Trump May Be Leaving, But 'Fake News' is a Part of All Our Lives Now | Opinion

In the week before the recent US Presidential election, when I feared President Donald J. Trump would be re-elected, I reached out to several Trump supporters in the United States to attempt to comprehend why they so enthusiastically advocated for him. Many people here in Israel favor Trump, as he has done several things that, at least in the short-term, are perceived to benefit Israel.

However, for Americans who are not tied to Israel, understanding the reasons they support Trump remained a mystery to me. I believe Trump will go down as the worst President in US history. While I personally could not fathom why so many people still embrace Trump, that was a conundrum I felt I had to strive to grasp.

What became painfully clear to me was that the Trump supporters I knew live in a totally different media universe than I do. They regard all of the sources I rely upon to receive credible information as "fake news." Trump supporters largely take in their information either through social media or through media publications like Breitbart and the Daily Caller, whose connection to accurate reporting is often coincidental.

I tried to coax those with whom I spoke to open their eyes to the mainstream media, noting that even though my columns are in the opinion section at Newsweek, my editor regularly requests sources for the facts I put forward. (A standard policy among most of what President Trump calls "fake news".) But my efforts seemed of no avail.

My concern has only heightened in the weeks following the election. Many of the aforementioned people seem persuaded, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that President Trump won the election. One friend even bet me $20 that Trump had won—on Monday after the networks had called for the election for President-elect Biden. Since then, as the Trump team has lost 32 legal battles in which they raised spurious allegations of irregularities, their claims and contentions of why Trump actually won became increasingly less believable. The campaigns surrogates put forward a theory of a conspiracy so vast that it's hard to comprehend, and they did so without providing absolutely any proof. And yet, according to recent polls, the majority of Republicans continue to believe Trump rightfully won.

The willingness of Americans to believe conspiracy theories is nothing new. In 1964, Richard Hofstadter wrote, in an article titled, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics":

American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this, I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new, and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.

Hofstadter went on to give examples, such as Senator McCarthy in 1951, who claimed there was a vast Communist conspiracy in the US ... or further back, in 1895, the Populist party which asserted there was a conspiracy going back to the end of Civil War between gold gamblers in the US and Europe ... or the 1855 declaration by a Texas newspaper that the Pope and the Monarch of Europe were conspiring to take away the liberties of Americans.

Of course, back then, conspiracy theories and "fake news" could not be spread as they are today via internet sites, instantly to millions —not to mention posts on Facebook or Twitter that reach additional millions in a flash. The extent of the false statements issued in the last few weeks is simply staggering. David Brooks argued last week on the PBS NewsHour: "It's not that people necessarily believe the lies, they just don't believe anything." Unfortunately, this is only partially true, since many people seem to actually believe the lies. Even worse, according to an MIT study false news travels faster on the internet than true news.

The problem of "fake news" is not limited to the United States, although it is most acute there. Last week, Israel's Institute For National Security Studies (INSS) held a two-day virtual conference on "National Security, Fake News, and Strategic Communications in the Digital Era". Leading off the conference, Michael Rich, President of Rand Company, warned "'Truth Decay' in the United States has grown more serious and more pervasive over the last two decades." Brigadier General (ret.) Itai Brun, who moderated the session, stated in response to Rich commented, "We see the same trends in Israel."

I asked journalist Yael Lavie, who teaches "Media Ethics in the Digital Age" at that Interdisciplinary School in Herzliya, for examples of the Israeli press being careless in ways that counted. She referred me to a story from 2017, when Israeli police demolished an illegal Bedouin village. During the events and the protests, the police shot and killed an innocent Bedouin educator. The initial, unfounded claim was that he was a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, and planned to ram the police with his car intentionally. The media initially went with that story, falsely framing the incident in Israeli minds.

The most substantial parallel between Israel and the US is Prime Minister Netanyahu's constant parroting of his friend in the White House, using the term "fake news" to characterize every story related to his alleged corruption. Though Netanyahu has been indicted and is about to stand trial, his supporters will almost all refer to the charges against him as "fake news".

Israel has Yisrael Hayom, a daily newspaper owned by Sheldon Adelson, one of Netanyahu and Trump's biggest supporters. Yisrael Hayom fills the role played by Fox News, i.e., often trying to slant the news so that it looks favorably upon Netanyahu. But Israel does not have its own Breitbart or Newsmax, where the line between news and fantasy hardly exists. Breitbart-style news tends to be limited to WhatsApp and Facebook, both heavily used in Israel.

Despite regular references to Israel, the extraordinary events going on in the United States remained at the forefront of every discussion at this year's INSS conference.

Prof Yochai Benkler of Harvard Law School took issue with the general idea that disinformation is part of the prevailing political dialogue in the United States. Benkler stated:

"The United States is suffering an asymmetric polarization. It is coming from a specific market dynamic since the 1980s in which one part of the nation is operating in a propaganda information loop."

Benkler was referring to the right in the United States. The 1980s marks the rise of Fox News and the beginning of the right-wing echo chamber; an echo chamber that has brought the United States to where it is today.

When the history of the last few weeks is written, future historians will ask what collective madness came over the American public that led to a situation in which two weeks after all the significant news networks called the elections for President-elect Biden, 50 percent of Republicans still believed Trump won.

I wish I could say that it is just a temporary passing aberration, but I fear it is not. In the week before the election, every Trump supporter I spoke to was confident Trump would win. With the President and his supporters' claims that "the only reason he lost was some vast conspiracy, in which the election was stolen from him," no doubt a large percentage of his voters will continue to believe that baseless narrative even after President Biden is sworn in.

A new conspiracy will have been born — and America will be further divided, not over real policy issues like the environment, minimum wage, or tax policy, but over a fantasy that never existed; over an election that was lost fair and square at the ballot box, by a President who could not admit defeat, and would rather undermine American democratic norms than do so.

Trump is but a manifestation of a bigger problem. Senator Patrick Moynihan famously stated: "You are entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own facts." Unfortunately, more and more Americans, as well as people throughout the world, (including here in Israel), cannot agree on too many basic facts.

The traditional arbiters of fact have been denigrated and seem irrelevant to too many people. The irony is that at a time when fact-based scientific research is on the verge of one of its greatest triumphs, i.e., the development of a vaccine that will save tens of millions from the ravages of COVID-19, in record time — too many people have decided to ignore facts. As noted historian John Meachem stated last week, "We have managed as a country to consign reason to the sidelines—we don't think, we feel. 'I don't feel like wearing a mask, so I don't.'"

It is incumbent on all of us, whatever our field of endeavor, to promote what had been the very basis of the enlightenment—the belief in proven facts, the acceptance of a common narrative, and the understanding that not everything is relative. I fear it may be too late. I can only hope that it is not.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.