Epistemic closure and the ‘conservative misinformation feedback loop’ media bubble

GOP_BubbleI have never understood the fascination that people have with zombies, with television series like “The Walking Dead.” But I am beginning to understand it from watching media interviews of Trump supporters when they are confronted with questions about the latest outrageous thing that Trump has said today.

Trump supporters mindlessly repeat the talking points that they have been given by the conservative media entertainment complex. They are as mindless as walking dead zombies.

This phenomenon was explained in 2010 by Julian Sanchez as the “epistemic closure of the conservative mind”:

One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!) This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile. . . . Internal criticism is then especially problematic, because it threatens the hermetic seal. It’s not just that any particular criticism might have to be taken seriously coming from a fellow conservative. Rather, it’s that anything that breaks down the tacit equivalence between “critic of conservatives and “wicked liberal smear artist” undermines the effectiveness of the entire information filter. If disagreement is not in itself evidence of malign intent or moral degeneracy, people start feeling an obligation to engage it sincerely—maybe even when it comes from the New York Times. And there is nothing more potentially fatal to the momentum of an insurgency fueled by anger than a conversation.

Also in 2010 The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait coined the term “conservative misinformation feedback loop” to describe this strange phenomenon:

I used the example of a medium-sized claim that’s demonstrably false, but has recirculated endlessly among conservatives . . . These people really, don’t know what they’re talking about.

* * *

Very few conservatives follow health care reform in any detail. They have a general hostility to government and proposals formulated by Democrats, and since they reject the overwhelming majority of actual health care experts on ideological grounds, they have relied on a tiny handful of self-styled conservative pseudo-wonks to fill in the details for them.

But figures like Anderson are simply not up to the job. And once some factual misapprehension has made its way into the right-wing echo chamber, it’s nearly impossible to dislodge. The same basic phenomenon can be seen is debates over climate change, supply-side economics, and other issues. You have a whole ideological movement that, to a substantial degree, relies upon the pseudo-expertise of cranks and hacks.

Trump supporters are encouraged to be enthusiastically willfully ignorant. During the RNC Convention, disgraced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich gave this revealing interview about how the conservative media entertainment complex operates while discussing crime statistics.

“The current view is that liberals have a whole set of statistics that theoretically might be right, but it’s not where human beings are.” “People feel more threatened.” The reporter states “The people feel it, but the facts don’t support it.” Gingrich responds, “As a political candidate I will go with how people feel, and let you go with the theoreticians.”

John Oliver of HBO’s Last Week Tonight did an episode about this, John Oliver: The Republican convention was a ‘four-day exercise in emphasizing feelings over fact’:

According to Oliver, the most illuminating moment of the convention came from an unexpected source: former underwear model and soap star Antonio Sabato Jr., who told a reporter that he “has the right to believe” that President Obama is a Muslim, despite all evidence to the contrary.

“What’s truly revealing is his implication that believing something to be true is the same as it being true,” Oliver said. “If anything, that was the theme of the Republican Convention this week. It was a four-day exercise in emphasizing feelings over fact.”

Oliver cut to a reel of Republican politicians — and Scott Baio — talking about how Americans “feel” about subjects like the economy and the violent crime rate.

“This focus on feelings reached its apex in Donald Trump’s acceptance speech, which was light on concrete policy but heavy on provoking strong emotions,” said Oliver, noting that the candidate’s claims about surging crime, illegal immigration and unemployment are not supported by the facts.

“Yet, frighteningly, when reporters started to point that out, it didn’t seem to matter.”

After playing a clip of Trump supporter and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who argued that what people feel is more important than statistics from the FBI showing a steady decline in crime over the past 25 years, Oliver urged his viewers to seriously consider the implications.

“I think we can all agree that candidates can create feelings in people,” he said. “What Gingrich is saying is that feelings are as valid as facts. So by the transitive property, candidates can create facts, which is terrifying, because that means someone like Donald Trump can create his own reality.”

This is not the first time that you have heard “create our own reality.” New York Times reporter Ron Suskind reported in 2004, Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush:

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

I have said before that Donald Trump is merely a symptom of the disease. The disease is the conservative media entertainment complex, and the far-right millionaires and billionaires who subsidize this propaganda machine. They have created an army of mindless walking dead among us. We can treat the symptom by defeating Trump. But if we want to cure this insidious disease, it means aggressively treating the conservative media entrainment complex. It is killing the American body politic.

POSTSCRIPT: The conservative media entertainment complex utilizes the big lie propaganda technique from Adolph Hitler:

All this was inspired by the principle—which is quite true within itself—that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.

— Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, vol. I, ch. X

The effectiveness of this propaganda technique was described by Hermann Goering, who founded the Gestapo in 1933 and was appointed commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe in 1935, during his testimony at his war crimes trial at Nuremberg:

“Of course the people don’t want war. But after all, it’s the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it’s always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it’s a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.”

— Herman Goering at the Nuremberg trials

Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.” — George Santayana, from Reason in Common Sense, the first volume of his The Life of Reason.

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3 thoughts on “Epistemic closure and the ‘conservative misinformation feedback loop’ media bubble”

  1. When I was in college and much more conservative in my views, I would listen to Rush on the radio. Back then he would talk about the “mind numbed robots” on the left who always had their marching orders. Rush would also mock liberals for basing policy on “feelings” and how they felt. Seems that 22 years later all that has changed. Life is full of irony.

  2. working class voting conservative maybe working class voting populist not so much. bring back jobs by stoping free trade build wall are not conservative talking points as republican establishment opposes both.

  3. Well said, AZ Blue, see Jon Stewart’s appearance on CNN’s Crossfire in 2004 for some historical perspective on the failure of the media.


    From one youtube commenter, clearly a fan of brevity – “The media is hurting us… and herding us.”

    Too bad reality doesn’t get ratings.

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