A well-functioning democracy, it is commonly held, depends on an informed citizenry, and that informed citizenry in turn depends on the Fourth Estate—the collection of organizations that constitute the news media. Alas, in recent years, this pillar of democratic politics has been eroding. A 2018 report by Gallup and the Knight Foundation showed a significant decline in trust in media, with the majority of US adults, and more than nine in ten Republicans, reporting having personally lost trust in the news over the past decade.1Gallup and Knight Foundation, Indicators of News Media Trust (Washington, DC: John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, 2018). Indeed, there is an argument that the combination of political polarization, declining trust in media institutions, and asymmetric media ecosystems2Analysis by Benkler et al. found that “While concerns about political and media polarization online are longstanding, our study suggests that polarization was asymmetric. Pro-Clinton audiences were highly attentive to traditional media outlets, which continued to be the most prominent outlets across the public sphere, alongside more left-oriented online sites. But pro-Trump audiences paid the majority of their attention to polarized outlets that have developed recently, many of them only since the 2008 election season.” “Study: Breitbart-Led Right-Wing Media Ecosystem Altered Broader Media Agenda,” Columbia Journalism Review, March 3, 2017. are the foundation of an epistemic crisis: a state of affairs in which partisans disagree not simply on policy, but on facts themselves.3Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts, “Epistemic Crisis,” chap. 1 in Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).
In an effort to understand the origins of this crisis of epistemology, the Social Science Research Council’s Media & Democracy program convened a research workshop on December 13–14, 2018, at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs (SMPA). “There is an argument that the combination of political polarization, declining trust in media institutions, and asymmetric media ecosystems are the foundation of an epistemic crisis: a state of affairs in which partisans disagree not simply on policy, but on facts themselves.”The workshop, “A Modern History of the Disinformation Age: Communication, Technology, and Democracy in Transition,”4Participants in this workshop include Patricia Aufderheide, American University; Yochai Benkler, Harvard University; Benjamin Epstein, DePaul College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences; David Karpf, George Washington University; Nancy MacLean, Duke University; Mark Major, Pennsylvania State University; Jane Mayer, The New Yorker; Naomi Oreskes, Harvard University; Victor Pickard, University of Pennsylvania; Paul Starr, Princeton University; and Heidi Tworek, The University of British Columbia. The workshop cochairs were Lance Bennett, University of Washington, and Steven Livingston, George Washington University. was complemented by an expert panel discussion moderated by SMPA’s director, Frank Sesno. The panel included three scholars from our workshop—Yochai Benkler (Harvard University), Naomi Oreskes (Harvard University), and Paul Starr (Princeton University)—and New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer.
Here we highlight and summarize three overarching themes from the workshop, and share an accompanying set of video clips that reflect the breadth of conversation on the expert panel. Over the course of the two-day workshop, three themes emerged as key for understanding the ongoing epistemic crisis: the coordinated efforts of ideologically motivated actors, the failure of traditional bulwarks, such as legacy media, to curtail disinformation, and the emergence of institutions that facilitate new modes of disinformation.
The coordinated efforts of ideologically motivated networks of actors to cast doubt on the institutions we rely on to generate public knowledge—the academy, the media, and, in perhaps less salient ways, the government—are not new. To give one example, it is now well established that efforts to undermine scientific consensus on the effects of tobacco use were mobilized by lobbyists for the tobacco industry for the purpose of insulating it from regulation and litigation. This goal was achieved primarily by privately lobbying politicians and publicly amplifying marginal scientific claims that sowed doubts about the link between smoking and cancer. Scholars at our workshop argued that the tobacco model of disinformation has been repurposed and augmented in recent years, incorporating extended networks of funders, think tanks, academic research centers, pollsters, marketing agencies, political parties, and public relations firms. The goal, it appears, is not necessarily to prove that one position is more valid than another, but rather to make it too difficult for consumers to judge whether consensus exists at all.
Fighting facts: Naomi Oreskes analyzes the historical origins of today’s disinformation crisis. Oreskes finds connections between the tobacco industry’s attempt to promote doubt in scientific findings and efforts by modern think tanks to reject fact-based evidence.
Institutional decay“While legacy media have been criticized for privileging certain voices in our polity over others, as gatekeepers they nonetheless also had the capacity to stifle dishonest or extreme voices that arguably belonged at the margins.”
