In a post-truth election, clicks trump facts

Donald Trump speaks at a December 2015 campaign stop at Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Photo Credit: Matt A.J./Flickr

Donald Trump speaks at a December 2015 campaign stop at Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Photo Credit: Matt A.J./Flickr

Matthew Jordan, Pennsylvania State University


One thing about the 2016 presidential race is undeniable: Donald Trump has lied or misled at an unprecedented level. Over 70 percent of his statements, according to Politifact, are “mostly false,” “false” or “pants on fire false.” (Hillary Clinton is at 26 percent.)

His latest whopper – that the election is being rigged by a dishonest media and through ballot fraud – fed the news cycle for an entire week.

Matthew Jordan

Matthew Jordan

But while Trump scapegoats the media, he has served them well – at least, financially. Cable news organizations are expected to break records with US$2.5 billion in profits this election and spending on digital ads will reach $1 billion for the first time in a presidential campaign. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik recently reported that CNN has earned roughly $100 million more than they’d anticipated during this election cycle – largely due to Trump.

With Trump’s poll numbers cratering over the past month, conservative media figures like Bill Kristol have tried to keep the top of the ticket from bringing down the GOP brand, calling Trump a “fluke” candidate and trying to shift the blame to the media for fomenting his rise – and nauseating lies – with billions of dollars in free coverage.

As a media scholar who has followed Trump’s “reality show” campaign and its impact on TV ratings and democracy, I would say there is, indeed, plenty of reason to blame the media players who have shrugged all the way to the bank.

More than just accounting for his rise, the profit motive in the digital media game has made it easier than ever before to spread false or defamatory information.

Poisoning the well

The media have always been eager to cover Trump, a playboy business magnate whose ventures endured wild ups and downs. He spent years on The Howard Stern Show honing his shock jock persona, bragging about his sexual conquests and insulting public figures. On “The Apprentice,” the louder he yelled “You’re fired!,” the higher his ratings soared. Audiences seemed to be drawn to his conspicuously cocksure authoritarian persona.

He also understands a basic tenet of for-profit media: The only “truth” is that you can’t be boring.

As Trump moved into the political arena, he beguiled old and new media into covering him by saying outrageous things – truth be damned – knowing that controversial statements draw immediate coverage.

In the wake of controversy, there’s usually a segment on cable news shows where a candidate or surrogate gets free air time to explain what they meant, followed by someone who refutes it. Analysts or op-ed writers will then devote time to denouncing the statement with attention-grabbing headlines like “15 Hours of Donald Trump’s Lies” (after Trump spent a day making stuff up about the Khan family) or “The Lies Trump Told” (a list of his biggest fibs).

The problem isn’t just that these articles keep the attention focused on Trump, reinforcing his chosen topics and frames for talking about them. It’s also been well-documented that the very act of trying to explain or denounce a lie can reinforce it.

We know from studies of how anti-vaccination myths spread that each time a telegenic spokesperson repeats a lie – even in a segment designed to correct it – it becomes more familiar to audiences. Paradoxically, because people tend to equate familiarization with truth, the more a lie is called out for being a lie, the more difficult it becomes to parse from the truth.

Digital media platforms exacerbate this problem because revenue models incentivize clicks over truth. In digital capitalism attention has been monetized. The more outrageous the statement, the more clicks it generates.

These days, even legacy media – newspapers like The New York Times or The Washington Post – follow the data buzz and cover whatever is trending. Trump has mastered using Twitter, a medium that suits his blunt invective rhetoric, to kickstart the misinformation feedback loop. He knows his colorful and misleading statements get retweeted by friends and foes alike – that writers and performers will react with ardent confirmation, denunciation or dramatic satire.

The dawn of the Twitter bots

A team led by Oxford University professor Philip Howard has also been able to show that there are Twitter bots – fake accounts programmed to behave like impassioned supporters – promoting each presidential candidate during this cycle. But Trump’s army vastly outnumbers Clinton’s, with millions of tweets and retweets that have been programmed to include hashtags like #CrookedHillary, memes, photographs and links to hyperpartisan Facebook “news” pages like Eagle Rising.

With 62 percent of Americans getting their news from social media and 44 million reading it on Facebook pages, these bots can easily promulgate lies and half-truths, especially when users aren’t able to recognize the source.

