Working at a waterfront restaurant on the North Fork of Long Island, New York, celebrity customers aren’t an uncommon occurrence. That said, myself and other members of staff were left starstruck last 4th of July weekend when Jay-Z and Beyonce ordered two lobster rolls via dockside service.
Naturally, the staff was abuzz at this rare sighting of America’s royal couple. However, as their boat disappeared back into the harbor, one of my coworkers hit me with an absolute bombshell: “They have a lot of balls coming here for two people who have to appear in court tomorrow,” she said. What was she talking about? Did I miss this headline? Were Jay-Z and Beyonce committing tax fraud or something? I was curious to know more about this potentially Earth-shattering story. The following is her response: “Well, you know [former US Rep.] Anthony Weiner, right? Well, the NYPD is currently in possession of a hard drive that contains a video file of his [Wiener’s] wife, Hillary Clinton, and Beyonce at Jeffrey Epstein’s private island, drinking a child’s blood.” Despite my best efforts to corroborate her claim, I was able to find no credible source.
Conspiracies have long been a part of the cultural zeitgeist, ranging from conjecture surrounding the Kennedy Assassination, to the 9/11 attacks, to pretty much any other historically significant events with any unclear or classified details. While in the past these theories mainly dwelled in the basements of friends’ weird older brothers, or were buried in the backlogs of internet forums, we are now subjected to these views publicly and daily. As the increasing presence of social media allows everyone’s voices to be amplified, it’s growing harder and harder to determine who to trust, or more importantly, who not to trust.
These situations grow especially difficult when shaky sources are amplified by prominent public figures, such as when Lionel LeBron, a podcast host known for promoting Obama Birtherism conspiracies, theories around the 2017 Las Vegas Shooting, and Anti-Vaccination theories, was invited to the White House in 2018. By bringing figures like LeBron to the White House, the former Presidential administration promoted these fringe beliefs into the common American zeitgeist.
The continued endorsement of these fringe right beliefs by those in power brings them out of the shadows and into the mainstream. Left unchecked, and they can grow past the point of control. Such was the case on January 6th, when the U.S. Capitol was invaded by insurrectionists. As Congress gathered to ratify the results of the 2020 Election, months of unfounded accusations regarding voter fraud reached their boiling point. While the former President likes to emphasize that he finished his rally telling his supporters to march “peacefully,” years of promoting hostility towards his political opponents made his instruction a moot point.
And while the former President urged rioters to go home in a Twitter video, he also lambasted his own Vice President for not agreeing to overturn the election results. (At the moment this Tweet hit the timeline, Vice President Mike Pence was being escorted to safety by the Secret Service.) According to testimonies from arrested rioters, many felt emboldened by the President’s words that day, and Trump’s own inner circle seemed invigorated by his rhetoric: at the rally, Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani called for a “trial by combat.”
While theories like QAnon—that of a global cannibalistic, paedophilic elite, pushed by an anonymous 8Chan user, “Q”, who has gained an alarmingly cult-like following—and others ramped up in the time between November and January, these sensational conspiracies have been sowing their seeds for years. What is it about these theories that make them so appealing?
According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2019, around 37% of surveyed US adults get their news from Facebook. With its customized feeds, Facebook’s distribution of news articles, links, and videos is driven by its own users, allowing individuals to effectively curate their own personalized news bubble. CNN, Reuters, and Fox News all have the ability to post their stories, but the exposure brought to each link is largely driven by how many users share each post, creating a level playing field between these media juggernauts and sites like, say, “blog.nomorefakenews.com,” a blog whose articles largely consist of stories condemning vaccinations, alleging voter fraud, and “debunking” the severity of the Coronavirus around the world. This blog, run by a man named Jon Rappoport, aligns with many of the viewpoints of QAnon, which cites Trump as the last line of defense between the United States and a bloodthirsty cabal of paedophilic monsters. While former President Trump has denied much knowledge of QAnon or their views, he has praised their “aversion to Pedophilia” and how they “fight it very hard.”
According to Pew, only 20% of surveyed adults in 2020 believed that the promotion of QAnon brought a “net good” to the development of political discourse in the country. But when we break these responses down over party lines, there is a striking difference in how both sides view the ideology. The amount of support from those who identify as Republican or having Republican leaning views was nearly six times as high as those whose views aligned closely with the Democratic party, at 41% and 7% respectively.
