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Faking Discussion


Recently, I found myself in a restaurant having breakfast, and Fox News was on the TV. It was muted, but the closed captions were on so I could follow what was being said. I didn’t give it my full attention–why bother?–but what I saw was enough to make me think about what was being done.

This was in the aftermath of last week’s terrorist shooting in San Bernardino. ISIS and Islamic terrorism were the topics. I couldn’t tell you the name of the show, but there was a host, and some sort of “expert.” I am always wary of self-proclaimed “terrorism experts”–they can easily be frauds. This “expert”–whom I shall refer to henceforth only as a pundit, suggested that ISIS’ plan was to send a flood of refugees from Iraq and Syria into Europe, insinuating terrorists amongst them. He claimed that jihadists made up 2% of the refugees. “A terrifying number,” he said.

Is there any evidence for this? Likely not.

It also doesn’t matter.

The host asked questions to keep the discussion going, even giving the appearance of trying to poke holes in the pundit’s statements. I noticed two things about this:

  * The host asked questions that _resembled _attempts at probing, but were instead facile and guided the pundit along his overall argument.
  * Both men spoke very calmly, soberly, and matter-of-factly, giving the impression that these were Serious People who knew what they were talking about.

This wasn’t like watching Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity or (formerly of Fox News) Glenn Beck. Those guys are more like preachers, delivering hell-and-damnation speeches, driving forward with emotions only lightly peppered with facts (or factual-sounding but false statements). This was presented as news and analysis, yet it was feeding viewers bogus information. The host feigned discussion and debate, while actually reinforcing the points of the pundit. The message was clear: Muslim terrorists are all around us, infiltrating any way they can. The solution need not be spoken aloud, of course: vote Republican!

It makes me wonder how intentional this is. Is actual debate faked in order to give viewers the illusion that real journalism is happening, or do these people honestly believe they are engaging in genuine, factual analysis? Where do they get their statistics? Do they even bother to check the veracity of their numbers? It’s easy to jump to conclusions and assume that, since it’s Fox News, it’s all bunk and they know it, but how deep is the rabbit hole? I can easily imagine people nodding along to a Bill O’Reilly rant. It’s no shock that Donald Trump’s ridiculous statements resonate with the same people who’ve been listening to Hannity and Beck diatribes on a daily basis for years. I doubt they would be above faking discussion for the sake of reinforcing their ideological agenda.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if such displays are sincere or put-ons, though. They have the same effect on viewers. If you use methods that are superficially journalistic to feed people lies and misinformation, it’s not surprising that a large number of people will take it as fact. I plan a future post on the topic of epistemic closure–the notion, in politics (and knowledge systems in general) that you can have a deductive framework that is impervious to empirical data. If you already have the facts you need, why do you need more? Fox News is the epitome of this phenomenon: other sources are irrelevant (and even false) when Fox News is your primary source.

I am also unconvinced that liberals, progressives, and others outside the right-wing truly understand the long-term effects of having a single, highly ideological information source that penetrates large demographic blocs. While I don’t believe that is responsible for our current political situation, I do believe Fox News has exacerbated it significantly. Such a monoculture can be a tremendous advantage–and a very dangerous political weapon.

In any case, I found it intriguing and slightly disturbing to witness the facsimile of debate, carried out with nonsense masquerading as fact, between people who were either engaging in a clever deception, or so deeply ensconced in their worldviews so as not to realize the laughable amount of scrutiny their statements could withstand.

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