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The Failings Of Both Traditional And Social Media Have Led To The Concerning Destruction Of Fact

In Donald Trump's America, one person's facts are another person's fictions.
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In a post-election analysis, media research firm mediaQuant calculated that Donald Trump earned approximately $4.96 billion in "free" media - compared to just $3.24 billion for Hillary Clinton, and $1.15 billion and $0.7 billion from Obama and Romney in 2012 respectively. "Free" media refers to all media not directly paid for through advertising - examples include online articles, television and radio interviews, broadcasts of campaign rallies, print articles, blog and forum posts, and social media. However, no media is truly free - in Donald Trump's case, much of his media attention was "earned" through his bombastic remarks, abhorrent behavior, and ability to incite rallying cries with racist, xenophobic, sexist, and hateful rhetoric. The media chose to give Mr. Trump airtime because he brought in the ears, eyes, and clicks of the nation - some of whom found security and comfort through his fear mongering, many fearfully seeing him as a dangerous demigod comparable to history's most horrific leaders, and yet others finding his efforts futile and humorous.

In terms of broadcast media, Trump just narrowly outgained Clinton in "free" media. Still, in a 24-hour TV news format, Trump's coverage was enormous. According to The GDELT Project's Presidential Election 2016 Candidate Television Tracker, Donald Trump's name was mentioned by TV news stations at least three times as frequently as the next candidate since July of 2015. Clinton's mentions would eventually catch up as we neared the general election, however Trump would on average have substantially more mentions than Clinton on any given day leading up to the election. In a conversation at Harvard University back in October, CNN's President Jeff Zucker said he had no regrets about how his network covered Mr. Trump and acknowledged that his campaign was a ratings machine. As a bit of a half-measure, Zucker admitted that if he could change one thing about his network's spotlight on Trump's presidential campaign, he would have shown fewer Trump "campaign rallies in those early months unedited." He added, "I think in hindsight, we shouldn't have done that as much." While several news outlets did work tirelessly to reveal the lies and flip-flops of Trump's candidacy, the oversaturation of seemingly non-stop Trump coverage helped launch and legitimize his candidacy and vindicate his supporters. Despite its role in Trump's eventual rise to the presidency, he would nonetheless grow to despise and condemn the very same attention that made his victory possible, urging his supporters away from mainstream media.

Attacks on the mainstream media are nothing new for the conservative right. Since the early days of President Obama's presidency in 2008, referring to publications and networks like MSNBC, CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post as the "lamestream media" is common practice for conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the hosts of Fox and Friends. According to poll from Gallup this September, America's trust in media has fallen to a new low - just 32% of U.S. adults say that they trust media "a great deal." Among conservatives, this figure is at an even lower 14%. Among a host of other factors (e.g., the pressure on reporters to meet quotas and chase after clicks rather than focussing on meaningful stories and substance), this mistrust has been fueled by the rise of social media which has given everyone a platform to voice their opinions while also creating an alternative, often-splintered, news medium. Today, 62% of U.S. adults get their news from social media - this not only reflects the convenience of the platform, but is also arguably a reflection of a growing distrust of mainstream media in this country. Social media news is not just CNN or The New York Times sharing articles to their respective Facebook and Twitter accounts, it takes into account any website on the internet that calls itself a news source, accredited or otherwise.

During this year's election, headlines that insisted Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump for president or that WikiLeaks confirmed that Secretary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS ran rampant on social media - particularly on Facebook where 44% of U.S. adults get their news. Stories like these often lack any factual evidence and can be quickly disproven through basic research. Nonetheless, these stories garnered millions of engagements on Facebook. According to an analysis posted last week by Buzzfeed, fake news stories received approximately 1.4 million more engagements on Facebook than mainstream news stories in the months leading up to the election. Many of these fake news stories, often filled with blatant and sensational falsehoods, were written or shared by hyper-partisan Facebook pages that specialize in confirming bias on both sides of the political aisle. It's worth noting that whatever your political ideology, there's a website or Facebook page that will agree with and confirm your beliefs (however extreme, factually inaccurate, or outright hateful). Indeed, 38% of posts on hyper-partisan conservative pages and 19% of posts on hyper-partisan liberal pages were shown to be either completely false or at least partially false. While posting any false news under the guise of facts is problematic, conservative news pages having twice as many false news stories as liberal pages is telling. Headlines insisting that Secretary Clinton was selling secrets to foreign enemies in her emails or that she had hired hit men and arsonists to take out her political adversaries no doubt vilified her campaign and made her seem untrustworthy to some voters.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg went on record earlier this month discrediting the idea that fake news on Facebook played any role in the outcome of election and added that the number of fake news stories on the social media platform was miniscule (less than 1% to be exact). After weeks of mounting criticism, Facebook and search engine powerhouse Google have finally taken action to ban fake news from their respective ad programs - many of these stories were written not by actual conservatives (or even Americans for that matter), but by those looking to create a quick and easy profit through advertising. One such fake news writer who feels partially responsible for Donald Trump's victory would reportedly make $10,000 a month from Google's ad service alone. Even with Facebook's ad policy changes, former Facebook employee Adam Schrader insists that Facebook's fake news problem was easily avoidable and that the site could be doing far more to fight fake news. Schrader was a member of the short-lived Facebook trending news team whose role was to curate what appeared as "trending" on the social media platform as well as to stop fake news from ever gaining traction and popularity. After accusations that the team was silencing conservative voices, Zuckerberg held a meeting with conservative pundits and ultimately decided to disband the team. Zuckerberg remains in denial of the credibility that many users give Facebook as a news source and does not want to police fake news for fear of Facebook appearing biased. Zuckerberg and his team would have you believe that Facebook is only a tech company, but the fact of the matter is that in 2016, social media sites have to have journalistic integrity and police those who attempt to spread harmful falsehoods.

In Donald Trump's America one person's facts are another person's fictions. It is important to realize that those who are tricked into believing these lies are often misguided and will still hold these beliefs even after the false stories have been blocked on social media platforms. Those of us who understand how false information can grow and fester online have a moral responsibility to inform those who do not. We have to re-establish faith in our media and in facts themselves. We have to show the Jeff Zucker's of the world that we value factual news coverage over sensationalism. President-elect Donald Trump has made facts a subjective concept - so much so that the Oxford Dictionary's word of the year is "post-fact," which they have defined as: "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief." We cannot normalize a post-fact America.