Meanwhile, Buzzfeed recently wrote a lengthy report about how content producers of hyperpartisan Facebook pages are growing their audiences by eschewing factual reporting and using false or misleading information that simply tells people what they want to hear.

After fact checking over 1,000 posts from pages categorized as “right-wing” or “left-wing,” they found that 38 percent of the content on Trump-friendly pages like Freedom Daily – with 1.3 million fans – were either half-true or false. These phony stories, especially outrageous ones like the fable of Clinton’s “body double,” generate massive digital traffic that adds directly to Facebook’s bottom line. These pages are not flukes. Rather, as media writer John Herrman wrote in The New York Times Magazine, they are “the purest expression of Facebook’s design and of the incentives coded into its algorithm.”

Toward a new media ethic

A 2009 study found that commercialized media lower the political knowledge of viewers. The price we pay for a profit-driven media marketplace, it seems, is national ignorance.

Convenient untruths benefit their producers, no matter which side consumes or leverages them for fundraising. Everyone in the political information industry profits from the resulting suspicion, cynicism and outrage.

If Trump loses, the possibility of Trump TV looms; undoubtedly, it will serve the for-profit media a steady stream of ready-made rage. But we need to think hard about how to resist this “Trumpification” of the media.

There’s no easy answer. It would probably involve supporting structural reforms like nonprofit or public news alternatives. It would include ending the absurd practice of giving paid perjurers representing campaigns an opportunity to lie in the name of journalistic “fairness” – as if statements from the “spinroom” are ever uttered in good faith.

We need a new media ethic that ignores clickbait calumny, not one that gives bad faith actors a chance to repeat it. Journalists must resist reacting like Twitter bots. Rather than predictably repeating mendacious falsehoods that increase our ignorance, they should act as stewards of the public interest, choosing news content and media frames that add to our collective understanding.

It will demand denying serial liars like Trump the attention they so desperately need, leaving more air and space for truth to be heard.

The Conversation

Matthew Jordan, is an associate professor of media studies at Pennsylvania State UniversityThis article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Donald Trump’s real goal for 2016: Trying to beat Fox News

Donald Trump speaks at a December 2015 campaign stop at Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Photo Credit: Matt A.J./Flickr

Donald Trump speaks at a December 2015 campaign stop at Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Photo Credit: Matt A.J./Flickr

Sophia A. McClennen, Penn State professor of Comparative Literature and International Affairs, has penned a piece on Here is an excerpt of the piece:

Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen

“The conspiracy theory of the week is the idea that Donald Trump didn’t run to become president; he ran to become the head of the next conservative media empire. As the New Yorker reports, the Trump campaign has been joined in the last weeks by both Steve Bannon of Breitbart and Roger Ailes, the disgraced head of Fox News, fueling speculations that Trump’s real goal is to build a new conservative news media network.

“The notion makes sense: How else to explain why Trump refuses to broaden his base of support and continues to stoke his core of racist, right-wing extremist fans? How else to explain why Trump has refused to reach out to the Republican establishment and build a larger political network? And how else to explain the dynamic duo of conservative media villains — Bannon and Ailes — playing a role in Trump’s campaign?

“If the thought of a Trump presidency worries you, the thought of a Trump news network should scare the hell out of you.”


Can a Russian-funded cable network actually promote free press in the U.S.?

A screen shot of RT America's website ( on March 29, 2016, shows news stories of the day.

A screenshot of RT America’s website ( on March 29, 2016, shows news stories of the day.D

Sophia A. McClennen | Director of the Center for Global Studies and Associate Director of the School of International Affairs


With the recently announced shutdown of Al Jazeera America, the alternative cable news scene is in flux.

Launched as a corrective to the politicized and spectacle-heavy programming of Fox News, CNN and MSNBC, Al Jazeera America positioned itself as a fact-based, unbiased news source. Even though the network won awards for reporting, the Qatari government-funded channel suffered from the public perception that it had an anti-Western, pro-Islamic stance. Amid lowering gas prices and reports of other financial woes, the channel announced it would shut down its U.S. operations at the end of April.

Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen

As Al Jazeera America closes shop, it’s worth wondering how this change will affect the position of RT America – previously known as Russia Today America – in the U.S. market. Like Al Jazeera, RT America has fashioned itself as a serious alternative to the politicized media circus promoted by the top three cable news stations. Unlike Al Jazeera, it runs ad-free, which arguably gives it even more potential for influence-free programming.

But RT America has some inherent contradictions: it offers a “Russian state perspective” in its news programming while simultaneously airing some of the most progressive shows on U.S. cable. As Julia Ioffe writes in the Columbia Journalism Review, RT America often acts as a “shrill propaganda outlet” for the Kremlin – an identity that clashes with its desire to compete in the international news market.

At the same time, according to Ioffe, RT America understands that in order to effectively compete with other progressive, unbiased networks, it needs “to be taken seriously.” This realization, she explains, has led to some good reporting.

It’s a crazy notion – and a bit mind-boggling to consider – but RT America might be offering some of the most progressive, uncensored cable media programming in the U.S. today.

Certainly some will not be able to look past the paradox that a nation that has one of the lowest scores on the press freedom index could also be funding a valuable alternative to mainstream cable news.

But when it comes to distorting the news, is the network any more culpable than mainstream cable networks? And can U.S. audiences overcome their inherent prejudice that RT America is just a propaganda arm for the Russian government?

The RT America paradox

Thus far, most coverage of RT America has focused on its ties to the Kremlin. But there’s a distinct difference between the news arm of the Moscow-based Russia Today and RT America’s opinion shows.

In short, the opinion and talk shows that populate RT America seem to have editorial freedom, while the news arm of RT does not.

One stark example took place over coverage of the conflict between Russia and the Ukraine.

RT news anchor Liz Wahl resigned on air, citing disagreements with RT’s editorial policy. More recently, Moscow-based Sarah Firth – who worked for RT, not RT America – resigned in protest over the way that the network was covering the Malaysian Airlines crash in Ukraine.

In contrast, Abby Martin, former host of “Breaking the Set,” an opinion show that aired on RT America from 2012 to 2015, openly criticized Russian military intervention into Ukraine in March of 2014. Yet she went on to continue to host her show for another year before moving on. In a note for Media Roots, she explained she was leaving the show to pursue more investigative reporting and added “RT has given me opportunities I will be eternally thankful for.”

This suggests a divide at RT America over freedom of expression in opinion shows versus news coverage. It’s a distinction that is important to note and to critique. But it’s also one that suggests that the assumption that all RT America programming is tainted by propaganda may itself be an unfounded bias.

The RT difference

While Al Jazeera America and RT America both angled to offer an alternative to mainstream U.S. news media, there are many ways that RT has followed a different – and potentially more successful – path.

First, RT America made the smart move to remove Russia from its name. Al Jazeera refused to adjust its name to appeal to U.S. viewers and distance itself from its financial backers.

RT America has also differed radically in the sort of programming offered. Balancing out its daily news programming, RT America airs analysis and commentary shows by Larry King, Thom Hartmann, Jesse Ventura and former MSNBC host Ed Schultz – all established personalities with significant appeal to American audiences.

In addition, RT America has carved out a niche with millennial viewers, with two shows aimed at a younger audience and hosted by younger talent. The first, “Watching the Hawks,”is a news magazine show hosted by Tyrel Ventura (Jesse’s son), Sean Stone (Oliver’s son) and Tabetha Wallace.

When they were announced as new hosts for a show on RT, many dismissed the development. Wallace told me, for instance, that she is often derogatorily called “Putin’s princess,” since it’s assumed the Russian leader controls her.

But I believe “Watching the Hawks” has fed viewers a consistent diet of cutting-edge stories on politics, media and culture. They often target corporate abuse, like pieces they’ve run on HSBC and Dow-Dupont.

Meanwhile, Wallace has reported on the annual gathering of veterans called “The Bikers of Rolling Thunder,” and she covered the 70th Hiroshima Peace Ceremony. In my opinion, both segments are solid examples of stories that had been largely ignored in the mainstream U.S. media.

The second millennial-oriented show on RT America is “Redacted Tonight,” a satirical news program hosted by political comedian Lee Camp.

Camp – described by Salon as “Jon Stewart with sharper teeth” – appeals to an audience that has become increasingly dissatisfied with mainstream news.

