In many ways the coronavirus pandemic has sidelined, or at least scrambled, the usual topics of political debate. Former vice president Joe Biden effectively clinched the Democratic nomination without the fanfare he might otherwise have elicited, and the governmental response to the pandemic has been marked by unusual moments of bipartisanship.
But one mainstay of the recent political past has persisted, and even thrived, amid the Covid-19 crisis: rampant misinformation has left citizens unsure of what to believe or whom to listen to. Scam texts, unproven claims about potential cures, rumors that the virus spreads by way of 5G (which have led, in the U.K., to the burning of cell towers): all suggest a moment when figures of authority struggle to gain listeners’ trust and unreliable sources gain it too easily—a fact that bodes ill not only for the present predicament but for the approaching elections.
Forthcoming books by historians, journalists, and academics attempt to make sense of these misinformed times. Their topics include hate-mongering on the internet, the emergence of new, more sensationalist media platforms, and presidential deceptions throughout American history. As several titles show, fake news, far from being a modern phenomenon, has been leading the public astray for decades.
Decades of duplicity
Misinformation is often thought of as a contemporary ill, and President Trump, who has been accused of being dishonest with the media, disseminating fake or misleading news, and benefiting from a disinformation campaign by a foreign government, is often thought of as exceptional in his distaste for the press and his disregard for facts. But Trump and the era he defines are really a culmination of long-running trends, rather than an aberration, the authors of several forthcoming books assert. These titles offer perspectives that contextualize a deteriorated information environment.
For Eric Alterman, a columnist at the Nation and author of Lying in State (Basic, Aug.), the history of presidential dishonesty begins with the Founding Fathers. George Washington, for instance, lied about the permanent residency of people he kept as slaves in Pennsylvania to evade a law that would have compelled him to free them. The bulk of Alterman’s book, though, focuses on more recent presidents, who, he argues, have used deception to maximize America’s influence.
“One of the big factors driving presidential lying for most of American history has been America’s expansion and the desire to increase its power in the world,” says Connor Guy, editor at Basic. These falsehoods include Eisenhower’s about U.S. military operations in Iran and Guatemala and Nixon’s about Vietnam, he says, and as America’s power accelerated, so too did presidential duplicities. “Every time a president lied, it made it easier and more acceptable for subsequent presidents to lie.”
Even Honest Abe engaged in misrepresentation. Lincoln’s Lie by former George executive editor Elizabeth Mitchell (Counterpoint, Sept.), for instance, looks at a Lincoln’s manipulation of the press during the Civil War. Together, these books work to present Trump as something of an heir to an unfortunate tradition.
For Guy, this contextualization of President Trump corresponds to a larger conversation about the president’s place in American history. “Everyone from Bernie Sanders to Barack Obama has made the observation that Trump is a symptom, not the cause, of the problems we’re having,” he says.
Presidential scholar Harold Holzer’s The Presidents vs. the Press (Dutton, Sept.), about how various U.S. heads of state dealt with the news media, likewise presents Trump as only the latest commander in chief who has vied with the press for control of the national narrative. Even George Washington had a “very uneasy relationship with the press,” notes Brent Howard, executive editor at Dutton, and several presidents have acted to limit the media’s access or freedoms. “Trump isn’t necessarily even the worst one in terms of how he handles the press,” he adds.
In addition to battling the news media, presidents have had to contend with foreign misinformation and propaganda campaigns, notably ones conducted by Russia or, in an earlier era, the Soviet Union. Rigged (Knopf, July) by David Shimer, a Marshall scholar pursuing a doctorate in international relations at University of Oxford, tracks the history of Russia’s influence operations and the analog methods, such as letter-writing campaigns and forged newspaper articles, that it employed before social media emerged.
According to Andrew Miller, executive editor at Knopf, Shimer asserts that Russia’s interference in the 2016 election was “just the latest salvo” in a conflict that’s been in process since at least the Cold War. “I actually find that more disturbing in a lot of ways. If you make it not about Trump it’s about a much more ongoing conflict that’s not going to go away once Trump is gone.”
New media, new risks
Misinformation has been a fact of geopolitics for a long time, and new technologies have no doubt made it easier to produce and disseminate. Several forthcoming books look at digital platforms that have changed the way Americans encounter and interpret political news.
In The Drudge Revolution (BenBella, Aug.), former New York Daily News investigative reporter Matthew Lysiak (Newtown) examines the blogger Matt Drudge and his influential, sensational conservative website, Drudge Report. Lysiak suggests the website epitomizes a media environment in which brazenly partisan publishers have monopolized readers’ attention at the expense of more staid mainstream outlets. He argues further that this media environment has served to benefit Donald Trump.
New technologies also allow lay individuals to command large audiences and disseminate highly partisan commentary, misinformation, and hate. In Culture Warlords (Hachette, Oct.), Talia Lavin, whose work has appeared in the New Yorker among other publications, chronicles the time she spent in the corners of the internet occupied by what she calls a “bestiary of terrible people,” among them white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and so-called incels. In the course of her research, Levin learns about the groups’ recruiting programs and hate-inciting tactics and discovers the surprising influence some of their members wield: among her discoveries is a white supremacist YouTube channel operated by a 14-year-old girl that boasts more than 800,000 followers.
The path forward
Lies, manipulation, and misinformation have plagued the voting public for generations, and new technologies have only accelerated their profusion. So where to go from here? Some authors suggest that a better understanding of how people process information could help build a better information environment.
In Bad News (Bloomsbury Sigma, May), psychologist Rob Brotherton identifies the psychological concepts that explain people’s vulnerability to fake news, such as negativity bias, or a tendency to engage more with bad news. But he also posits that a fixation on the very concept of fake news may come at the expense of a more nuanced understanding of the problems with the current information environment, according to Anna MacDiarmid, commissioning editor at Bloomsbury Sigma. “Issues such as sensationalism, negativity bias, inaccurate facts, and misleading interpretations,” she says, “are far more pervasive than fake news.”
Building a better information environment also means thinking carefully about how to report the news. In Words That Matter (Brookings Institution, June), a group of experts in data analytics, surveys, and content analytics examine how people processed the news during the 2016 presidential election, using data from a Gallup poll that asked respondents what news items they remembered.
Stuart N. Soroka, a professor of communication studies and political science at the University of Michigan and one of the book’s coauthors, says the data shows not all news is “equally memorable.” Much of the news about Hillary Clinton that respondents remembered, for instance, pertained to one issue: her use of a private email server during her time as secretary of state. “The endless string of scandals, almost weekly, that surrounded Trump,” on the other hand, “produced no clear story line,” Soroka says. “The take-home message for journalists from the 2016 campaign is they need to think seriously about the new phenomenon that is Donald Trump, relative to more traditional candidates,” such as Joe Biden.
It’s a disconcerting suggestion, but, amid the coronavirus pandemic, an oddly fitting one—that the problem with the media ecosystem isn’t just that it’s rife with fake news, but that it’s rife with real news that’s hard to believe.
Daniel Lefferts is a writer in New York City.
Below, more on books about politics.
Agree to Disagree: PW Talks with Tania Israel
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Politicians and Politicos: Politics Books 2020
Forthcoming books include memoirs by controversial figures, studies of leading politicians, and examinations of the country’s recent, turbulent political past.
2020 Political Books for Children
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