The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Mainstream media have failed to notice their own disinformation issue

Hunter Biden waits for the start of his father's debate at Centre College in Danville, Ky., on Oct. 11, 2012. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)
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When it comes to information, we are no longer one nation, undivided. The problem has been developing at least since 2010, when my friend Julian Sanchez noted the growing “epistemic closure” on the right.

“Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News,” he wrote. “Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted.”

But those were days of comparative innocence, when it at least seemed as though Americans all wanted one set of common facts. Now when you peer rightward, you discover one of those bizarro-world alternate universes of comic book fame, where Ukraine is faking devastating civilian casualties and Joe Biden isn’t necessarily the duly elected president of the United States.

This frets the mainstream media. It is our job to provide information, so naturally we worry when so many customers aren’t buying. Over the past 10 years, many column inches have been devoted to the problems of epistemic closure, and Fox News, and disinformation: How do people trust those charlatans over us?

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In fact, we in the mainstream have been so busy denouncing “fake news” that we failed to notice we’re developing a wee disinformation problem of our own — much of which has stemmed, ironically, from our efforts to fight disinformation on the right.

Case in point is a story that ran in the New York Post in October 2020. The newspaper claimed to have been given access to a trove of Hunter Biden’s emails, from a laptop somewhat mysteriously abandoned at a Delaware repair shop. Among other things, those emails suggested Hunter Biden had possibly been trying to peddle his father’s influence during Joe Biden’s vice presidency.

An election was looming, and of course conservative media leaped on the “incriminating” trove. Here on Earth Prime, the information gatekeepers scrambled to keep this story from polluting the mainstream’s pristine infoscape, condemning the story as Russian disinformation, pure distraction, so dubious that even the New York Post’s own reporters were skeptical.

Twitter blocked the story, citing its policy barring “hacked materials,” then suspended the New York Post’s account for sharing it. Facebook allowed sharing but downranked the story in the news feed algorithms.

That’s a whole lot of effort to suppress a story that seems to be … true? The New York Times reported March 16 that the emails are part of the evidence in a federal investigation now before a grand jury.

One week into the “Oops, it was real” news cycle, I have now heard all the excuses as to why this actually is an instance of journalism and tech moderation working like they should. It was unverified, I’ve heard. Too close to an election. And even if the emails were real, they may have been obtained illegally — can’t have that!

All of which might sound very reasonable if only my profession had displayed the same caution with stories that made conservatives look bad.

In September 2020 the New York Times revealed all sorts of details from two decades of Donald Trump’s personal and business tax returns. It seems possible, even likely, that whoever leaked the information had a legal or fiduciary duty to keep it confidential. Yet the story ran, and as far as I know, Twitter didn’t block it from being shared.

The fact that the now-discredited Steele dossier was unverified did not stop BuzzFeed from publishing it, or the rest of the mainstream media from engaging in an orgy of speculation about Trump’s connections to Russia. When unverifiable accusations of sexual assault against Brett M. Kavanaugh surfaced, mainstream outlets relaxed their journalistic standards — but were considerably more skeptical when the accused was Joe Biden. Many easily believed misleading videos about Catholic kids at the March for Life, but when Project Veritas releases a new sting video, the instinct is to point out how deceptive edited video can be.

As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt puts it, the difference in mainstream reporting is the difference between can and must. When it comes to stories that flatter Democrats, we often ask “Can I believe it?” If it’s not obviously false, we do. But if the story flatters the right, we are more likely to ask “Must I believe it?” If we can find any reason to disbelieve, we take it — and keep the story off our pages.

The obvious retort is that the same thing is happening on the right, only more so. And indeed, some right-wing media have gone much further with crazy election conspiracies than any mainstream outlet ever did with Russophobia. But pointing that out doesn’t do a thing to solve the problem.

An actual solution will require the recognition that we in the mainstream media are part of the problem: We are not trusted because we are not entirely trustworthy. That is not the only thing that will have to be fixed to heal our epistemic divide. But it would make a very good start.

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