Since 9/11, satire news has increasingly been taken more seriously than “real” news (even though it doesn’t exactly live up to that standard). Nonetheless, Jon Stewart was voted most trusted journalist after Walter Cronkite died. And viewers of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” scored higher than viewers of network news in knowledge of public issues.

Taking advantage of the fact that RT airs no advertising, Camp goes after any and all corporate and political malfeasance he can uncover. And he makes his audience laugh while doing it.

Recent episodes highlighted how the media claimed Hillary Clinton won the first Democratic debate even though Bernie Sanders won every poll, and pointed to the ongoing inability of the U.S. public to have a meaningful conversation about Israel and Palestine.

Like Jon Stewart, Lee Camp uses humor to criticize mainstream media coverage in this clip from “Redacted Tonight.”


These sorts of shows were missing on Al Jazeera America. The network never attempted to break into the “fake news” market, despite the fact that it’s a growing source of news and entertainment for young viewers. Nor did they provide the sort of hip, inquisitive programming found on “Watching the Hawks.”

Arguably, these two shows could build a young base of viewers for RT America.

A network of independent personalities

While skeptics may think that these shows can’t possibly be free of Kremlin influence, many of the top-billed hosts for RT America – Larry King, Jesse Ventura, Thom Hartmann and Ed Schultz – all share a history of being independent thinkers.

Take Thom Hartmann’s show, “The Big Picture.” Hartmann, a radio and TV personality and author of over 25 books, has made his career as a progressive political commentator. His two writers work in RT America’s Washington, D.C. studio, and they both told me that they have zero restrictions on what they cover each night.

When I asked Hartmann, he said, “No one at RT has ever told me what to say and what not to say.”

Meanwhile he explained that in any given week, “The Big Picture,” covers at least three stories that simply would never appear on mainstream cable news. And yet, despite the fact that “The Big Picture” also airs on the progressive cable network Free Speech TV, his presence on RT America has to contend with assumptions of censorship and control.

King has also done a series of interviews where he’s had to justify his ties to the network. In each case, he has explained that he hates censorship and that his own show is completely free of any editorial control. He has also openly disagreed with Russian policies: “I certainly vehemently disagree with the position they take on homosexuals – that’s absurd to me.”

No one asks anchors on NBC how it feels to work for a weapons contractorNumerous studiesincluding one out of the University of Michigan, have shown that the link between GE and NBC has led to biased reporting.

Not only is the U.S. media influenced by corporatations; it’s also influenced by the federal government.

In 2006, journalists Amy and David Goodman reported that “Under the Bush administration, at least 20 federal agencies … spent $250 million creating hundreds of fake television news segments that [were] sent to local stations.” They also documented how the government paid journalists in Iraq for positive reporting, and provided canned videos to air on cable news.

Given these examples of political and corporate influence on mainstream networks, it is worth wondering why RT gets criticized for bias while other networks get a free pass.

Lee Camp says he was drawn to RT in the first place precisely because of the editorial freedom. He knew he wouldn’t have to worry about pressure from advertisers.

As he explained in the opening of one episode:

People [ask] me why Redacted Tonight is on RT and not another network…I’ll tell you why. My anti-consumerism, anti-two-party-corporate-totalitarianism isn’t exactly welcomed with open arms on networks showing 24/7 Wal-Mart ads.

A new cultural Cold War?

RT America has certainly embraced its paradoxical role of pushing media boundaries in the U.S. that likely wouldn’t be tolerated on Russian soil. But before we fall into Cold War dichotomies of U.S. press freedom and Russian media censorship, it’s important to note two key realities in the 21st-century media landscape.

First, while it’s important to hold RT America accountable for its coverage of Russia’s intervention into Ukraine, it’s worth noting that the U.S. media could equally be held accountable for its own coverage of the 9/11 attacks and the lead-up to the U.S.-Iraq War.

In 2015, four out of 10 Americans still believed there were weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq – a level of disinformation that requires media compliance. These statistics show the long-lasting impact of media bias in shaping public opinion.

Furthermore, the current U.S. news media is filled not only with bias but also with outright lies. Fox News, the most-watched cable news network, lies about 60 percent of the time, according to Politifact. For NBC and MSNBC, the score isn’t much better: 46 percent.

One wonders how RT America would compare.


Read this story on The Conversation (March 29, 2016)

Skip to toolbar