Public Anthropologies

In the days following Donald Trump’s inauguration, the following graphic went viral on social media.

Source: Vanessa Otero

It is easy to understand why this image became so popular. Although fake news stories likely did not impact the outcome of the elections, demonstrably false stories ranging from secret Democratic pedophilia clubs run out of pizza parlors to baseless accusations about the Clintons orchestrating murders against former staffers circulated at an alarming rate, leading many to feel that they lost the shared ground needed to have productive debate about the country’s future.


“In an age when we are as likely to get our news from whatever our friends post on Facebook or Twitter as we are from professionally vetted sources like CNN or the New York Times, people rightly wish to identify reliable sources of information.”


And with the new administration pushing “alternative facts,” this issue is not going away anytime soon. In an age when we are as likely to get our news from whatever our friends post on Facebook or Twitter as we are from professionally vetted sources like CNN or the New York Times, people rightly wish to identify reliable sources of information.

Yet this viral meme is about far more than just filtering out unreliable news sources. A wide body of anthropological research has demonstrated how presenting information in a quantitative or graphical form (whether they bear any relationship to actual research) often carries hidden ideological messages. This graphic is a prime example. The chart presents an illusion of objectivity. News sources appear on a grid, giving the impression that someone has systematically scrutinized the ideological skew and accuracy of the included news outlets.

In my social network, the image usually circulated without attribution, though as the small print at the bottom of the included version indicates, the image was created by a patent lawyer named Vanessa Otero. As she admits in a post on her blog, Otero plotted the outlets in accordance with her own intuitions. This informality opened Otero up to numerous criticisms that she had misplaced certain media outlets. Critics declared that specific publications were more or less partisan than they appear represented on her graph.

These critics, however, miss the point. What is important is not the placement of any individual source so much as the broader assumptions about knowledge and ideology that underpin it. In the chart, “complex” and “analytic” sources of information cluster together in the political center. In contrast, sources that have a commitment to political projects cluster in the lower third of the image, reserved for “sensational” and “clickbait” sites. Meanwhile, the upper corners of the chart—where complex conservative magazines, like the Weekly Standard, or analytic progressive websites, like Jacobin, would presumably be placed—are conspicuously left empty. As a result, the image gives the impression that well-informed people are also politically moderate. Conversely, it implies that those who hold political opinions outside of the mainstream are most likely misinformed. Whether intentional or not, the chart asks the viewer not only to reject unreliable sources of information but also to adopt centrist political positions.

This message is reinforced by the symmetrical presentation of the graphic. For every “liberal garbage” source posted to the lower left, there is a corresponding “conservative garbage” source balancing it out. The resulting pyramid-shaped structure gives the impression that fake news is a problem equally shared by Democrats and Republicans. Yet this flies in the face of the existing data. While leftist “fake news” sites certainly exist, studies show that conservative Facebook groups were about twice as likely as liberal ones to share false stories during the 2016 elections. This is an inconvenient truth for the chart’s central message. Although misleading, presenting fake news as an issue affecting “both sides” (as if politics ever has only two sides) reinforces this chart’s central premise that holding a strong opinion means being uninformed.

The irony is that this is the exact opposite of what goes on in the real world. Complexity of analysis usually leads towards ideology, rather than leads away from it. People who study an issue usually form opinions about it. And, for this reason, they often disagree with each other. These disagreements are what academia is all about: passionate researchers providing evidence as to why their theory is correct, their policies effective, or their views persuasive. In contrast, people who don’t study an issue often gravitate towards the center, because it is the default, the simplest way to offend the fewest people. This why low-information voters tend to hold moderate political positions.


“It is essential for an engaged citizenry to insist upon truthful reporting. But we must not conflate this drive for accuracy with political moderation.”


In an age when journalists face renewed attacks and the White House propagates “alternative facts,” it is essential for an engaged citizenry to insist upon truthful reporting. But we must not conflate this drive for accuracy with political moderation. After all, as political anthropologists have shown time and again, the political center can shift dramatically in a short amount of time. Already, with the election of President Trump, we have seen public discourse shift in ways few could have imagined even a few months ago.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with holding centrist political opinions, so long as they are arrived at after careful deliberation. But neither is there any inherent virtue in holding the middle ground. After all, it was not too long ago that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. denounced the:

White moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

As Dr. King’s words remind us, there are times when we must pick a side to achieve basic justice and dignity. Now is such a time.

 

CITE AS:
Rubin, Jonah S. 2017. “How Not to Think About Fake News.” American Anthropologist website, March 30.

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