The GOP’s post-truth politics: the ‘conspiracy-theory feedback loop’


I covered an aspect of this in yesterday’s post about the GOP’s post-truth politics.

Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post’s media columnist, has an update on what I call Epistemic closure and the ‘conservative misinformation feedback loop’ media bubble with a new monicker, the “conspiracy-theory feedback loop.” Pro-Trump media sets the agenda with lies. Here’s how traditional media can take it back.

To save Tinkerbell, all you had to do was clap your hands and really, really believe in fairies.

To send a conspiracy theory on its vicious way around the world, you need to do more than just believe. You need help.

Luckily for those who wanted to elect Donald Trump, that help was available during the presidential campaign, and still is. It comes from a collection of new right-wing hyperpartisan media outlets that are having a huge effect on politics.

Consider, for example, one outlandish idea from just last week: that the CIA hacked the Democratic National Committee’s emails, gave them to WikiLeaks and then framed Russia.

Business Insider traced it: from replies to the WikiLeaks Twitter account, through conservative radio and then Breitbart News, and out into the semi-mainstream — Sean Hannity on Fox News — all within 48 hours.

Similarly, the right-wing radio host Mark Levin may have started the evidence-free idea that President Barack Obama ordered the wiretapping of now-President Trump. It made its way quickly through the media ecosystem, after Trump saw it, apparently on Breitbart News.

Once the president tweets it, it’s undeniably news, picked up everywhere and re-amplified — especially by right-wing sites.

Derek Thompson of The Atlantic called this a “conspiracy-theory feedback loop.” And a very effective one it is.

A major new study, published in Columbia Journalism Review, detailed just how influential the new media ecosystem has become, calling it a determining factor in Trump’s election.

A right-wing media network anchored around Breitbart developed as a distinct and insulated media system, using social media as a backbone to transmit a hyperpartisan perspective to the world,” the report concluded, after studying 1.25 million stories.

(Breitbart, of course, was run by — and maintains close ties to — Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist.)

As right-wing sites concentrated during the campaign on immigration stories — often with exaggerated or false claims about the dangers of refugees and immigrants — they also endlessly attacked Hillary Clinton over Benghazi and her use of a private email server.

These sites often traffic in “decontextualized truths, repeated falsehoods, and leaps of logic to create a fundamentally misleading view of the world,” the report said.

And the source of  “alternative facts.”

This brings to mind a Trump voter I met in northeast Pennsylvania who took right-wing talking points and put them in a blender. She told me she couldn’t trust Clinton because “I didn’t like how she stole those emails and it got people killed in Benghazi.”

This tainted media sphere not only set the conservative media agenda, “but also strongly influenced the broader media agenda, in particular coverage of Hillary Clinton.”

[I]n covering Clinton, the right-wing sites often served as stenographers for conservative politicians.

And the mainstream media often went along for the ride, obsessing about the presidential horse race and failing to understand how all of this was resonating with voters. Plenty of excellent investigative reporting on Trump was published, but to some extent, it was drowned out by the noise.

There’s another way that the traditional press has allowed right-wing media to flourish — by moving too far to the left itself.

Mainstream newsrooms were once much more ideologically diverse, said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute.

“The best data out there shows that there are fewer Republicans working in traditional newsrooms and news generally than there used to be,” he told me.

As right-wing media sprang up over the past few decades, reporters and editors with more conservative beliefs migrated there. That left mainstream newsrooms with a high percentage of people identifying themselves as independent, a fair number of Democrats — and relatively few Republicans.

This is because “Reality has a well-known liberal bias,”as Steven Colbert observed. This is based on “The facts have a well-known liberal bias”, as Rob Corddry of The Daily Show observed a couple of years earlier. After all, Margaret, you are describing how the conservative media entertainment complex has become a “conspiracy-theory feedback loop.” Facts simply do not matter in the right-wing conspiracy theory media universe. Facts still do matter in the “mainstream” media, which gives it a well-known liberal bias.

“T[This] affects the discussion in newsrooms even when people are trying mightily to be fair,” Rosenstiel said.

Pope puts it more bluntly, referring to the “unarguable partisanship” he saw from some mainstream journalists as Nov. 8 neared, evident especially on social media. Favoring Clinton, they not only mocked Trump but also were unable to fathom that he might win.

Pope now sees “a huge corrective” underway, as journalists dig in, providing meaty accountability coverage of Trump and spending more time listening to Trump’s core of voters.

But whom are they reaching? Many Americans, especially on the right, have lost trust in mainstream media, which may be deeply flawed but at least is committed to factuality and truth.

Meanwhile, disinformation gains more of a dangerous foothold.

A Quinnipiac Poll in late February found that a majority of Americans overall say they trust the media, not Trump, to tell them the truth about important issues. Not so for Republicans, who said they trust Trump, not the media, to tell them the truth. A large majority of Americans disapproved of Trump’s treatment of the media (his recent tweet that the media is the “enemy of the American people). “Again, Republicans overwhelmingly broke with the American public overall: nearly three-fourths of them approved of Trump’s treatment of the media. See, GOP voters know Trump is telling them the truth, and the media is lying to them.

You can’t fight propaganda with standard journalism, Pope told me. Watchdogging the fake-news machinery and fact-checking relentlessly is part of his prescription.

Rosenstiel has suggested other measures: being more transparent about how we gather and verify the news; covering what’s important (not “barking at every car”); and using clearer labels to distinguish news from opinion.

