top of page

Foxitis Nation-- An Era Of Endemic Disinformation

Yesterday, Jane Mayer wrote about her experience going through boxes of long-forgotten papers of the most vicious, racist GOP operative of his time-- Lee Atwater. One of the boxes "included seven chapters of Lee Atwater’s unpublished draft memoir, which had remained untouched since he succumbed to brain cancer, in 1991, at the age of forty, and at the height of his political career... [T]he nihilism, cynicism, and scurrilous tactics that Atwater brought into national politics live on. In many ways, his memoir suggests that Atwater’s tactics were a bridge between the old Republican Party of the Nixon era, when dirty tricks were considered a scandal, and the new Republican Party of Donald Trump, in which lies, racial fearmongering, and winning at any cost have become normalized. Chapter 5 of Atwater’s memoir in particular serves as a Trumpian precursor. In it, Atwater, who worked in the Office of Political Affairs in the Reagan White House, and managed George H. W. Bush’s 1988 Presidential campaign before becoming the Republican Party’s chairman at the age of thirty-seven, admits outright that he only cared about winning, not governing. 'I’ve always thought running for office is a bunch of bullshit. Being in a office is even more bullshit. It really is bullshit,' he wrote. 'I’m proud of the fact that I understand how much BS it is.'... Atwater became infamous for his effective use of smears."

Atwater died in January of 1991. For News was launched 5 years later, 24 years ago. Yesterday, Joseph Hurley, an attorney for one of the violent 1/6 insurrectionists who broke into the Capitol, Anthony Antonio, told a court that his client participated in Trump's coup because he watched too much Fox News. Antonio "had lost his job at the beginning of the pandemic and for the next six months watched Fox News constantly. Antonio developed what his lawyer called 'Foxitis' and 'Foxmania,' and believed the lies about the 2020 election from Fox News" and Trump. "'He believed what was being fed to him,' Hurley said."

As John Amato wrote at Crooks and Liars yesterday, Ron DeSantis gave Fox News "an exclusive" to cover his signing on the new Florida voter suppression legislation. All other media-- including Florida media-- was barred from the ceremony. The only way to see it was to watch Fox and Friends. Amato: "By kicking out all of Florida's media and turning a bill signing into a huge political event for Fox alone embodies how totally bankrupt and morally corrupted the Florida Republican Party is, all in an effort to appease one person. It also may be in violation of the state's Sunshine Laws... That's not democracy that's fascism."

Forbes reported that law suits were filed immediately after DeSantis signed the bill. "Florida-based civil rights groups sued state and local election officials Thursday to block new restrictive voting measures immediately after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed them into law, arguing the new requirements will disenfranchise voters including voters of color, seniors and younger voters... The League of Women Voters of Florida, Black Voters Matter Fund, Florida Alliance for Retired Americans and several individual voters sued Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, state Attorney General Ashley Moody and local supervisors of elections in federal court nine minutes after the bill’s signing, decrying SB 90 as a 'voter suppression bill.' ... A second lawsuit was then filed later Thursday morning by other civil rights groups including the NAACP, arguing SB 90 is a “restrictive and wholly unnecessary encroachment” on the “fundamental” right to vote that will disproportionately harm voters of color and disabled voters."

People with Foxitis are being fed a load of crap that this legislation-- and other bills like it being passed around the country-- are protecting election integrity. What they're not hearing is that bills like Florida's "SB 90 is a bill that purports to solve problems that do not exist, caters to a dangerous lie about the 2020 election that threatens our most basic democratic values, and, in the end, makes it harder to vote without adequate justification for doing so."

This morning, reporting for the NY Times, Max Fisher wrote that "We are in an era of endemic misinformation-- and outright disinformation. Plenty of bad actors are helping the trend along. But the real drivers, some experts believe, are social and psychological forces that make people prone to sharing and believing misinformation in the first place. And those forces are on the rise.

“Why are misperceptions about contentious issues in politics and science seemingly so persistent and difficult to correct?” Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth College political scientist, posed in a new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
It’s not for want of good information, which is ubiquitous. Exposure to good information does not reliably instill accurate beliefs anyway. Rather, Dr. Nyhan writes, a growing body of evidence suggests that the ultimate culprits are “cognitive and memory limitations, directional motivations to defend or support some group identity or existing belief, and messages from other people and political elites.”
Put more simply, people become more prone to misinformation when three things happen. First, and perhaps most important, is when conditions in society make people feel a greater need for what social scientists call ingrouping-- a belief that their social identity is a source of strength and superiority, and that other groups can be blamed for their problems.
As much as we like to think of ourselves as rational beings who put truth-seeking above all else, we are social animals wired for survival. In times of perceived conflict or social change, we seek security in groups. And that makes us eager to consume information, true or not, that lets us see the world as a conflict putting our righteous ingroup against a nefarious outgroup.
This need can emerge especially out of a sense of social destabilization. As a result, misinformation is often prevalent among communities that feel destabilized by unwanted change or, in the case of some minorities, powerless in the face of dominant forces.
Framing everything as a grand conflict against scheming enemies can feel enormously reassuring. And that’s why perhaps the greatest culprit of our era of misinformation may be, more than any one particular misinformer, the era-defining rise in social polarization.
“At the mass level, greater partisan divisions in social identity are generating intense hostility toward opposition partisans,” which has “seemingly increased the political system’s vulnerability to partisan misinformation,” Dr. Nyhan wrote in an earlier paper.
Growing hostility between the two halves of America feeds social distrust, which makes people more prone to rumor and falsehood. It also makes people cling much more tightly to their partisan identities. And once our brains switch into “identity-based conflict” mode, we become desperately hungry for information that will affirm that sense of us versus them, and much less concerned about things like truth or accuracy.
...The second driver of the misinformation era is the emergence of high-profile political figures who encourage their followers to indulge their desire for identity-affirming misinformation. After all, an atmosphere of all-out political conflict often benefits those leaders, at least in the short term, by rallying people behind them.
Then there is the third factor-- a shift to social media, which is a powerful outlet for composers of disinformation, a pervasive vector for misinformation itself and a multiplier of the other risk factors.
...As people become more prone to misinformation, opportunists and charlatans are also getting better at exploiting this. That can mean tear-it-all-down populists who rise on promises to smash the establishment and control minorities. It can also mean government agencies or freelance hacker groups stirring up social divisions abroad for their benefit. But the roots of the crisis go deeper.
“The problem is that when we encounter opposing views in the age and context of social media, it’s not like reading them in a newspaper while sitting alone,” the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote in a much-circulated MIT Technology Review article. “It’s like hearing them from the opposing team while sitting with our fellow fans in a football stadium. Online, we’re connected with our communities, and we seek approval from our like-minded peers. We bond with our team by yelling at the fans of the other one.”
In an ecosystem where that sense of identity conflict is all-consuming, she wrote, “belonging is stronger than facts.”
bottom of page