenly found themselves in the internet era, competing with online sources that could instantly spread rumors with the click of a mouse.  There was also the launching of partisan media sources, such as Fox News in 1996, as well as various left-wing and right-wing websites, and later, in the 2000s, MSNBC, social media like Facebook and Twitter, and plenty of blogs.  And what got lost was verifiable facts that we could all agree upon.  Now, everyone could seek out their own facts, and many people did.  Those who disliked the Democrats could listen to Fox commentators telling them that they were absolutely correct; and those who disliked the Republicans, could go over to the commentators on MSNBC and have their beliefs reinforced.  And along the way, we not only stopped talking to each other but we started mistrusting any media sources whose version of the facts didn't conform with ours. 

And that is why when Donald Trump says he saw thousands of Muslims celebrating in New Jersey after 9/11 (even though not one mayor or governor from either party could verify what he claimed), his fans insisted he must be right.  When Ted Cruz ran an attack ad asserting that President Obama is "coming for your guns" (even though the president has NEVER said he wanted all guns banned), his fans insisted he must be right.  When Hillary Clinton has made claims that fact-checkers showed to be false or exaggerated, her fans insist she must be right.  And it's not just candidates:  Consider Josh Duggar, allegedly a fine example of living a pious Christian life. When he finally admitted he had cheated on his wife, many of his fans said they forgave him because we are all sinners.  (Well, yes, but we don't all hold ourselves up as paragons of marital fidelity while frequenting the Ashley Madison "dating" site.)

The point is that these days, it seems that telling a clever and entertaining story (one that reinforces the beliefs of your audience) is more important than having the facts on your side.  Time magazine has a fascinating analysis this week of how and why Donald Trump is winning, despite having earned the "Lie of the Year" award from the fact-checking site Politifact.  Even being caught making statements that are 100% factually inaccurate only makes his fans love him more, since Trump partisans are convinced the media can't be trusted (a talking point frequently asserted by a number of Republican candidates).  The Time article, written by David Von Drehe (and available here:, notes that Trump has done away with the "middle man"-- he no longer needs Republican party leaders to promote him-- he can do it himself, and do it well. People already feel as if they know him, having seen him host several highly-rated TV reality shows, and make numerous appearances on late night talk shows.  And they trust him because he seems to be so confident, so rich, and so successful.  And even when a Republican pundit like Karl Rove, or a fellow candidate like Jeb Bush, or even Fox News commentator Megyn Kelly criticizes him, he can just swat them aside, and his fans admire how he doesn't feel the need to answer to anyone. I've been following politics for years, and I have never seen a candidate who is rewarded with more media attention, more free publicity, and more popularity the more he distorts the truth.

But here we are, in a post-factual society, where well-known people can say one thing and do entirely another and suffer few if any consequences:  Bristol Palin promotes abstinence, yet has two (!) children out of wedlock.  She remains popular, and her fans defend her, rather than holding her accountable for not practicing what she preached.  Former congressman Anthony Weiner presented himself as a happily married man while sending lewd photos of himself to other women; yes, he is no longer in congress, but he is still a guest on talk shows and some sources say he is thinking of running for office again.  I won't be shocked if he is able to reinvent himself.  These days, even a major scandal won't necessarily doom your career.

Don't get me wrong-- I absolutely do believe in second chances, and I'm willing to forgive; lord knows I've made my share of mistakes over the years.  But I just wish that as a culture, we would place more value on honesty. When I was growing up, I was taught that a great leader was one who was unafraid to tell the truth and willing to admit a mistake.  These days, I see very few great leaders.  I see a world where politicians and celebrities rarely own up to what they did wrong-- they offer a convenient excuse or they change the subject. I find it frustrating, but maybe I'm the only one who does.  So, let me ask you this, my friendly readers:  Can you name me a current political figure or a current cultural leader you admire, someone who sets a good example for being honest?  Or has our post-factual society lowered our expectations?  I eagerly await your comments! 


  1. The last 20 or so years of what you have described (perfectly, I might add) have beat it into my brain that I cannot trust ANY politician that is on the national stage... with that in mind, it is impossible to name one I admire. Locally, however, there are a few.

    I'm not so sure that politicians of the past were "more honest" than their contemporary counterparts. They simply didn't have as many people digging into their personal lives. And, nowadays, you cannot go anywhere and do anything even remotely "scandal-worthy" without it being on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook within 4-5 minutes.

    "I see a world where politicians and celebrities rarely own up to what they did wrong..." -- I agree, 100%. Politicians today are surrounded by cronies and experts who can cover their rear ends in record time. It pains me to know that campaign funds are probably covering said cronies' expenses, too.

    Really enjoying your posts, Ms Halper!

    Erik ("NeilPeartFanatics" on Twitter)

  2. I agree it has turned around completely. People now point to a lack of facts and supporting information as proof of what they are asserting. The "Know-Nothing" is making a strong comeback. My fave politician? A local city council person. Act locally, think globally. It's where your real power is, unless your name is Koch.