Navigate The News in a Polarized World: Breaking the Chains of Cynical & Blind Loyalty
The more one writes about issues around identity, including politics, the more disagreement is fueled with assumptions. And hey, that includes my assumptions as well!
We all have these assumptions, and they are there because they've helped us get this far. But, to keep growing, we have to set them aside and develop a more complete understanding of the world so we can better navigate the complexities we face and make the world a better place.
As I've been sharing more specifically about politics with friends and family in private and on social media, I've regularly received the following sentiment from my conservative critics.
“You only believe x or y because you’ve been brainwashed by the 'liberal' mainstream media (MSM).” The flip side version of this from progressives is, “conservatives only believe x or y because they're brainwashed by Donald Trump.”
Now both could be true, but let's set aside the claims for a moment.
I want to share some insights and parts of my story. I love pushback, but I want that pushback to be a Steelman (strong) version of my argument, not a straw man (weak) or assumption-based version.
Don't contend with a caricature of me. Contend with the real me. The same goes for the news.
1. Helpful Insights For Avoiding a Logical Fallacy & Filtering Out the Noise
The Source Does Not Determine Its Truth Value
Just because something comes from the progressive mainstream media or Trump does not mean it’s true. And it also does not mean it’s false.
It just means it came from these sources.
To say something is true or false based on its source is to fall for the genetic fallacy.
Something is true independent of its source.
But ultimately, we have to test the claims themselves to discover the truth. Focus on the strength or weakness of a claim and its counterclaims.
Another simple trick; don't accept confusion and follow your curiosity. When something does not make sense, something may be wrong or you may be missing something.
Weighting Sources by Trustworthiness
"Source determines weight. Weight determines impact. Impact determines outcome." - Andy Stanley, The Weight of Words
While the source does not determine the truth value, there is wisdom to weigh trustworthy sources higher than others as a way to filter the good stuff from the noise since our time is limited. We should weigh what people say in our close relationship higher than that of a stranger.
If a source more often provides strong claims, articulated interpretations, and the sources of their raw information, it's likely to share true information. Give more weight to those who follow these practices. Give less weight to those who don't. The weight of a source determines how much we filter or don't filter it.
Because the truth can come from the least likely of places, we still want to leave the door open for low-weight sources, if they demonstrate their claim, versus flippantly making one — in which we would wisely filter them out.
2. My Background & The Distortions of Progressive Media About Trump
I've been in the trenches of news; consuming and creating; succeeding and failing. This helps me see things I may not otherwise see. Here are a few of my experiences.
A Former Enemy of the Progressive Mainstream Media (MSM)
"When you hear someone's description of what is happening, ask yourself: what are their biases and goals?" - Ray Dalio
In 2006, I ran a political news website exposing the Mainstream media (on the left) for its errors and exploitation (the image above is the logo I designed for the site). It was mostly oriented around the military (savethesoldiers.com - it’s still active with a letter of my story looking back). I also had several other sites including “StopTheNYTimes.com" dedicated to fighting back against the mainstream media narratives.
So, I used to be in the camp of the progressive mainstream media, broadly speaking, being the evil villain. I have many regrets from that season of my life, and I’m grateful I didn’t have financial success as it would have pathologized my wretched behavior.
The Mainstream Media Includes The Conservative Right
"Most partisans believe the other side is more powerful than their own but both sides believe their team will prevail in the upcoming elections." - Mary Katherine Ham, Moderately Right and Moderately Reliable
While it’s not as dominant, the mainstream media also includes Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post. This trio accounts for 500 million website visits each month. They are the underdog in mainstream media, but compared to other outlets and individuals, they are giants. This evaluation does not take into account talk radio, which has a larger reach than progressive talk radio.
My recommendation is to speak more precisely about a news outlet or the journalists inside of it than to paint a broad brush across the media.
Making Trump Seem Worse Than He Really Is
Certain individuals and organizations in the media have often made Trump seem worse than he really is — as many who paint the progressive MSM worse than they are, including Trump.
When Trump became president in 2016, which I anticipated even though I didn’t vote for him, I watched the daily press briefings for around a year with Sean Spicer. I would scan the headlines later in the day and I could see what articles and headlines the media posted. In some cases, they’d take liberties, and in other cases, the progressive MSM took things way out of context.
This was a strategic blunder by the progressive learning media because Trump is bad enough on his own. Exaggerating his statements and perspective cultivated mistrust and contributed to the polarization.
There are strong dynamics between Trump and the progressive-leaning media. It's worth recognizing them.
3. Diversity, Disagreement, & Going to the Source
We all have the choice to be passive or intentional. That includes our news feed, and seeking out sources when it matters.
As difficult as it can be, I encourage you to seek out information that would expose your blindspots and facilitate disagreement of your ideology so you can get a complete picture.
Taking ownership and going to the source are two ways forward.
Taking Ownership of Our News Feed
"The key question is 'how do you know what is worth paying attention to?'...
...everything is ranked somehow. So how do you curate good information?
I personally have tried to go the route of following people across a vast swath of different disciplines, political persuasions to feel like I am getting as complete a picture as possible." - Renee DiResta, Coleman Hughes on Propaganda, Misinformation & Woke Math with Renee DiResta [S3 Ep.3]
My consumption of mainstream media news and content (conservative and progressive) is small. I don’t want a news feed given to me entirely by large media outlets or social media algorithms so I’ve intentionally built out my news feed in Feedly and Pocket Casts.
I’ve got 350 feeds and 200 podcasts that I subscribe to (yeah, I consume a lot of content, just ask my wife and friends with whom I share it). Only 4 or 5 of these are affiliated with mainstream media outlets from the graphic above (left or right). Sometimes the Drudge Report will link to the MSM or my sources will comment on their information but most of my information is from a variety of nonmainstream media sources.
