Misinformation is an index of political incentive structures

The point that politics is as much about telling allusive stories as making reasoned arguments is hardly new to campaigners, journalists, or scholars. But the kinds of stories told vary depending on the audience and the medium; they also vary in different eras depending on how mediated publics can be assembled and how that alters the calculus of perceived risk and reward in addressing particular audiences in specific ways. The apparent ease with which some politicians traffic in overt falsehood and conspiracy in today’s media environment lays bare what Karp (2019) neatly calls the ‘load-bearing’ myths that have worked to constrain elite behaviour and sustain democratic norms.

The pandemic offers many examples. For instance, President Trump’s dismissive, even mocking rhetoric about mask-wearing through the first half of 2020 almost certainly reflected a calculation about how that stance would be presented in conservative outlets; as caseloads surged in mid-summer and Fox News changed the tone of its coverage, the president was forced to follow suit. But a better illustration, because it highlights institutional norms beyond the White House, is the conspiratorial rhetoric that featured in the impeachment proceedings six months earlier. The crudeness of the falsehoods being peddled by Republican lawmakers in such a solemn setting (such as baseless insinuations about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 elections) drew widespread condemnation. One analysis argued, ‘Each round of GOP questioning is not meant to interrogate the witnesses . . . but instead to create moments that can be flipped into Fox News segments, shared as bite-size Facebook posts, or dropped into 4chan threads’ (Broderick 2019).

A tradition of media scholarship has explored how events like congressional hearings are staged for mediated audiences (Page 1996; Carey 1998). Politicians, like all of us, say things not only for particular audiences but also in specific discursive contexts — a campaign ad, a press conference, a meeting with donors — governed by varying standards of truth. For public figures, the logic of these encounters is sometimes just ‘cover’: having something to say, an allusion or argument that navigates the moment while advancing, or at least not damaging, strategic aims.

Arguably, then, the conspiracy-laden performance was unusual only in degree.1 Still, it highlights the fragility of institutional norms such as the expectation that members of Congress observe basic standards of evidence, engage with reasonable arguments, and make a show of appealing broadly to the American public. Norms governing the behaviour of political elites in a democracy depend on the ‘democratic myth’ (Karpf 2019) or ‘regulative fiction’ (Nerone 2013) of an attentive, reasoning, and unitary public: what matters is that elites generally act as if an abstract public is paying attention and will hold them accountable when lies or abuses are exposed. The power of the press as a democratic watchdog depends on the same reflexive assumption embedded in political culture; it ‘resides in the perception of experts and decision makers that the general public is influenced by the mass media’ rather than in the media’s influence itself (Schudson 1995, 121). That faith in the link from publicity to accountability, in turn, supports the ability of monitory institutions, civil society actors, and political elites to enforce democratic norms on behalf of a wider public (e.g. Page 1996; Schudson 2015).

These useful fictions are harder to sustain in a post-broadcast media environment where even the notion of a broad public tuned in to more or less the same things — never the whole picture — has become not just less accurate, but less natural. Both the moral panic around misinformation and the research refuting it draw attention to underlying realities of electoral politics that, while long understood, may increasingly be common sense. As Karpf (2019) writes, ‘Disinformation and propaganda are not dangerous because they effectively trick or misinform otherwise-attentive voters; they are dangerous because they disabuse political elites of some crucial assumptions about the consequences of violating the public trust’.

Related myth-eroding pressures exist within journalism. The self-serving ‘audience-image’ (Gans 2004) constructed by twentieth-century journalists, with neither means nor motive to know much about their actual readers and viewers, was a mechanism of ideological uniformity, social exclusion, and professional self-justification. But it also helped preserve a space for professional news values to cohere, making it easier to write for an idealised, information-seeking democratic public (Ananny 2018). Conversely, while every news organisation strives to build ties of emotion and identity with its audience, scholars of partisan and populist media emphasise the deeply affective editorial logic that governs their news production (Mazzoleni 2008). Explaining the ‘emotional pull’ of Fox News’s appeal to working-class values, for instance, Peck (2019, 92) points to the ‘historical rootedness of the enduring political themes and narratives’ that its on-air personalities return to again and again.

 
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