How to Avoid the Real Fake News
The best way to combat wild conspiracy theories is through media literacy
It seems like Americans are increasingly skeptical of the media, and it’s easy to see why. President Donald Trump repeatedly attacks the credibility of major media outlets, calling them “fake news” as recently as last week, and claiming that he is victim to a larger conspiracy of foes aligned against him.
That’s of course ridiculous. And so were comments made last week by presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who blasted the Washington Post for what he perceived to be biased coverage of his campaign, claiming the paper’s editorial content is influenced by the beliefs of its owner, billionaire Jeff Bezos. (Sanders has been an outspoken critic of employee wages at Amazon, Bezos’s company.)
Whether they intend to or not, both Sanders and Trump are fear-mongering, and playing on Americans’ most paranoid instincts. And while the onus is undoubtedly on the politicians to speak more responsibly about venerable news outlets, it also brings into focus just how vulnerable people are to conspiracy theories.
It seems our social conditions are ripe for the spread of conspiracy theories.
Research shows that people who are well-informed but strongly distrusting are more likely to believe conspiracy theories. Unfortunately, we are living in a period where more and more people fit that description. Today, Americans have historically low levels of trust in government, with only 17% of Americans saying they can generally trust Washington to do what is right. And the cacophony of voices in today’s media environment makes it hard for people to evaluate the veracity of information they come across online. So, it seems our social conditions are ripe for the spread of conspiracy theories.
Moreover, Americans respond to their information environment differently depending on which party they align with. A 2017 Pew Research Center study showed a 23-point gap between Democrats and Republicans on trustworthiness in national news organizations — 34% of Democrats said that national news organizations are “very trustworthy,” but only 11% of Republicans said so.