From the Journals

‘Post-truth era’ hurts COVID-19 response, trust in science


What’s driving the trend?

So, what’s behind the embrace of “alternative facts,” as former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway put it so brazenly in 2017, in defending the White House’s false claims that Trump’s inauguration crowd was the largest ever?

Dr. Scheffer and colleagues identified a handful of things that have encouraged the embrace of falsehoods over facts in recent years.

  • The Internet: Its rise in the late 1980s, and its growing role as a primary source of news and information, has allowed more belief-based misinformation to flourish and spread like wildfire.
  • Social media: The new study found the use of sentiment- and intuition-related words accelerated around 2007, along with a global surge in social media that catapulted Facebook, Twitter, and others into the mainstream, replacing more traditional fact-based media (i.e., newspapers and magazines).
  • The 2007 financial crisis: The downturn in the global economy meant more people were dealing with job stress, investment losses, and other problems that fed the interest in belief-based, anti-establishment social media posts.
  • Conspiracy theories: Falsehoods involving hidden political agendas, shadow “elites,” and wealthy people with dark motives tend to thrive during times of crisis and societal anxiety. “Conspiracy theories originate particularly in times of uncertainty and crisis and generally depict established institutions as hiding the truth and sustaining an unfair situation,” the researchers noted. “As a result, they may find fertile grounds on social media platforms promulgating a sense of unfairness, subsequently feeding anti-system sentiments.”

Dr. Scheffer says that growing political divisions during the Trump era have widened the fact-vs.-fiction divide. The ex-president voiced many anti-science views on global climate change, for instance, and spread so many falsehoods about COVID-19 and the 2020 election that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube suspended his accounts.

Yet Trump remains a popular figure among Republicans, with most saying in a December poll they believe his baseless claims that the 2020 election was “rigged” and “stolen,” despite all credible, easily accessible evidence that it was secure, according to a recent poll by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

More than 60 courts have rejected Trump’s lawsuits seeking to overturn the election results. All 50 states, the District of Columbia, and both branches of Congress have certified the election results, giving Biden the White House. Even Trump’s own Justice Department confirmed that the 2020 election was free and fair.

Nevertheless, the University of Massachusetts survey found that most Republicans believe one or more conspiracy theories floated by the former president and those pushing his “big lie” that Democrats rigged the election to elect Biden.

Ed Berliner, an Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist and media consultant, suggests something else is driving the spread of misinformation: the pursuit of ratings by cable TV and media companies to boost ad and subscriber revenues.

As a former executive producer and syndicated cable TV show host, he says he has seen firsthand how facts are often lost in opinion-driven news programs, even on network programs claiming to offer “fair and balanced” journalism.

“Propaganda is the new currency in America, and those who do not fight back against it are doomed to be overrun by the misinformation,” says Mr. Berliner, host of The Man in the Arena and CEO of Entourage Media LLC.

“The broadcast news media has to stop this incessant ‘infotainment’ prattle, stop trying to nuzzle up to a soft side, and bear down on hard facts, exposing the lies and refusing to back down.”

Next Article: