News Brief
Disinformation

Americans Polarized on Latest U.S. Media Controversies

A week of relentless American’ media criticism provides fresh evidence of a disturbing trend that researchers describe as the new normal in the country: many U.S. Republicans view journalists as intentionally and maliciously distorting the truth.

According to a Gallup/Knight Foundation poll, 21 percent of U.S. Republicans do not trust any news source, while 95 percent of Republicans say their trust in news media has declined in the past 10 years. Almost all Democrats who participated in the poll say their trust in the news media has gone up or stayed the same, and a third of Democrats trust most or all news sources.

These opposing beliefs were reflected in reactions to last week’s media controversies, illustrating the extent to which a significant number of Americans perceive themselves to be under siege by an organized political disinformation machine.

First came the Buzzfeed News story published last Thursday, alleging that President Donald Trump instructed his former lawyer to lie to Congress about business ties with Russia. The story landed with a splash, but a backlash began when the office of the special investigator looking into possible wrongdoing by the president denied some of the story’s sourcing.

President Trump triumphantly tweeted that “Fake News is truly the ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE.”

Over the weekend, a separate controversy erupted. A viral video showed a white teenager in a Make America Great Again cap seemingly confronting an older Native American man. Initial media reports called the high schoolers, including one named Nick Sandmann, as racist aggressors, based on a limited video view of the encounter. But that wasn’t the full story. More videos posted online later in the weekend, gave more nuance, prompting some commentators to re-examine their initial outrage.

Again, President Trump tweeted: “Nick Sandmann and the students of Covington have become symbols of Fake News and how evil it can be.”

In 2016, the RAND corporation popularized the term “Firehose of Falsehood” to describe Russian propaganda. Since then, the concept has been widely repeated by media outlets to describe a system of trollish misinformation that overwhelms a population with obvious lies, leaving them disoriented and exhausted. Breitbart’s criticism of the Buzzfeed News story mirrored this same analysis.

“Everyone in the media knew they were lying, spreading a lie,” Breitbart wrote, “The troll factor also excited the media. They knew they were lying. They knew Trump knew they were lying.”

As to the original stories whipping up such emotions: Twitter shut down the account that posted the original MAGA teen video, while Buzzfeed continues to stand by its Trump-Russia story.

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