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.

Faculty member appears on PBS/OZY series “The Contenders”

A screenshot of Penn State Professor Nichola Gutgold on "The Trailblazers."

A screenshot of Penn State Professor Nichola Gutgold on “The Trailblazers.”

Nichola Gutgold, a Penn State communications arts and sciences professor, appeared last night on “The Trailblazers,” the latest episode of the PBS/OZY series “The Contenders: 16 for ’16.”

The episode looked at Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin, who challenged the notion of what makes a strong vice president. “The Contenders” is an eight-hour documentary series that examines the most compelling and influential presidential campaigns in modern history.

Watch the full episode here.

Trump’s wall ignores the economic logic of undocumented immigrant labor

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

Lise Nelson, Pennsylvania State University


In the final weeks of his campaign, Donald Trump has reiterated his call to build a wall between Mexico and the United States. A Pew Research survey shows his supporters are united by, perhaps more than any other issue, anti-immigrant sentiment.

To him, like many of his supporters, this wave of invading “criminals” supported and abetted by the Mexican government is a dire threat to the nation.

Lise Nelson

Lise Nelson

Put aside for a moment the racist dimensions of this rhetoric. The wall argument assumes the cause of undocumented migration originates in Mexico, in the Mexican government or in the criminal intent of migrants. A border wall makes intuitive sense if you assume the cause of undocumented migration is external to the United States.

This is a belief that ignores not only the ease of breaching such a wall, but more fundamentally the economics of low-wage, undocumented labor migration that generated these flows in the first place.

Over the last two decades, U.S. recruitment of workers without documentation has drawn millions over the border even as we have invested billions in policing, barricades and surveillance on that same border.

My research, like that of others, sheds light on the day-to-day incentives employers have for recruiting undocumented workers. The cumulative effect of these recruitment practices, which occur in nearly every geographic region of the country, is to invite large-scale migration across the U.S.-Mexico border. It is a draw that is highly resistant to our efforts to stop it. From this perspective, the origins of the current situation, in which 6.4 percent of our workforce lacks documentation, lie north of the border as much as south of it.

A preference for the undocumented

My colleagues and I have conducted research in U.S. communities where undocumented Latino immigrants live and work, including interviews with their employers. We focused on small businesses in rural Colorado and Georgia. We investigated how and why entrepreneurs in construction, landscaping and low-wage service industries began actively seeking to hire undocumented Latino immigrants starting in the mid-1990s even though immigrant workers were largely absent from these places prior to that time.

What started for many as a short-term solution to fill a labor gap turned into a preference for hiring undocumented workers. Recruitment efforts thus intensified, causing a significant growth in the Latino immigrant population in both places. In a rural Georgia county, the Latino population increased 1,760 percent between 1990 and 2010, due to the increase in these recruitment efforts by businesses involved in construction, landscaping, cleaning and food provision.

Why did businesses that rely on low-wage workers develop a preference for immigrants and particularly undocumented ones?

In interviews, employers describe the undocumented Latino immigrants they hire as among the most reliable, honest and hardworking employees they have ever had. As one Georgia employer described it:

“I think about, if I had to get rid of the nine Hispanics that I’ve got tomorrow and replace them with locals, to get the same amount of output, I would have to hire fifteen instead of nine and I’d probably have to pay them $1 an hour more each, and that figures up quick. And there’s sometimes that you just can’t find people to do the work.”

Most employers we interviewed began by the late 1990s to organize their businesses around the productivity and discipline offered by an undocumented immigrant workforce.

This view not only contradicts Trump’s assumptions about undocumented low-wage immigrants’ “criminal” character, it sheds light on their role in a range of economic sectors across the country. Over the past two decades, low-wage industries across the U.S. have increasingly recruited and relied on immigrant workers, many of whom lack documentation.

The economic benefits created by the presence of low-wage, undocumented immigrant workers are experienced not only by the American businesses that hire them, but also by consumers. Where our research was conducted, consumers enjoyed lower-cost housing and a range of cheaper restaurant, landscaping and cleaning services due to their presence. These kinds of economic benefits explain why Donald Trump hired undocumented Polish workers to help build Trump Tower.

The ‘ideal’ worker

People who enter the United States without documents are usually motivated by profound economic need, a need that animates them to embark on a dangerous and uncertain journey. Poverty places them in a position of vulnerability that often proves to be an asset to their U.S. employers. Eager for employment, they often accept difficult, irregular and low-paying jobs they can do without being fluent in English.

The threat of deportation adds an additional layer of insecurity and vulnerability. Undocumented residents live in fear. That applies even to those who are raising citizen children, who are gainfully employed over many years, who have no criminal record and who pay sales, property and income taxes. They live with a constant threat of deportation and a deep sense of being viewed with suspicion by some in the communities where they live. It is a suspicion often tied to racial animosity. Latino residents are frequently profiled as “illegal” – regardless of their actual legal status or nationality, a trend that affects not only labor markets but whole communities.

The combination of poverty and fear of deportation inspires most undocumented immigrants to tie themselves closely to their employers. They work hard and avoid public spaces. In the words of sociologists Jill Harrison (University of Colorado-Boulder) and Jennifer Lloyd (University of Wisconsin-Madison), undocumented workers become “compliant workaholics” in order to survive. Employers in low-wage industries have found this disciplined, loyal and flexible workforce very attractive.

The economic power of this process is resistant to border control and physical barriers installed over the last two decades – precursors to the fantasy of an impenetrable wall. It is telling that the steady growth of the undocumented workforce between the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s happened despite a nearly constant growth of spending on border patrol, new barriers and surveillance. Only in the wake of the 2008 economic crash, which dramatically slowed recruitment processes, did the unauthorized Mexican workforce in the United State start to decline.

Trump, of course, pairs his call for a huge wall with a promise to enforce mass deportation. This is equally unrealistic in economic terms. Economists have estimated that if Trump were successful in removing all undocumented workers, our GDP would fall by 5.7 percent. This is in addition to the cost of such a deportation effort, which is estimated at requiring US$400 billion in new federal spending. Finally, there is the human cost of this plan given that in 2012 4.5 million U.S. citizen children have one or more undocumented parents.

While there is a clear economic logic to the presence of millions of undocumented workers in the United States, a logic that I believe we misunderstand at our peril, the current system does not provide justice nor a decent life for low-wage immigrant or nonimmigrant workers.

I believe comprehensive immigration reform would make it possible for undocumented workers to legalize, a place from which they could demand better wages and working conditions. Their improved situation would actually help level the playing field – eliminating the unfair advantage of illegal status in the labor market – for nonimmigrant workers. Legalization and a path to citizenship not only provide a ethical path out of our current situation, they make economic sense as well.

The Conversation

Lise Nelson is an associate professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and an associate professor of geography at Pennsylvania State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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