Several papers at the workshop addressed broader economic, cultural, and technological changes that have affected institutions that mitigated the spread of disinformation in the past. Participants at our workshop argued that, beyond the purposive attacks on institutions described above, these broader structural changes have resulted in either a decline in trust in institutions or the decay of the institutions themselves. The end of the “Golden Age of Capitalism,”5“The Golden Age of Capitalism” refers to a period between the end of World War II and the 1972–73 recession that was characterized by high growth rates, broad-based economic security, and declining inequality across the industrialized world. reactions to the cultural changes of the 1960s, the consolidation of mass media news producers, and the shift of advertising revenues away from newspapers toward cable news and social media, have each inadvertently sapped the capacity of media to produce public goods, such as quality news, or to prevent the amplification of disinformation. For example, the gatekeeper function of legacy media (e.g., radio, television, and newspapers) has been handicapped by the rise of social media and other distributed forms of digital communication. While legacy media have been criticized for privileging certain voices in our polity over others,6A 2018 study that analyzed 1,979 employees of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal found that roughly 20 percent of their staff members had attended an Ivy League institution. Jonathan Wai and Kaja Perina, “Expertise in Journalism: Factors Shaping a Cognitive and Culturally Elite Profession,” Journal of Expertise 1, no. 1 (2018). A 2017 analysis by the American Society of News Editors found that 16.6 percent of journalists at daily newspapers were people of color, and 38.9 percent were women. “ASNE, Google News Lab Release 2017 Diversity Survey Results with Interactive Website,” asne.org, October 10, 2017. as gatekeepers they nonetheless also had the capacity to stifle dishonest or extreme voices that arguably belonged at the margins.
The gatekeeper role of traditional media: Frank Sesno and Paul Starr discuss the incentives for media companies to publish first and verify factual accuracy later. As “gatekeepers,” traditional media and journalists can also play a role in halting the spread of disinformation.
Disinformation and media echo chambers: Yochai Benkler sees traditional professional journalism as the “single most likely effective actor” in the fight against disinformation. Traditional media outlets can play this role by placing greater emphasis on fact-based journalism, making work publicly accessible, acknowledging fault, and disincentivizing clickbait journalism.
Finally, alongside these instances of motivated political agitation and structural change, scholars identified what may be termed maladaptive institutions: norms, regulations, and ideological frameworks that either facilitate or fail to impede the spread of disinformation. Examples today include increased economic incentives for journalists to produce clickbait and for entrepreneurs—those seeking to profit off the demand for fake news, particularly through ad revenue—to fabricate news stories out of whole cloth; decreased legal or ethical disincentives for politicians to lie to the public (there may even be strategic rewards for lying); and a widespread belief in “the magic of the marketplace” that has prevented Americans from understanding the root causes of a number of preventable market failures. In short, far from discouraging disinformation, these economic and technological developments over the past 50 years may have facilitated our epistemic crisis.
The ails of modern journalism: Jane Mayer argues that social media have negatively affected journalism, increasing the frequency and ease by which journalists are harassed and doxed, and incentivizing journalists to focus on clickbait rather than newsworthy items.
Media “objectivity” and scientific consensus: Naomi Oreskes argues that attempts to appear objective and balanced have led media organizations to give equal coverage to scientifically backed evidence and disinformation. These attempts at “objectivity” have privileged falsehoods at the expense of the scientific consensus and weakened public confidence in science.
Media ecosystems: Frank Sesno and Yochai Benkler discuss institutional sources of disinformation. Because the right-wing media ecosystem is relatively insulated, checks on the spread of disinformation are insufficient. The modern disinformation crisis is therefore “asymmetric.”
This is a synoptic view of a workshop that covered a wide variety of topics, not all of which could be represented here. Between this event and the two-day workshop, a consensus emerged: while democracies may be designed to accommodate differences of opinion, they are ill-equipped to sustain differences in perceived reality. We depend on institutions that constrain the most polarizing elements in our political discourse, which contributes to a shared sense of reality. Our contemporary crisis of epistemology reflects the fact that the decline of traditional institutions has outpaced the emergence of new ones—and it is precisely at such times that the coordinated efforts of actors motivated by political gain have the greatest impact.
The Media & Democracy program will continue to organize workshops and events that contextualize the impact that innovations in media technology have on democratic life. In May 2019 we will host “Media, Technology, and Democracy in Historical Context,” which will bring together scholars to explore historical parallels to the disinformation of today. In June 2019 we will reconvene scholars from our “A Modern History of the Disinformation Age: Communication, Technology, and Democracy in Transition” workshop. At this second meeting, we will build on the themes explored here, with the hope of producing a volume for submission to the Anxieties of Democracy Cambridge University Press book series.
We welcome you to watch and share these videos and to follow the activities of the Media & Democracy program on Twitter @SSRCmdn. The program organizes research workshops and public events that address contemporary issues at the intersection of media, technological change, and democracy.