The organizers of QAnon, whose identities remain anonymous, have put forward a series of predictions since the beginning of the Trump presidency in 2016, including speculations about the resignation of key political and media figures, the release of incriminating videos of Hillary Clinton, and even the eventuality of mass suicides of staffers for various Democratic members of Congress. To date, none of those predictions have proven true (“Q” themself has gone radio-silent) but the group’s following on the internet only continues to grow.
In an October 2020 study, the Center for American Progress found that while doubts about the severity of COVID-19 or the safety of vaccines are rare, this anti-establishment thought is not as uncommon as you might hope. The results of the study indicate that we may all have some sort of belief that ranges outside the norm, which can easily be preyed upon during uncertain times like the current pandemic. 70% of polled Democrats believed that the Russian government had incriminating evidence on Donald Trump and his family, a belief shared by only a third of total Americans overall. In comparison, close to 50% of Republicans believe that COVID-19 is no more dangerous than the flu, a view shared only by 25 percent of Americans.
As issues like the ongoing pandemic become more politicized, more and more people will consume media that confirms their own biases, instead of news without a political spin. In an age of information that’s become so clouded by biases and unverified information, what can the average consumer do to make sure they’re getting the right information?
"Regardless of which way the content leans, many publications can filter their news in such a way that not only coincides with their own views, but, increasingly, protects their own image."
Recently, I spoke with Jaime Jordan, a Professor of Journalism at New York’s Fordham University. According to Jordan, those who consume the news are going to have to do as much work as those who present the news. “Whenever you see a story in print or on video, look at their sources,” Jordan told me.. “Go back as far as you can and see for yourself what they have to say. Otherwise, you’re just getting someone else’s interpretation of what actually happened before you even had an opportunity to figure it out yourself.”
Jordan emphasized that this is a non-partisan issue.. A mere handful of corporations own the sprawl of media empires we encounter every day, such as Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp (which runs Fox News), as well as print papers such as The Wall Street Journal (US), The New York Post (US), and The Sun (UK). The Washington Post is run by Nash Holdings, a company set up to manage the intellectual property of Amazon CEO/founder Jeff Bezos. Even Warren Buffet has dipped his toe into the world of media ownership, financing a portion of a $2.7 Billion deal to acquire a large portion of Ion television, which operates a number of local news stations around the U.S
Regardless of which way the content leans, many publications can filter their news in such a way that not only coincides with their own views, but, increasingly, protects their own image. Take The Washington Post, for example. Despite its positive rating for factual reporting via AdFontes media, the Post (which, again, is owned by Jeff Bezos) isn’t immune from conflicts of interest. When Bezos was the target of a National Enquirer text leak in early 2019, the Post’s editorial department made it very clear that they stood by their owner, calling the Enquirer’s efforts an “insidious model of intimidation and corruption masquerading as journalism.” While Opinion sections are composed of exactly that, opinions, fighting the battles of your publication’s owner takes up space that should be used for valuable news reporting.
"When left unchecked, these fringe views can produce real, sometimes deadly consequences."
However, there is a problem with the verification practice that Professor Jordan encourages. If every story requires us to dig deep to the original source, how does journalism still fit into today’s society? According to Jordan, journalism will regain that place when facts are clearly prioritized over profit. “These large networks are all influenced by their shareholders,” Jordan said. “With more public funded, nonpartisan journalism, average people would have a lot less worry about whether or not a source can be trusted.”
Public media outlets do already exist, with the U.S’ NPR and PBS as prominent examples, both funded in par. While not free of bias, NPR and PBS often skew closest to the middle when evaluated by organizations like Allsides and the Pew Research Center. According to Ad Fuentes Media, who evaluate media organizations based on a combination of their bias and level of factual reporting, NPR ranks highly among most other organizations, slightly below the Associated Press.
Until more robust guidelines can be laid out for major news organizations, either through legislation or internal policing, the best media consumers can do is to continue their own quest of verification. By knowing the signs of biased reporting, as well as conspiracy theories, it becomes easier to help not only yourself, but those around you who may be drinking the Kool-Aid. That same Beyonce-fearing waitress, whose views I laughed off, was one of the insurrectionists in D.C on January 6th. When left unchecked, these fringe views can produce real, sometimes deadly, consequences.
Given those consequences, we all must dedicate ourselves a set of tasks; know who you’re reading, question outlandish claims, and protect those around you from dangerous ideologies. As important as journalism is, it’s just as important to hold those who wish to spread misinformation accountable.
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