Information disorder, coming to a congressional district near you

“Turns out you don’t have to live on a coast to be treated with suspicion reserved for ‘elites.'”

The malaise that transformed American politics into a hall of mirrors during the leadup to the 2016 presidential election will increasingly afflict local communities.

Why? The social platforms that became vectors for misinformation and its evil twin, disinformation, are widely used not just for national news, but also for community information. Those platforms are not in retreat but rather are ascendant as a news source among certain populations, including older adults, and are unlikely to be constrained by a regulatory framework anytime soon.

What’s more, the upcoming 2018 midterm elections, which will bring partisan politics to the district level amidst a hobbled local news industry, leave American communities ripe for exploitation by bad actors capitalizing on our worst impulses.

Indeed, viral whisper campaigns have already been disturbing the American pastoral. Consider the case of Twin Falls, Idaho, where community members latched onto a rumor — spread on Facebook groups and fueled by a Breitbart News reporter — that a group of foreign Muslim youths had raped a minor. (Fidelity to the facts in the case led to threats of physical harm against local journalists and city officials.)

This phenomenon is perhaps even more likely to occur in ecosystems with weakened journalistic institutions. Local newspapers are gutted, consolidated or disappeared. Broadcasters are on stronger business footing than their print counterparts, but now more likely to be owned by one of a few large companies, some with political baggage. Even local and regional nonprofit media — sometimes the only publishers to add to the ranks at a city hall meeting or at the statehouse — can be backed by funders tied to ideological interests. Local media may be slightly more trusted than national outlets, but not by much. It’s no surprise that “fake news” accusations are being lobbed not just at CNN, but at local journalists, too. Turns out you don’t have to live on a coast to be treated with suspicion reserved for “elites.”

To be sure, there’s been enough recent action tackling all these issues to merit a 50-page report to summarize it all. Some of these efforts rightly focus at the local level. In light of the upcoming election cycle, it’s tempting to offer a modest proposal: that local news outlets join the candidates and do some retail politics. If renewed efforts to increase journalistic transparency have the potential to help stem the tide of misinformation through trust, so can face-to-face interaction. After all, just a quarter of Americans have spoken with a local journalist. A modest proposal? Perhaps. But tell that to the editor who fears a retaliatory bullet hole through his window.

Jesse Holcomb is an assistant professor of journalism at Calvin College.

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