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Oct. 26, 2017, 9 a.m.

Reading the news on Trump: Are we empty vessels or active filters?

Fake news and misinformation should be understood as a series of societal challenges long in the making. No algorithm will solve them, because no algorithm created them.

Strategic, mindful, emotional, and attached: These four features capture the main ways in which a sample of 72 American adults read news stories about President Donald Trump.

The dominant post-election mainstream media focus has been on on fake news, propaganda, misinformation, alleged foreign influence, and the failed civic duty of social media platforms and search engines. But preliminary findings from an ongoing study reveal that people are neither cognitive dupes nor dispassionate consumers of news. That doesn’t mean that they are perfectly rational, or that their passion cannot get in the way of productive conversations. But it signals a level of agency that problematizes dystopian visions of powerful hypodermic needles injecting information viruses into an otherwise healthy body politic.

By shifting the focus of attention from a sophisticated technological apparatus influencing society from an imagined outside to the mundane practices and feelings of ordinary people, what arises is an account that reveals longstanding cultural challenges — but also a possible pathway for hope.

Making sense of the news

Over the past year, most of the analyses about the role of the news and social media in the 2016 presidential election and the first few months of the current administration have shared two traits.

First, they have concentrated on what content has been available, especially false information propagated (intentionally or unintentionally) through traditional and digital media channels.

Second, whenever these analyses were substantiated with systematic evidence, it was usually in the form of quantitative metrics about news media articles and social media posts.

The combination of these two traits has enabled analysts to document the existence of certain types of information in the media ecosystem and estimate their relative magnitude.

However, less has been written about how people have made sense of this content in a way that illuminates their everyday experience. Resorting to a well-known analogy to flight: While the 30,000-foot view of a city might expose interesting patterns of urbanization, it’s only by getting down to 5 or 6 feet above the ground that we can grasp what these patterns mean to city dwellers — and how they actually deal with them. The neat images from the air tend to present a simplistic and deterministic view that often fails to capture the more complex and contingent reality of lived experience. Big data is not an aggregate reflection of fragments of everyday life; it’s an engineered refraction of them that might be more helpful for mapping the contours of an object than for understanding its social appropriation.

The account that follows is an attempt to complement the dominant narrative with an initial analysis of in-depth interviews with 72 adults in the greater metropolitan areas of Chicago, Miami, and Philadelphia, undertaken between January and October 2017.1 This is part of an ongoing study, and the sample is not representative of the overall population. However, it has diversity in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, educational attainment, occupation, ideological orientation, and national origin. What emerges from this analysis are four key mechanisms guiding how most interviewees read the news about President Trump: strategic curation, mindful processing, emotional interpretation, and subjective attachment.

Strategic curation

Most interviewees note that they have many possible sources of information in the news and social media, and articles within those sources. Thus, they curate sources and articles in a strategic fashion. The strategies vary from person to person, but what remains constant is a curatorial practice that complements those of journalists and algorithms.

Focusing on editorial practices is a common vector of strategic curation. In some cases, this helps select an organization due to its ideological orientation. Joe, a white student of Republican leanings, commented “Vox is obviously incredibly liberal and conservatives mock it all the time…If you’re just making a ridiculous article, then you’re Voxsplaining.”2 Other times, it means looking at the posting habits of social media contacts. Ann, a white librarian in her 50s, said that her news “choice is determined more by the things that the people whose opinion I respect [post]…And the less frequently they post about things, the more likely I am to click on the things they do post.”

Ideological affinity also plays a role in strategic curation on social media, sometimes in complicated ways. Sarah, a white policy analyst in her 30s who is Republican, shared that dating a Democrat has affected her filtering routines: “we’re getting married and…most of his friends are more liberal and I happen to be friends with a lot of them too…I have fewer friends on Facebook that are of the same political leaning as me. So, I think that’s a big reason why I find myself filtering [more].”

The act of filtering achieves perhaps its maximum intensity by unfriending or unfollowing a contact on social media. Sometimes this applies to public personalities. Mark, a white market researcher in his 30s, told us that on Twitter he follows “Rich Lowry from National Review…I used to follow Laura Ingraham but I got too sick of it so I unfollowed [her].” On other occasions, this practice applies to personal contacts, and sometimes in a creative fashion. Tony, a graduate student of South Asian descent, commented that “I used to unfriend [racist contacts] and now that this has kind of become of academic interest to me, I unfollow them and then I put them on a list of friends and then every now and then I go on there and I watch their political conversations…I can remain abreast of that.”

