Culture

‘Gullible News’ Is a Worse Problem than Fake News

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un at a ruling party event in December. (KCNA/via Reuters)
Did writers and editors at Slate really believe that Wisconsin is less democratic than a dictatorship that kills people in secret gulags?

What happens when you combine intense partisan hatred, extreme rhetoric, and standard-fare academic lunacy? You get headlines like these, from writers at the Huffington Post, Slate, MSNBC, and Vox:

North Carolina’s Democracy Ranked on Par with Cuba.”

Sorry, North Carolina, but You Don’t Really Qualify as a Democracy Anymore.”

North Carolina’s Status as a Democracy Is Called into Question.”

Political Scientist: North Carolina ‘Can No Longer Be Classified as a Full Democracy.’”

Not a democracy? That’s news to more than 4.5 million North Carolina voters who went to the polls last November and voted for a Republican for president, a Democrat for governor, a Republican for Senate, for three Democratic and ten Republican congressional representatives, and who voted to maintain Republican super-majorities in the state House and Senate.

According to the researchers at the ironically named Electoral Integrity Project, however, these elections were no more meaningful than elections in authoritarian states such as Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela. If you drill down into EIP data, you’ll see that they rank nations according to an “index.” In 2014, Iran had an index rating of 63.5. North Korea was slightly higher, at 65.3.

Those numbers don’t mean much, so let’s compare them with the numbers for American states. As Columbia University’s Andrew Gelman notes, in a comprehensive takedown of the EIP report, the organization ranks 27 out of 50 U.S. states worse than it ranks North Korea.

Think about that for a moment. Mainstream (and extremely popular) journalistic outlets trumpeted a report claiming that Rhode Island and Pennsylvania are less democratic than a nation that maintains gulags where prisoners are either killed, tortured, or starved to the point where they must eat grass, rats, and snakes to survive. And, EIP warns, Wisconsin and Ohio are less democratic than a dictatorship that executes political prisoners with anti-aircraft guns. But, hey, American states gerrymander and some require voter ID, so they’re . . . worse?

In a time when news outlets are allegedly alert to the crisis of fake news, how could they publish such an incandescently stupid assertion? Gelman hits the nail on the head: “It all seems like an unstable combination of political ideology, academic self-promotion, credulous journalism, and plain old incompetence.”

The EIP has glittering credentials. Harvard University’s Pippa Norris directs the program, and its research team is “based at” Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the University of Sydney. In other words, if you combine a report that hits Republicans (especially the hated North Carolina Republicans) as authoritarian monsters with the academic “H bomb” — Harvard — then you’ve got journalistic gold.

This isn’t fake news, it’s gullible news. And it just might be worse than the intentionally false fake news. “Fake news” isn’t coming from respected outlets but rather from fly-by-night websites created as virtual click farms. It lives in the Internet’s underbelly. While some of its “stories” are widely shared, there’s no indication that it’s any more influential than the craziness that’s long lurked at the edges of American culture.

Gullible news is often supported by ‘studies.’ Those studies tend to be garbage.

Gullible news is different. Fake news depends on gullible readers. Gullible news exists because of gullible writers. No one is claiming that Slate or Vox or any of the other outlets above were intentionally passing along bad information. Indeed, Slate ran Gelman’s article refuting one of its previous pieces. Instead, the report hit all the right notes. It wasn’t just “too good to check,” it was “too trusted to check.” Can’t you trust content from Harvard?

Examples of gullible news are all around us. The Washington Post has been hit hard, publishing deeply flawed stories about alleged Russian efforts to spread fake news during the 2016 election and an alleged Russian hack of a Vermont utility. Indeed, fake news has been the subject of quite a bit of gullible reporting, like the deeply flawed Buzzfeed report that exaggerated the reach of fake news relative to credible outlets. Gullible news tends to serve and support a dominant media narrative. Gullible news is often supported by “studies.” Those studies tend to be garbage.

And there’s no good solution to gullible news. Ideological cocooning in the academy and in the media means that writers often don’t know when they’ve been had. They don’t even know when their methodology is flawed. Confirmation bias creeps into everything. One key answer — greater ideological diversity in the academy and mainstream media — is elusive, especially when academics and media figures are so cocooned that they view their opponents, when they encounter them at all, as evil and idiotic.

#related#So we can only do our best. For writers, that means trusting nothing and no one — not even ideological allies. Read reports. Examine methodology. Understand and acknowledge your own bias. For readers, that means reaching outside your comfort zone. Read the best writing on the other side. If something seems to confirm your fondest hopes or your darkest fears, immediately look for opposing comment.

Oh, and never forget to add a dash of common sense. If anyone ever tells you that any part of America is worse than North Korea, you don’t need a Harvard degree to know that’s nonsense. You only need a brain.

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