I would add that news organizations have to acknowledge their own biases internally, and constantly report against them.

The CJR study concludes on a hopeful note: that a renaissance of legitimate journalism may be the result of everything that’s happened.

I’d love to think that, but it’s going to take hard work, the kind that doesn’t come easy to journalists: more openness to criticism, continued self-examination and willingness to change.

It won’t happen by closing our eyes and believing in fairies.

Or believing in tinfoil hat conspiracies like the government is reading and/or controlling your thoughts with radio waves. Yes, Kellyanne Conway just suggested Trump Tower could have been monitored through TVs and microwaves:

It has been more than a week since President Trump alleged that President Barack Obama wiretapped him at Trump Tower, and the White House has spent much of that time trying to talk about basically anything else.

Kellyanne Conway isn’t going to help in that effort.

In an interview with the Bergen Record, Conway muses about the possibility that such surveillance could be conducted through phones, TVs and even microwaves. Here’s the exchange with columnist Mike Kelly:

KELLY: Let me ask you about one of the things that seems to be dogging, at least this past week, is the wiretaps — the allegation that Trump Tower was wiretapped. What can you say about that? Do you know whether Trump Tower was wiretapped?

CONWAY: What I can say is there are many ways to surveil each other now, unfortunately.

KELLY: Do you believe that was …

CONWAY: There was an article that week that talked about how you can surveil people through their phones, through their — certainly through their television sets, any number of different ways. And microwaves that turn into cameras, et cetera. We know that is just a fact of modern life.

* * *

Conway appeared on the morning shows Monday, and she clarified that she doesn’t actually have any evidence of the claim Trump made or the suggestions she’s making.

The answer is I don’t have any evidence, and I’m very happy that the House intelligence committee are investigating,” Conway said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

* * *

If Conway didn’t realize that talking about surveillance through TVs and microwaves in the context of Trump Tower might be problematic when it comes to focusing on Trump’s agenda, she should have. And if she did mean to inject these things into the conversation — again, without any proof that they were actually used — that’s a pretty cynical move.

Sorry, Kellyanne, but your tinfoil hat is not going to protect you from government radio waves reading and/or controlling your thoughts either. Tin Foil Hats Actually Make it Easier for the Government to Track Your Thoughts.


  1. If the CIA did perform that maneuver, it would perfectly fit a long observed pattern. Of all the successful investigations of hate speech symbol or word paintings, the overwhelming majority have been found to have been done by liberals with the intent to blame conservatives.

    How can you tell a liberal is dead? He stops accusing you of being a racist.

  2. in nov. 2018 and your in line to vote and you are trying to convince a white working class person to vote democrat instead of republican azbm. this is what your going to talk about to get them to vote democrat?

    • Why not? They are missing the point on so many issues, one more won’t really matter. The hard part would be for the person having to listen to them without yawning out of boredom.

      • Well, personally, I think censored has it exactly backwards. Democrats have spent too much time talking and not enough time listening. They’ve consistently written off rural voters, predominantly white, as a bunch of ‘white trash’, ‘basket of deplorables’, and people on the left are so tuned in to their echo chambers in cosmopolitan suburbia that they haven’t gone out and seen that there are a lot of ‘privileged’ (using the term loosely, here meaning roughly ‘white men in blue-collar positions’) people who are getting beaten over the head by a government that isn’t listening to them, really on the left or the right.

        It’s like you said, Steve (I think it was you). Living in midtown Tucson where I can call TPD and get an officer over in 5 minutes is a nice convenience, but out in the rural parts of the state, it might be a 45 minute drive for the local sheriff’s deputy to get there, and when you’re out where wild animals and potential ne’er-do-wells may be lurking, it’s entirely reasonable to feel that you need firearms for self-defense. You have, I will give you credit, turned my opinion a bit on the gun control topic; I still feel that guns contribute to a lot of senseless and preventable violence, but I don’t think that blanket gun control at the federal or state level is the right solution to address it. Of course, it’s not like I’ve figured out what that answer is that balances out everyone’s needs and best-interests, but that only puts me in the company of pretty much every person who cares about the issue.

  3. “Derek Thompson of The Atlantic called this a “conspiracy-theory feedback loop.”

    Thank you, AzBM! That is the best, most succinct description I have heard to describe the whole Trump/Russian brouhaha. “Conspiracy theory feedback loop” descibed what the left has been doing perfectly!!

    “Many Americans, especially on the right, have lost trust in mainstream media, which may be deeply flawed but at least is committed to factuality and truth.”

    Ah-h-h! The raw arrogance of the left, to assume they are immune to the dis-information generated by the leftist media. Yes, it is deeply flawed, to include producing “fkae news” om a regular basis.

    “That left mainstream newsrooms with a high percentage of people identifying themselves as independent…”

    Calling themselves “independent” is a lot like liberals calling themselve “progressive”, it may sound better but they are still what they are…hard core liberals. You can’t nake a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

    “The CJR study concludes on a hopeful note: that a renaissance of legitimate journalism may be the result of everything that’s happened.

    Like the author, I would like to believe that could happen – with both sides of the media. I just don’t think it is possible with the current state of the media and politics. It is very hard to write something that goes against what you believe and journalist tend to be more sensitive about criticism of their work than the average person. They like to hear good things, thus the echo chanber effect they have on one another.

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