Tony’s comments point to the attempt of curating one’s news sources in such a way that includes multiple perspectives, which was a theme that recurred across many interviews. Sam, a white administrative employee in his 30s, stated: “I follow the Marine Corps Times…not so much [for] the stories but exclusively the commentary, because that is where you have a large group of Marine veterans or allies…I’m more aware of what’s out there on a national level just because I was exposed to those people. Growing up [in the Chicago area], we’re in our own bubble, but then those four years of active duty opened my mind.”

Mindful processing

Sam’s comment indicates mindfulness about how the content of the news is processed. In some cases, this meant a reflexive stance about the sources and content of the information to which a person chooses to expose herself. Daniel, a young white attorney, shared that he has “come to conclude that a lot of the stuff I follow is extremely liberal leaning and I haven’t figured out a way to temper it. And it’s really negative and doesn’t really make me feel any better about how the days are going. But yeah, I see it and I recognize it. I should probably try to introduce some more conservative media points, but I can’t bring myself to do it either [laughs].”

Ofelia, a Latina housewife in her 50s whose preferred source is Fox News (but who regularly watches CNN to get an alternative perspective), noted a negative slant towards President Trump in the latter, and thought this was due to the fact that “it is the first time that there is a candidate that is more complex and that people see as controversial…They don’t like how he talks or deals with issues…So, this gives more power to the media…[But] I see beyond whether I like how he talks or what he says…And I don’t feel personally attacked. As opposed to people who say “as a woman I feel offended,” I don’t! Or as a minority, either!”

From this stance of reflexivity, interviewees often shared different parameters they used to assess the quality of news. David, a white trader in his 30s, tried to ask himself when reading an article: “Are they writing things that are clearly opinionated, or are they trying to be factual? What is, like, the tone of the voice of the writing? And is it trying to be sensationalist? Is it trying to be, you know, factual? Is it trying to present opinions or sway opinions, clearly? That all kind of goes into the reliability, in my mind.”

When the reliability of a piece of information was in question, in particular if it was an important story, many interviewees tried to double-check its veracity by triangulating with other sources. This included Google searches and visits to Wikipedia pages and to various news sites perceived as reputable. José, a factory worker from South America, commented that “what was happening with Trump [and] deportations…[people] posted things on Facebook that I’d say…’mmm, I don’t know if it’s that certain,’ so I searched on other sources to see if it was true.”

Emotional interpretation

The rationality espoused in issues of strategic curation and mindful processing was complemented with the affective dimension central to matters of emotional interpretation and increased attachment.

Emotions were omnipresent in interviewees’ retelling of their encounter with the news. Mary, an African-American social worker in her 30s, talked about her uptake of news about travel restrictions as follows: “I’m feeling really sad, but also very angry. There are a lot of personal stories of people who have been separated from their families [and] who’ve gone through these lengthy processes to be here already, so there’s no reason for them to be prevented from coming back into the country. I’m frustrated right now.”

Emotional interpretation affected not only how topics were evaluated but also the duration of engagement with them. Lesley, an African-American retiree, said that news consumption “these days [takes] about 10 seconds, because the leading story is about Trump and most of us are really tired, one way or the other, of hearing [about him] and there’s other things going on in the world.”

For some people, emotions helped them achieve distance from current events. Anne, a white yoga teacher in her 50s, said that the news about former FBI chief James Comey “is really entertaining. It borders on just sort of ludicrous that the Democrats could have first hated him for trying to…draw the focus on to Clinton and the email…to the pendulum swinging and sort of liking him once he began to look for links between the Trump administration and what went on with Russia related to the election…It’s just funny [laughs]. You have to find the humor in the news these days [laughs]!”

For others, there was a mutual reinforcement between the intensity of emotional states and involvement with the news. Ron, a white attorney in his 30s, commented that his father “listens to conservative talk radio 24/7 and he watches…the Hannitys and the Judge Jeanine Pirros and the Lou Dobbs…I really think he’s turning into such a bitter, miserable, grumpy old guy that just sits in a corner and just hates everything.”

Subjective attachment

Ron’s remarks about his father’s news consumption habits lead to another cross-cutting theme: a perceived need to be constantly connected to the news, much more so than in the recent past. This mechanism of subjective attachment shapes both the time spent learning about current events and the overall experience of reading.

