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The death of consensus, not the death of truth

“We need a vision for a new journalism, and a clear path to supporting and sustaining it in a world where consensus can no longer be taken for granted.”

At misinformation-related conferences this past year, I heard a common refrain: The larger, meta risk of our current misinformation crisis isn’t the individual bits of confusion. It’s that, over time, people will start doubting everything, and nothing will be true anymore. In other words, like the story of the boy who cried wolf one too many times, the public at large will no longer believe anything when a real story comes along.

This line of thought needs complicating, and here’s why: People need to believe in something in order to move about the world. While I recognize the rhetorical strategy of saying “people won’t believe anything anymore,” the better question is this: When and how do people believe things? And how can journalists work with a change in the dynamics of trust?

This is a question that will require significantly more research, but the throughlines are clear: The U.S. and other Western countries are shifting into low-trust societies. The concept of a low-trust society has a long history, starting with Francis Fukuyama’s book, Trust, and it’s been studied and critiqued by many scholars. But the basic idea is this: “trust arises when a community shares a set of moral values in such a way as to create expectations of regular and honest behaviour.” In other words, trust is built from a certain level of societal consensus.

The world as a whole and the West in particular is moving from a world of broadcast-based consensus to what scholar Penny Andrews has called digital dissensus: “We had the post-war consensus, then the (neo)liberal consensus, and now we are somewhere else entirely — what I call a digital dissensus, quick to jump to outrage and fragmented into echo chambers. People don’t necessarily vote based on their class, their employment or other traditional factors. A lot of people don’t vote at all.”

More broadly, as media scholar Ethan Zuckerman has observed, people are trusting traditional institutions less and less, a phenomenon that’s been occurring long before the current election cycle and even before the rise of the internet. He points to three major trends:

  • The decline of trust in journalism is part of a larger collapse of trust in institutions of all kinds
  • Low trust in institutions creates a crisis for civics, leaving citizens looking for new ways to be effective in influencing political and social processes
  • The search for efficacy is leading citizens into polarized media spaces that have so little overlap that shared consensus on basic civic facts is difficult to achieve
  • A vividly-reported 2012 article in The Atlantic by Ron Fournier and Sophie Quinton is instructive here. It points to the town of Muncie, Indiana, devastated by the economic crisis:

    Muncie is a microcosm of a nation whose motto could be, “In Nothing We Trust.” Seven in 10 Americans believe that the country is on the wrong track; eight in 10 are dissatisfied with the way the nation is being governed. Only 23 percent have confidence in banks, and just 19 percent have confidence in big business. Less than half the population expresses “a great deal” of confidence in the public-school system or organized religion.

    “We have lost our gods,” says Laura Hansen, an assistant professor of sociology at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass. “We lost [faith] in the media: Remember Walter Cronkite? We lost it in our culture: You can’t point to a movie star who might inspire us, because we know too much about them. We lost it in politics, because we know too much about politicians’ lives. We’ve lost it — that basic sense of trust and confidence — in everything.”

    Traditional institutions, which are accustomed to something close to ex cathedra trust and influence, are not adapting for our current information landscape. Rather than trust in sources of authority (institutions in power as such), people today are more likely to put their trust in networks of affiliation (those in your circle, however you define that). In this context, people are more likely to trust what they see around them, people and things that directly impact them, and people in their social networks. There’s some trust in small institutions, but distrust in larger and more traditional institutions is growing. Some of the most powerful misinformation circulates in exactly this way, i.e., through networks of trust built on friends and family, hobbyist networks, fandom cultures, online personalities, and media influencers.

    In 2019, let the idea that we’re seeing the death of truth die. What looks like the death of truth is actually the death of consensus, and a broader transition to a world of dissensus nudged along by a wide variety of media outlets online, on television and radio, and in other forms of media. Misinformation spreads most effectively in this environment because someone, somewhere will find information that fits an existing worldview, and it’s that deeper worldview that’s much harder to change.

    What does this mean for journalists?

    Understand how authenticity works and why networks of affiliation resonate today.

