By Gary Hengstler
Fact checking? Fake News? Alternative facts? Alternate realities?
Welcome to the new intersection of journalism and political science. It’s an intersection that, until now, few scholars have seriously examined.
One who has is Dr. Amanda Wintersieck, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Service at UTC. Her doctoral dissertation at Arizona State University asked whether fact-checking could impact voters’ assessments of campaigns and their campaign tactics.
By 2012, Wintersieck says, candidate fact-checking was well established.
“Factcheck.org started in 2003, followed in 2007 by Politicfact.com,
but from an academic standpoint, we are just beginning to explore how
misinformation impacts citizens, which is why I got into this area,” she says.
Her research shows good news and bad news.
“Encouragingly, my research shows citizens are persuaded by evidence in fact-checking, so that’s the good news,” she says. “The bad news is we have selective exposure. We exist in a digital age where people can tune in to only the information that is congruent with their beliefs.”
That means fact checking no longer carries the weight it did as recently as the 2004 and 2008 elections. Early fact-checkers sought an objective measure of truth without political interest.
During the 2016 election, Wintersieck says, everyone claimed to be fact-checking. Hillary Clinton urged voters to go to the fact-check tab on her website. Wintersieck says that, while fact-checking can influence people, the proliferation of so-called fact-checking blurs objective truth.
She says she’s also disturbed that today’s politics often echo tactics employed by Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, who once said, “It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and a psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle. They are mere words, and words can be molded until they clothe ideas and disguise.”
“With the denial of self-evident truth and the issuing of obvious lies,” she says, “we may be reverting to and following the tactics of Nazi Germany’s propaganda machine. Sometimes it seems that we are completely happy to be oblivious to objective truth. This is exacerbated
when everybody claims theirs are the only true facts.”
According to Wintersieck, many dismiss as fake news information that doesn’t fit their beliefs.
“Research shows that people are motivated by partisanship,” she says. “Partisanship today is more polarizing than ever, which correlates with our ideology formed through our values and beliefs system. It is human instinct to protect those beliefs, so we selectively expose ourselves primarily to information we like.”
She adds that challenging some on selectively processed but incorrect beliefs tends to make them cling more firmly to those beliefs.
“It is fundamental cognitive dissonance; partisanship matters in that regard. Unfortunately, neither the media nor politicians have helped, and certainly the internet has not helped,” she says.
But is the problem exacerbated on the internet, where anyone can claim to be a journalist and upload unvetted information, unlike professional news organizations?
Thus far, Wintersieck says, the majority who obtain their news online still do so from traditional sources, such as The New York Times or Fox News websites.
“We know there is a partisan nature to those sources now, and it is problematic that you have organizations like Fox and MSNBC attaching labels such as ‘fair and balanced’ as their slogan,” she says.
“In American history, journalism did not start out as objective. We began with unapologetically partisan media in the early 18th century, but people then knew they were subscribing to their political newspaper.”
As a political scientist, she acknowledges she is discomfited with journalism as it portends for self-governance.
“In political science, we divide citizens into two groups — people with high levels of political knowledge (experts) and people with low levels (novices),” she says. “We have found that 25 percent have high levels of political knowledge, and 75 percent have low levels. We also know that experts are information-rich, benefiting from a wide array of sources,
while the novices are information-poor and go to one or two sources. Also, many lack skills to process relevant information from traditional sources.
“They go to Fox to reinforce their conservative views and MSNBC to reinforce their liberal views. I think Rachel Maddow made a valid observation when she said she could say things in a calm, deliberate manner, ‘but that doesn’t get viewers so I have to say things (in an excited, emotional way) because it now is a commodity where TV news gathers audiences more from the 75 percent.’ Experts read multiple sources and don’t spend much time with television sources.”
Wintersieck attributes some of the problem to the decline of “childhood socialization to democratic norms in public education that has de-emphasized teaching people how to be good critical, skeptical thinkers and consumers of information.”
Modern-life pressures also contribute to declining political knowledge.
“A lack of political interest comes with being a single mother working two jobs just to put food on the table,” she says. “There’s a lot going on here, and in relation to misinformation, this isn’t easy to solve.”
Wintersieck plans further research on the 2016 election.
“I have a large, national sample, and I am excited that respondents were allowed to choose where they wanted to receive their fact-checking from,” she says. “So I will be able to determine the fact-check distributor impact.
“I’m also looking at race and gender now — the role of feminism’s impact on voters’ decisions. What I think we will see is that many things came to a head in this election, and gender norms and roles are among those issues.”
For example, she notes that, even though the widely publicized women’s march following the inauguration included cities throughout nation and world, Fox News repeatedly portrayed it in terms of only a liberal gathering on the coasts.
“This is a concerning point about the media,” she says. “This increases polarization. We know political elites are more polarized than the masses, but the masses are polarizing, as well.
“Part of this is reinforced by rhetoric that there is no merit in the other side’s position. That is disturbing.”
She also is concerned about some proposed solutions, such as some on the left suggesting Democrats be allowed to gerrymander legislative districts in their favor.
“The fact that we are even having this conversation of gerrymandering as the solution is just insane,” she says.
She says she’s dismayed by “the fact that we cannot agree on basic truths, like climate change and the necessity of vaccinations.”
“We can’t even agree that there are some things we can, in fact, know. I want to be hopeful, but seeing the political landscape makes it very difficult to think we will have a solution anytime soon.”