America is Plagued by Misinformation

Trump Supporters Deny Facts

The fact is, our president lies. All the time. He lies so often that it has become the norm. This is true, whether or not you support him. Facts have no political party.

Most Trump voters have clear, well-articulated reasons for supporting him: he had lowered their taxes, appointed antiabortion judges, presided over a soaring stock market. These voters wielded their rationality as a shield: their goals were sound, and the President was achieving them, so to them, it makes sense to ignore the tweets, the controversies and the lies.

But there was a darker strain. For every person who offered a rational and informed reason for why they were supporting Trump, there was another who offered an explanation divorced from reality.

You could call this persistent style of untethered reasoning “unlogic.” Unlogic is not ignorance or stupidity; it is reason distorted by suspicion and misinformation, an Orwellian state of mind that arranges itself around convenient fictions rather than established facts.

At its most acute, unlogic manifested as a belief in dangerous falsehoods, from the cult of QAnon to the conviction that COVID-19 is a hoax. But the milder forms of unlogic were more pervasive: believing that most reports about the President were fabricated by lying reporters or that Biden is a socialist or that the coronavirus is no worse than the flu, as Trump keeps insisting.

With so many voters ignoring the truth and the facts, it has become increasingly hard to tell where most Americans fall on the continuum from reason to unlogic.

Democracy, at least in theory, relies on a rational electorate acting in response to credible information. Since the dawn of mass media, elections have been shaped by voters’ reactions to the news. But today there is a glitch in the information loop, like a scratch on an old-fashioned record. People keep repeating things that are false, and dismissing things that were true.

The fact that a growing segment of the electorate has gone off the deep end is as much of a concern to many Republicans as it is to Democrats. “The only constant for a lot of voters has been ‘choose your own reality,’” says Tyler Brown, a former digital director for the Republican National Committee who is now president of Hadron Strategies. “Broadly speaking, Republican voters are less likely to accept what they read in the mainstream media on face value,” he adds. “I can see how that worldview can start to make people feel like they’re existing within two different realities.”

Kaitlin Martin, a 30-year-old nanny in Macomb County, Michigan, a politically purple region north of Detroit, is one of the few people who professed to be truly undecided about how to vote this year. She dislikes Trump: “I don’t respect someone who can be so unkind to people,” she says. On the other hand, she’s seen some things online that give her pause about Biden. “I don’t know what’s real and what’s photoshopped,” she said. “Now everybody is out there saying he’s a pedophile.” She’s not sure that she believes any of it. But she’s not sure it isn’t true, either.

The fact is, you can say just about anything today and a certain amount of people will believe it. Trump uses this to his advantage everyday and says things like, if the democrats win they will destroy the suburbs, or his nonsense about voter fraud – all mind you with no facts whatsoever to back those claims.

All of these suspicions are like swirling clouds in a monster hurricane, tearing through the possibility of consensus in American democracy, chewing up the guardrails, ripping out the precedents; a hurricane going nowhere, with nothing at its center. The chaos and confusion can feel overwhelming, says Rolando Morales, a stay-at-home dad who’s retired from the medical-software industry, pausing on his way out of a Jimmy John’s sandwich shop in Racine, Wis. “You’re so sick of everything, you don’t know what to trust anymore,” he said. Morales voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and his wife and father-in-law are pro-Biden. But the violence over the summer in Kenosha made him wonder if he should vote for Trump. He doesn’t even know what to think anymore. “It feels like there’s a new America being created, and I don’t know who’s cut out to deal with it,” he said. “We’ve headed somewhere different right now. And I don’t know where.”

Distrust of the establishment has always existed in America; historian Richard Hofstadter famously called it “the paranoid style.” But now it’s amplified by social-media networks whose algorithms reward extremism, and championed by a misinformation warrior who happens to serve as the President of the United States.

In a study of more than 38 million articles about the pandemic, researchers at Cornell University recently found that President Trump was the single biggest driver of false information about coronavirus.

A major Harvard study released in October found that Trump had perfected the manipulation of mass media to spread false information about mail-in voting, and that the President was an even bigger source of disinformation than “Russian bots or Facebook clickbait artists.”

No wonder, then, that so many Americans are caught in the confusion, unsure what to believe.

Biden’s campaign is built on the opposite premise: that a President’s character is as important as his politics. Since launching his bid for the White House, the Democratic nominee has positioned himself as the antidote to Trumpian chaos, the steady leader who can guide the nation back to sanity and stability.

His pledge to “restore the soul of America” promises a return to a time when Republicans and Democrats could be civil, even friendly, as they vigorously debated matters of great importance. The apple-pie vision did little to excite progressives enthralled with candidates like Senators Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, who promised “revolution” and “big structural change.”

But while his primary opponents raced to the left to argue over who could change America faster, Biden won over the many voters at the end of their ropes. “I wish everything could go back to normal,” sighed Gwen Bogan, a Biden supporter shopping in the hardware aisle of a Walmart in North Milwaukee.

Maybe Biden is the person who can really make America great again and return our country to some degree of normal.