If you were to run a bias check on my news and commentary-related feeds, it’d probably say, leans right. But, I subscribe to perspectives all across the ideological and specialty spectrum (including those I loathe on the extremes). And, I like following individual journalists too.
I’m not interested in living in an information or ideological bubble. I want the complete picture so I aim to have a mixed feed that includes all angles.
Going to the Source
“Primary research is crucial and not as many people do it as you think… So I teach my students and analysts: start first with the SEC filings, then go to press releases, then go to earnings calls and other research. Work your way out. Most people work their way in.” - James Chanos, Business Insider > Quote discovered via Scam or Investing Opportunity? Why Smart People Fall for “Obvious” Scams
My preference is always to go directly to the source. This can be time-consuming but for vital issues, I’ll spend the time (this is why I spent so much time consuming the Trump 2020 election lies from him and his team while also reading the legal filings about those same claims).
Going to the source is also super helpful for finding other terrific sources because I can do my homework and then find sources who do that same homework.
Generally speaking, I prefer glass box sources. These are sources that explain their claims, how they got to them, and the sources of their processing. The Institute for the Study of War does an excellent job of this with daily updates about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. They do the work I’d want to be done but don’t have the capacity or time to do.
Put money into these types of organizations to encourage more of that type of behavior in our society.
4. Understanding a Key Societal Dynamic in America
"A greater number of falsehoods just won’t matter that much — because the scarce resources are attention and focality on the demand side. How much is someone looking to believe they have been wronged? How much do they resent “the establishment”? What kinds of grudges do they hold, and against whom or what? And how well can they coordinate with others of like mind, thereby forming a kind of misinformation affinity group?" - Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution
We are in a bottom-up society (differing from a top-down society like China). As humans, we are also motivated by the dynamics we swim. Trump and the mainstream media are external manifestations of the people who give them power. If we get rid of Trump or the progressive mainstream media, the problem is still there, it's just going to manifest in other ways. They are symptoms of much deeper problems. What we see outwardly is what people want.
The relationship between the leader and the supporters can create problematic reinforcing dynamics. The relationship between Trump and progressive mainstream media also creates reinforcing dynamics. I don’t think Trump becomes the 2016 Republican nominee and then president without the billions of dollars of free media coverage during the 2016 primary.
So, we need to leverage multiple perspectives. The media and many presidents used to do this for us. Now we need to do it for ourselves but it's not enough to choose our own sources.
We have to also choose sources that disagree with us (that’s what the media used to do for us). We must do it now, because ideology helps us find what we're looking for, but blinds us to what will threaten our ideology's grip. To seek out the full story is to take a step of courage.
Yes, The Biden Impeachment Hearing Presented Evidence Of Corruption — Lots Of It
The Federalist: Low Factuality, Far Right
On the first day of Biden’s impeachment inquiry, Republicans brought mountains of evidence of corruption. Democrats and the media shrugged.
Republicans’ thin corruption case against Joe Biden, explained
Vox: High Factuality, Leans Left
Whatever you may think about the impeachments of Donald Trump and Bill Clinton, they were at least impeached for things they verifiably did.
Based on our impulses (fear), allegiances, and ideology, the news we consume shapes the world as we understand it. The two articles above are painting drastically different pictures of reality. And we're inclined to see the reality we want to see versus the reality that is.
Subscribing to a variety of sources helps us understand the different perspectives and why people are in such drastically different camps and protects us from radicalization and fossilization.
If you don't have time to navigate this dynamic on your own, I'd recommend a resource that does the work for you, like Ground News. Ground helps us quickly see all the sources on a particular news topic trend, how the bias skews, and the level of factuality. Other options include Straight Arrow News and Unherd, which both identify and report on underreported parts of the story.
And, it is also important to differentiate a news organization and the individual journalists inside of it. The Federalist may have a low factuality score, but a specific journalist for the Federalist operates with high factuality. Vox may learn left as an organization, but a particular journalist writing for them may lean right. So aggregation has its benefits, but also its downsides.
There are limitations to this approach, which we should also be aware of, but it's at least a step in the right direction. The ideal we want is a dialogue of differing perspectives, including the ones we dislike.
Delusions & Dynamics
Cicling back to the starting question.
It's certainly possible that someone can be brainwashed by the progressive media and Trump. This often happens in the relationship between cult followers and their leader. But we should understand the dynamics and possibilities more deeply so we can properly evaluate the situation, grow ourselves, and implement systems to better navigate the waters.
And we want to do this because it’s quite possible the one who is brainwashed is the one saying that everyone else is. We all suffer from illusions. When we suffer from them, we may not even know it.
Adopting practices to think well and test what we believe is vital to inoculating ourselves from deception and propagating the good.
The Glass Box Approach
"Test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil." - Paul the Apostle, Thessalonians 5:21 -22 (ESV)
The key takeaway here is to operate with the Glass Box Approach >> Effectively test what you find untrustworthy and wisely probe the authorities you trust (Including yourself)
I'll share more on that idea in a future post.
- Ground News: Breaking News With Bias Labeling
- Axios: Fact-Based Reporting — High Factuality & Center Bias Rating by Ad Fontes Center
- Follow me on Upcarta to see recommended content and news insights
- Watch: Mitt Romney talks about the nature of misinformation
- Read: There's nothing "WEIRD" about conspiracy theories - Econlib
- Read: Of Rockets & Hospitals — A great glass box demonstration of how to find the truth in a confusing context of disinformation, misinformation, and disjointed power dynamics
A special thanks to Cris Anzai for helping to make this post better.