I am fascinated by how the logic of misinformation appeals to people who want to believe it—key to interpreting the current social warfare over the 2020 presidential election. As I have written in Facebook posts before, none of us can determine the degree to which we validate information based on what we want to be true. My favorite book on the sociology of knowledge is Berger and Luckman, The Social Construction of Knowledge. Fundamental to the construction of knowledge are our previous experiences and consequent preconceptions. If new knowledge fits our previous concepts and experiences, we readily accept it, fit it in to the already available slots. If it contradicts previous concepts and experiences, we either outright reject it or reshape it so that it fits with what we think we know. Sometimes it takes either a child or an Einstein to break through learned patterns of perception.
This structure for resisting new information (see Leon Festinger, cognitive dissonance) explains how Trump supporters eagerly consume information validating Trump’s evidence-free claims (it doesn’t, however, explain our own consumption of information that appeals to what we, as non-Trump supporters, want to know).
But what to do? The best we can do is to understand the basic tenets of critical thinking, which also apply to the critical consumption of information. If you want to know the history and fundamentals of critical thinking, you can read a chapter, “Critical Thinking,” I wrote in my book, Going North, Thinking West: The Intersections of Social Class, Critical Thinking, and Politicized Writing Instruction. A shorter way to access key fundamentals is to go to university libraries, which commonly list instructions on critical consumption of information, e.g., The University of Washington. If you are unaware of these strategies, you are fodder for propagandists. You think you’re thinking, but you’re not. You’re just consuming information that reinforces what you think you already know.
I will give a couple of examples from some of my Trump-supporting (TS) friends. I will leave it to them to provide examples of my uncritical consumption of information, such as the kind I get from The New York Times, which Trump-supporters typical evaluate, much to the surprise of my (M)marxist friends, as a far-left news source.
The first example integrates new information by reshaping it. The second confirms one’s own bias and blocks sources that contradict one’s assumptions.
In response to a TS friend’s post, “What is everybody’s feelings about when the vaccine becomes available, we offer it to other countries first before we use it for our own people?”, I asked for a citation of where she had found that information. She sent me to a Fox News report that had the following headline: “Biden Coronus advisor wants US to distribute vaccine globally before it’s available to all Americans.”
I can see how my friend read this, obscuring “all.” The article in fact gave a fair reading of the vaccine policy, making clear the logic behind a global distribution policy against a nationalist distribution policy – including the information that the Trump administration had not financed the vaccine research and that other countries had pre-ordered vaccines.
I wrote to my friend that there was a distinction between distributing vaccines globally before it’s available to all Americans and before it’s available to Americans. She wrote back, “that’s what I said.” I like this friend a lot and chose to leave the conversation there. Sometimes you don’t want to push friends against the wall. That’s how you lose them, and I didn’t want to lose this one. I hoped she would look again at her original post. [I don’t think she did.]
In the second instance, a TS friend, pushing against my claim that we have so far not seen evidence of significant fraud in the 2020 presidential election, sent me to a Fox interview of Sidney Powell, the lawyer pushing the claims Rudolph Guiliani made at The Four Seasons (housed, significantly, some have said, between a pornography store and a crematorium) that hundreds of thousands of votes were in question (downgrading to some extent President Trump’s claim that 2.7 million votes were changed from him to Biden [tweet: November 12, 2020].
I subsequently received from several of my TS friends links to Fox News interviews and press conferences in which Powell expanded her argument, citing an affidavit she claims to have from a “high-level military intelligence” (later changed to a general and then back to a high-level source) source that he had been involved in designing a program by Smartmatic for Dominion that would allow a user to monitor vote patterns and change a critical number of votes from one candidate to another – without allowing subsequent investigators to track the change–conspicuously throwing in the noun, “algorithms” in order to add heft to her claims. This program was purportedly sold to or designed by (depending on which appearance you listened to) Venezuela to guarantee Chavez’s and later Maduro’s plurality in the Venezuelan fake democratic vote. Powell later expanded her claims to insist that this program was used in the 2020 election to change millions of votes from Trump to Biden. With each interview, she piled on more charges, like saying she could document that the CIA knew about this election interference, but CIA director, Gina Haspel (a Trump appointee) refused to do anything about it, Haspel, I assume, being part of the Deep State. Finally, in a news conference that seems to have at last gone too far (as if that were possible), she claimed the democrat and republican officials, including Brian Kemp, were in on the take to transfer millions of votes from Trump to Biden.
For several days until she was for unknown reasons dismissed from the “elite strikeforce team,” Powell was front and center engaging in what is now known as gish gallop rhetoric, piling on charge after charge to win the argument by volume rather than by evidence and logic. Her claims were simply astonishing, amounting to claims that Venezuela, Cuba, and possible China had employed Dominion and Smartmatic to guarantee a win for Biden.
In truth, I can’t get my head around my TS friends buying into this without any presentations of evidence, on the basis of a wingnut saying it was so and therefore it was so. To me, it seems ridiculous to rehearse Powell’s claims. She seems like a conspiracy nut, someone who claimed Marco Rubio’s father hired Lee Havey Oswald to kill Jack Kennedy. But my TS friends seem to believe this stuff. I had one friend (the “all” person) send me a link tonight (11/23/20) to Powell’s communist conspiracy rant in which she acknowledges she no longer represents Trump (or implies, ever did).
I think I understand how my TS friends believe this stuff. Most of their internet friends and TV pundits (although some like Tucker Carlson are starting to break) reinforce their beliefs. They block out people like me. If I hung out only with people who believed the earth was flat, I would believe it was flat.
Don’t get me wrong. I am an armchair positivist. What I know for certain is based on what I’ve touched and experienced. But I’m not a total cynic. I think the earth is round. The only way to empirically know whether it is round, however, it is by heading due east from Omaha, Nebraska and keep traveling due east until you got back to Omaha. Even then, there might be alternative explanations.
Although I like them, there is no way to convince my TS friends that maybe they got it wrong when they went full-court for Trump. I am seriously interested in what they see in him. But for now, the dust will settle. Biden is our next president. Let’s see how he does. I can’t help but think how lucky he is: he has a low bar.