It was around 6-to-9pm last night, watching the first election returns, and on CNN Wolf Blitzer was continuously amazed by each new vote count in Florida, exclaiming that “Trump takes the lead!”, “Now Hillary is out in front!”, when the numbers were just arbitrary depending on what precincts had reported. CNN was openly creating a fictitious back and forth foot race out of nothing, framed by ALERT graphics and dramatic music. This happened on a major network on a day of massive ratings, and the common response was, “well, they are dumb, they do this every year.”
At the same time, over at the data journalism site Fivethirtyeight, the early returns and exit data were characterized as “excellent news for Clinton,” “bad sign for Trump,” “long night for Trump,” and so on. At the start of the primaries, they gave Trump a 2% chance of being the nominee and somehow continued to be a source of information during the general campaign, providing very detailed to-the-decimal fake precision about a Hillary lead that didn’t exist. This persisted even after returns started to come in last night, and a few hours later, the horror of Trump’s victory came to pass. And people were, to say the least, surprised.
That people (people like me: white, coastal, liberal) were surprised by what happened last night should be read as a repudiation of the media we are consuming. We’re quick to call out right wing sites as harboring misinformation, but what is clear today is that the political press, the pundits, those providing you takes, and of course all that data, down to the tenth, are also implicated in the rise of misinformation. People spent months and months clicking on Fivethirtyeight, listening to podcasts, thinking they were being informed. Super informed. It was a massive and counterproductive waste. Something we needed to come to terms with even had Clinton won is that the right doesn’t have a monopoly on political fictions presented as fact.
It shouldn’t have surprised you that the United States is a deeply racist country. And because that fact is more obvious now, you shouldn’t be surprised what will happen when open bigotry is given even more permission, legitimacy, and empowerment. As I type this, Trump’s crowd is chanting for Clinton to be jailed. It’s horrifying.
And it also seems that the horror I’m seeing being expressed right now is partly the shock about being so dreadfully wrong. It’s the terror of having to come to terms with the fact that your information diet is deeply flawed. It’s the obvious fact that misinformation isn’t a problem over there on the right wing meme pages but is also our problem.
On the right, they have what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness,” which we might define as ignoring facts in the name of some larger truth. The facts of Obama’s birthplace mattered less for them than their own racist “truth” of white superiority. Perhaps we need to start articulating a left-wing version of truthiness: let’s call it “factiness.” Factiness is the taste for the feel and aesthetic of “facts,” often at the expense of missing the truth. From silly self-help-y TED talks to bad NPR-style neuroscience science updates to wrapping ourselves in the misleading scientisim of Fivethirtyeight statistics, factiness is obsessing over and covering ourselves in fact after fact while still missing bigger truths.
Factiness appeals to the ideas of the objective, empirical, and the disinterested apprehension of reality. When philosopher Jean Baudrillard spoke of “simulations”, he wasn’t talking as much about places like Disneyland as much as how Disneyland obscures the fact that everything else is a simulation. And throughout the campaign, what’s called the mainstream media has been desperate to pretend everything outside Trumpland is real politics.
An example of this came from the start of Trump’s primary campaign, when the media tried to use Trump’s outlandishness as a way to pretend the rest of it all was “truth”, that the other campaigns and their coverage were somehow in good faith. One way they did this was by calling Trump a “troll.” Trump was never a troll, he played by the silly rules of the big reality show perfectly. If we were being trolled, it was by those selling us the fiction of this election as something genuine.
More recently, you’ll remember the tape of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women. This was completely on-brand for Trump, but some opportunistic Republicans pretended to be just shocked by his comments so they had an excuse to jump ship from an otherwise struggling campaign. No adult learned anything new about Trump from the tape. Meanwhile, the Editor in Chief of BuzzFeed penned a victory lap for journalism, “We Told You So: The MSM, vindicated.”
The idea that mainstream journalists uncovered facts and changed people’s minds and took a liar down was impossibly naive, it legitimated dishonest Republican opportunism, and attempted to bolster the fiction that outside Trumpland and the alt-right is the truth. From beginning to end, Trump was used by political journalism as an excuse to sell fiction as fact. And, in the end, Republicans came home to Trump, despite the so-called vindication of journalism; a journalism being called “mainstream” even when much of the country finds it irrelevant.
So many more examples could be given, but it’s getting late, and one general takeaway from the 2016 Election seems clear: our popular media, from those producing it to those sorting it with editors and algorithms, are not up to the task of informing us and describing reality. This won’t happen, but those people who got Trump sooo consistently wrong from the primaries to Election Day should not have the job of informing us anymore. And if you were surprised last night, you might want to reconsider how you get information.
Posted at 2:41 AM on 9th November 2016 with 127 notes