In era of fake news, our society needs a baseline reality

Seven years ago, I never could have imagined how much things would change.

In 2011, I was CEO of The Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market nonprofit that served as the intellectual backbone of the Republican takeover of state government after 30 years in the wilderness. MHPC’s place of prominence within the conservative movement had nothing to do with me; it was founded and run by a few very smart people, and as they moved onto bigger and better things, I was hired to continue their good work.

My prime focus at MHPC was to push back against what I believed was a leftward bias in Maine’s press. Our organization was producing important work — studies on the health care system, welfare, and government spending. But the impact of this work was not being fully realized because of what I viewed as the press’s general skepticism toward anything coming out of a conservative organization.

We founded The Maine Wire, an online news service, in an effort to mitigate this perceived bias. The Maine Wire was a channel for us to distribute our unfiltered information, but its broader goal was to make a point: We wanted Maine press to be more conscious about how their reporting was viewed by people of all political stripes. The Maine Wire would never reach enough people to actually counteract the traditional press, but its presence would be a reminder that they should try harder to balance their reporting.

I thought that was a noble goal. I still think a balanced press is something people from both sides should demand. But things have gone so haywire since then.

Long-time CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite. (AP Photo/Tsugufumi Matsumoto, File)

I spent a lot of time celebrating the dissolution of the centralized news model we had in this country prior to the internet. Where once our common understanding of reality was filtered through Walter Cronkite on the evening news, now the internet had made information distribution more egalitarian. Anyone with a free WordPress account could start a blog and impact the public dialog.

What I didn’t understand then was how destructive a total lack of common reality could be. While I chided the filtered evening news model, I didn’t realize we’d replace it with an anarchic ecosystem of unvalidated truths. I never imagined conservatives could be so successful in undermining the credibility of the traditional media, and I never envisioned a world where common truth ceased to exist.

As social media became the primary source of information for more and more of us, the legitimacy of traditional news sources mattered less and less. Instead of weighing the credentials of news sources, people now consume and redistribute information that fits our preconceived notions. The power of viral distribution through social networks is paydirt for anyone wishing to gain audience or influence elections. And to harness that viral power, news stories need to trigger emotions.

In this model, stories do not need to be true, or fair. They need to make people mad enough to share them.

Now our daily feed of information is littered with abject falsehoods, shared millions of times until they become reality in their audience’s heads. This isn’t specific to conservatives, but conservatives laid the groundwork by coalescing around the notion of a decentralized media. And Republicans, once the political vehicle for conservative thought, were the first to leverage this anarchy into a presidency.

I’m terrified of this new media landscape. I think a strong culture needs some kind of shared, centralized reality. I don’t believe in theocracies, but I understand more now how crucial a baseline layer of common morality is to a cohesive society. America’s Constitution was supposed to provide that. But in this new world of lightspeed hyperpartisanship and fake news, we have stripped away even the simplest cultural agreements and are not just debating the implications of certain facts, we’re debating the reality of the facts themselves.

For instance, Sunday’s Boston Globe featured a story of a Maine man who has become one of the most prolific distributors of false stories on the internet. He writes fake stories that fulfill the grossest stereotypes of right-wing delusion, and they get shared millions of times by people who believe them. It’s a chilling example of how much pure, malicious falsehood there is in circulation right now, and how many people earnestly believe it.

I don’t know how our society can weather this kind of thing.

In retrospect, the concern over fair coverage seven years ago seems petty compared to the concern I have now for the evaporation of objective reality altogether. It’s painfully ironic that my view on the centralized traditional media model has turned from disdain to nostalgia.

And it’s even more ironic to hope for a stronger, reinvigorated traditional media that can save us from ourselves, now that this experiment in egalitarian news production has spawned such dangerous consequences.

 

Lance Dutson

About Lance Dutson

Lance Dutson, a principal of Red Hill Strategies, is a Republican communications consultant. He has served on the campaign teams of U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Kelly Ayotte, as well as the Maine Republican Party.