The Epistemic Crisis of American Media
“If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition
the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis.”
The above quote was retrieved from former president Barack Obama’s interview for The Atlantic, in which he reflected on the state of American democracy in the aftermath of the Trump Presidency. Although in his interview Obama neglects to acknowledge the wealth disparities that opened a path for populist conspiracy, he ultimately is correct in suggesting that the American media has facilitated an epistemological crisis that is threatening our democracy. In the article, Obama cited the media’s role in Trump’s success and the emergence of a very real threat to American Democracy. Although I agree with his position, it would also be worth citing the reasons for why far-right populist ideologies grew in popularity prior to the media’s facilitation of them.
From 1989 to 2016, the wealth of the nation’s top one percent grew by nine percentage points, while the bottom ninety percent experienced a decline of more than ten percentage points. Disturbingly, the bottom fifty percent experienced a decline of nearly two thirds of their portion of the nation’s wealth points from 1989 to 2016. Quite clearly, Obama’s neoliberal politics and the American institutions that help maintain the status quo were not working for many working class Americans. An ideological fascist ‘outsider’ who offered working class Americans someone to blame became attractive.
But in truth, Obama is correct in believing that the media is facilitating a democratic crisis in America. The media has always been driven by a capitalist incentive that prioritizes revenue over substantive journalism that may help an individual understand what a candidate can (or can’t) do for them. For example, the Columbia Journalism Review noted that only five out of the 150 front page articles in The New York Times in the last and most critical months leading up to the 2016 presidential election attempted to compare Clinton and Trump policies, with only 10 describing the policies of either candidate in any detail.
Instead, ‘liberal’ media outlets like the Times (and many others) instead focused on scandals like Hillary Clinton’s private email. Essentially, Trump was the perfect candidate to exploit the incentives of the media; a reality TV demagogue who knew nothing about politics but everything about entertaining. His sensational attacks became entertainment for many audiences, but for many White Americans, it ultimately accumulated into an exemplification of the Nazi ideology “if you repeat a lie enough, it often becomes the truth.”
While social media was not the originator of these ideas, they certainly offered a platform for Trumpist conspiracy theories to spread. Indeed, like the television news media, social media has been subject into similar capitalist constraints. As a result, social media has been able to adhere to the confirmation bias of many Americans who bought into Trump’s fear mongering. A large platform now exists for extremist ideologies perpetuated by groups like QAnon, who boast millions of followers on Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter. In fact, a 2016 Buzzfeed article noted that the twenty top fake election news stories on facebook outperformed the twenty best performing election stories from a combined nineteen major news sources.
It should come as no surprise, then, that millions of Americans will continue to believe that Biden’s victory was a hoax. Beyond the spread of this dangerous misinformation, media outlets like Fox News have reshaped the image of the Republican Party. Widespread belief in these Fox News- and social media-spread conspiracies have made it politically advantageous for Republicans to encourage them. While Obama admitted his surprise in the GOP’s adherence to Trump’s overt deviation from democratic norms, he ignores the fact that the media has facilitated an environment such that criticizing Trump’s authoritarian policies works against the Republican Party.
The capitalist incentives of the television news, and social media companies like Facebook have made it possible for Americans to believe anything they want to believe in. The result has been the formation of a political environment where we cannot distinguish between what is real and what is false. We have already seen this environment open a path for a facist to the presidency, but the further implications are yet to be seen. However, as Obama suggests, the American media already presented an epistemological crisis that has threatened our democracy.