Ralph, an African-American retiree, said that “I cannot help but express it, [but] every morning I want to find out what stupid thing [the President] has said or done today!” Adding that this habit “has accelerated and accelerated and accelerated.” Martha, a white college professor in her 60s, echoed similar feelings by noting that she has “become something of a news junkie on the latest stuff out of Washington…We’re surprised every day and it’s almost like what’s the latest bombshell…We’ve never had a political situation like that in Washington before.”

This subjective attachment happens even when news consumption was tied to strongly negative affect. Rebecca, a white nonprofit volunteer in her 50s, reflected that “even though there was constant news…I didn’t feel like I had to listen to it all the time, 24/7, because you didn’t think at any time…some crazy thing is going to happen. Now you feel like every day there’s a new decision and a new statement and a new issue that you need to know about.” Later in the conversation Rebecca mentioned that she had recently seen the film Manchester by the Sea, and “it was such a relief to watch something about human emotion and human struggles on a human level that wasn’t about strategy and it wasn’t about hatred, or at least hatred on a political level.”

That watching such a devastating movie could be experienced as a relief shows the power of attachment to the news despite its emotionally dire associations. Which is why several interviewees shared a certain saturation with news about President Trump and a desire to limit exposure to it. Jonah, a white advertising analyst in his 30s, said “I’m taking like a slight media sabbatical just because it’s been like so heavy with what Trump is doing.” Lucy, a white office administrator also in her 30s, had already taken initiative by letting herself “watch one Facebook video a day, or YouTube video a day…I wanted to…moderate my news intake by being careful and conscientious with it.”

The coproduction of reading and politics

The image of people that arises from this account of their reading practices contrasts with the notions that have pervaded much commentary about the role of the news and social media during and after the election. By implication, the focus on outside entities polluting the symbolic air that we breathe has painted a picture of readers as somewhat passively swayed by the deluge of fake news and ready to uncritically accept false claims as long as they are consistent with what they believe in. These interviews provided plenty of evidence of readers enacting strategic curation, mindful processing, emotional interpretation, and subjective attachment. However limited their practices might have been, at the very least they problematize the fears of automatic efficacy connoted by many analyses about misinformation.

The account from the interviews also suggests that while we remain alert about outside intervention, it might be also fruitful to spend equal energy interrogating our internal social fabric. “Anger” was by far the dominant word of dozens of terms used by interviewees to describe their emotions linked to reading the news about President Trump. A key reason why many people have felt angry about the news recently is because it fundamentally hurts, whether they are unhappy because of what they see or they are happy but feel misunderstood and misrepresented. The many personal screens through which we access the news — television sets, computer monitors, smartphones, and tablets — have become as much a window into the outside world as a mirror that reflects the interior of our soul as a society.

Steven Shapin and Simon Shaffer, speaking of another major disruptive historical moment, argued that “solutions to the problem of knowledge are solutions to the problem of social order.”3 In the apt term proposed by Sheila Jasanoff, how we read the news, and thus how we get to know our world, co-produces what we want to know and the kind of polity we want to build.4 The everyday political culture that emerges from the account offered in the preceding sections is one that blends conflict, uncertainty, perplexity, and pain. This points to a series of societal challenges long in the making and which therefore will take long to unmake or redirect. No algorithm will solve them, because no algorithm created them, regardless of how helpful they might become in the search for a more convivial and inclusive polity.

But this account also revealed the vibrancy of a critical and sentient reading culture. A culture enacted by people trying to validate their viewpoints, but also aiming to understand alternative ones. Of people reflecting on the character of what they read and their own biases, even while being subject to their bounded rationality. Of people remaining unusually engaged with matters of the polity even when feeling overwhelmed and attempting to curtail exposure to information about current affairs. Such a vibrant civic culture gives reason for hope — however audacious that might seem these days.

Pablo J. Boczkowski is a professor in the School of Communication at Northwestern University.

Photo of man reading El Pais by Enric Fradera used under a Creative Commons license.

Notes
  1. The interviews were undertaken by the author and a team of collaborators comprised of Silvina Chmiel, Amy Ross, and Celeste Wagner.
  2. Following the conventions of ethnographic writing, all names are pseudonyms used to protect the privacy of the interviewees.
  3. Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985, p. 332.
  4. Science and Public Reason. New York: Routledge, 2012.
POSTED     Oct. 26, 2017, 9 a.m.
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