The year 2016 confirmed for me that media’s job is not to deliver news but to push narratives. The narrative-pushing modern media poses certain challenge for the public. The challenge of identifying the right narrative to believe in.
If you have followed this year’s presidential election in the US, you saw how for over a year, till the very last day, the media vigorously kept saying that Donald Trump had no chance of winning the presidency, and yet he won bigly. After a fiasco like this, how can you believe the media?
When opposing narratives are running through the media, how can one avoid being misled? This is the question I will address in this post – with example of the recent Trump election.
To begin with, I’ll talk about what makes us vulnerable to being misled. During this election cycle I learned a great many things about psychology. One of the things that I learned about is confirmation bias. I knew what confirmation bias was, but I was not fully aware about how powerful its role is in our perception of the world. Another major thing that I learned is that humans are irrational almost all the time. None of our big decisions are based in rationality. NONE. Most of our decisions – small and big – are based not on facts but on how we feel about things. And our perceptions are strengthened by confirmation bias once we have formed a perception – which we do based on how the stimulus has made us feel emotionally. All this makes us vulnerable.
While I was following the election coverage I saw two universes in the media. The MSM (mainstream media) was relentlessly thrashing Trump; calling him a clown, racist, sexist, misogynist, an immature person with mental age of a 4-year-old, Hitler, etc. Nearly everyone in the MSM said that he had virtually zero chance of winning the presidency. And they worked incredibly hard to cover up Hillary’s crookedness that involved crimes as serious as treason. This was one universe.
There was another universe with the opposite reality. In that universe – which comprised of “alternative media” websites and citizen journalism on social media – Trump was not a clown but rather a master persuader. His use of language which was labeled “immature” in the MSM universe was considered to be application of his weapons-grade persuasion techniques. Trump was considered not scary Hitler but the savior of Western Civilization. The folks in this universe worked incredibly hard to expose Hillary’s crookedness and disqualifications.
People who followed the MSM coverage viewed Trump as a clown, racist, sexist, misogynist and whatever else he was branded as in that universe; and those who were solely exposed to the pro-Trump universe saw him as master persuader and the savior of the West etc. and viewed Clinton as the most corrupt candidate ever to run for president.
One of the people influenced by the anti-Trump MSM universe was my boss. He had started following the election coverage after hearing me talk enthusiastically about Trump. His first impression of Trump was that of a joker. Later on, his impression of Trump changed to misogynist, sexist, racist,.. and everything that the MSM portrayed Trump to be. I, on the other hand, had known Trump through the pro-Trump universe, and as such my first impression of him was that of master persuader and a masculine nationalist figure such as the one America needed to save itself. And every step of the way my belief in him grew stronger.
Human irrationality and confirmation bias were at work at their best.
Neither I nor my boss (nor anyone else from the general public) was qualified to understand politics and policies talked about by the two candidates. Nor did we keep a track of every detail that was being mentioned by the candidates and in the news about them, much less factcheck every bit of it. And yet I was sure about Trump’s fitness to be president and about his victory, and my boss was equally sure about Trump’s unfitness and his abysmal prospects in the race.
Every evening my boss would send me links of articles written on the anti-Trump narrative as “proof” that he was right in his assessment of Trump. I could also find as many articles “proving” my assessment of Trump right as I received from my boss and send them to him as my counter points, but I refrained from doing so because I understood that it would not sway his opinions at all. That is because his notion of Trump was built on irrationality and confirmation bias. Mine too was, to an extent, based on the same. I say to an extent because Trump has now won, proving that he is a master persuader, which means my notion of him was not totally based on irrationality.
So, are my boss and everyone who mocked Trump stupid? Not really. They were misinformed. When there are multiple universes in the media pushing different narratives it is easy to get misled.
In order to avoid being misled by media narratives, one must understand the following three concepts:
We are irrational
When following media narratives, ask yourself if you are really qualified to accurately assess the individual or the situation you are forming an opinion about. In almost all cases, we are not. We are forming opinions all the time based on how we feel about the person or the situation. And how we feel about someone or something depends on how it is being presented to us.
In Trump’s case, people who followed the MSM saw Trump as racist, sexist, misogynist etc. because that’s how he was presented to them, not because he really is all that. Trump has been a public figure for years, but never has he been accused of any such thing until he ran for president. You ask why?
Once you form an opinion about someone or something based on how you feel (or how you are made to feel) about it, confirmation bias kicks in. Then you will start to notice and even actively seek information that will confirm your opinion, and everything that conflicts with your view will become virtually invisible to you.
In Trump’s case, once his initial image was formed in both the universes, every speech, statement and move made by his aides provided confirmation bias to the people on both sides. As more time went by, those who thought Trump was unfit to be president saw him even more unfit, and vice versa took place on the other side.
Once confirmation bias sets in, everything that conflicts with your view becomes virtually invisible to you. But what happens when something happens that is not only conflicting with your confirmation biased-fueled view but is also too in-your-face to be ignored? You guessed right: cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is mental discomfort you feel when what you see (reality) does not match with your beliefs. The stronger your beliefs, the more the dissonance. To counter cognitive dissonance, you make up irrational hypotheses to justify your views in the face of conflicting information.
Look at the numerous hypotheses that have come out about why Trump won, none of which credit his persuasion skills or his intrinsic fitness to be president – because that would conflict with their views of Trump! There could not be more glaring example of cognitive dissonance.
How to proceed?
Be cognizant of the ubiquitous human irrationality, confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance, and learn about all point-of-views presented in the media.
In Trump’s case almost all of the MSM was against him, but people with Internet access and genuine interest in politics have no excuse for not scrutinizing both narratives. Once you start the practice of looking at all sides along with being aware of the aforementioned psychological traps that will keep you from objectivity, you will start to recognize patterns.
Pattern-recognition comes about with experience. Once you start recognizing patterns you will see a bigger picture about everything (patterns appear only in bigger view) and you will be better able to choose the right narrative.
During the Trump election I saw the following:
- Hollywood celebrities were for Hillary, army Generals were for Trump.
- Pro-immigration liberals were for Hillary, nationalist conservatives were for Trump.
- Young people were for Hillary, experienced were for Trump.
- MSM were for Hillary, citizen journalists and social media were for Trump.
- Beta males were for Hillary, masculine men were for Trump.
These are just a few of the many observations, but they are enough to provide a clear pattern that made me choose Trump as my candidate. Supporters of Trump across categories, in my view, are superior class of people.
You may not see the same pattern as I see here. But this is just one pattern. There are always more patterns, complex and multi-layered, some too intricate to articulate. The point is, if you avoid the psychological traps and study all the narratives, the patterns will emerge that will make you better informed.
Will it always make you choose the right narrative? That’s too much to expect, I’d say. Does it seem like a lot of work then? Maybe, but it’s still worth it.