    Trust in the federal government is at a historic low, but, amongst their supporters, both Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez command high trust. It’s not a coincidence that one comes from the world of tabloid magazines and reality television, where his omnipresent brand and personality have engendered familiarity and trust over the decades; while another uses social media like a true millennial, livestreaming her efforts to make ramen in an Instant Pot and sending out zingers on Twitter that resonate with her followers. At a talk I gave at the recent Newsgeist, I pointed out that reality television techniques are adaptive for a multimedia, multi-option world.

    In this environment, authenticity might matter more than traditional markers of trust. Authenticity is a difficult word to define, but like art, it’s a “know it when I see it” phenomenon. I think of it as the perception that one is not performing a self. Indeed, the ability to project authenticity matters in a social media context, and I think reality television stars, microinfluencers, affiliate marketers, and digital propagandists understand this better than most: In a digitally networked environment, trust requires multiple touch points, multiple media outlets, expressions of individual selves, and genuine interactions with a community — or, at least, the appearance of being genuine.

    Speak to why trust in institutions is low, rather than simply doubling down on those institutions.

    People distrust institutions because institutions fail them. It’s not enough to point out that trust in institutions is low without looking at what’s valid about specific critiques. As journalist and author Anand Giridharadas recently pointed out in relation to Macron’s silence at the yellow vest proposals:

    So much of the press covers this, Brexit, trade and much else as being about who’s right. But democracy is about a collision of feelings, and these many forms of global unrest are stepsiblings, fueled by a common sense that the ruling elite doesn’t know people and doesn’t care.

    And they’re right about that, at least.

    I found some wisdom in a 2007 Pew Research Center report on trust in the United States. They observed a specific pattern about trust:

    On the easier-to-explain front, the findings about the lower levels of trust among minorities and low income groups are in sync with a pattern that scholars have long observed – people who feel vulnerable or disadvantaged, for whatever reason, tend to find it riskier to trust because they’re less well-fortified to deal with the consequences of misplaced trust. In line with this formulation, the Pew survey also finds that college graduates are more trusting than those with less education; and that professionals are more trusting than those in the working class.

    Democracies require consensus and trust to operate effectively, and loss of trust in institutions can create a dangerous situation. On the other hand, loss of trust can be a signal that something is awry and needs fixing. We have to figure out better ways to talk about this and directly address the core of social problems and possible ways forward.

    Reimagine journalism for an environment of dissensus.

    We are living in a time of tremendous social change and contention. Within the West, power is being negotiated around issues of climate change, migration, race and ethnicity, and gender and gender identity, amongst many other issues. At a geopolitical level, traditional alliances are beginning to realign and change in unexpected ways, and we should expect the EU and China’s visions of the internet in particular to have a stronger hold on global discourse about internet governance. It’s not enough to adapt for a digital environment; we have to understand the politics and societal dynamics behind these changes.

    I go back to the story of Muncie. Here’s what Fournier and Quinton wrote:

    Nearly nine decades ago, sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd moved here to document the transition away from an agrarian economy. Americans were battered by unbridled commercialism, stymied by an incompetent government beholden to special interests, and flustered by new technologies and new media. The Lynds found a loss of faith in social institutions.

    But, somehow, institutions adapted or gave way to vibrant new ones. The Catholic Church took on poverty, illness, and illiteracy. The Progressive movement, embodied by Theodore Roosevelt, grappled with the social costs of modernization and equipped the government to offset them. Labor unions reined in the corporate excesses of the new economy. Fraternal organizations, a new concept, gave people a sense of community that was lost when knitting circles and barn-raisings died out.

    The question I leave for you today is this: What are the new institutions of journalism, and how are they adapting for the actual dynamics of the networked world, where communities of affiliation are not simply separating into echo chambers but actively acting in contention with each other? How will we in journalism operate in an environment of dissensus? What can we do to shape our media environments of today?

    What journalism needs most is to move from a defensive crouch and into a more adaptive one. We need a vision for a new journalism, and a clear path to supporting and sustaining it in a world where consensus can no longer be taken for granted. I have no answers for the shifting nature of how truth is defined and how trust is built, but in 2019, we need to start asking more productive questions.

    An Xiao Mina is author of Memes to Movements and director of product at Meedan.

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