NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Trying to Fight, Not Spread, Fear and Lies

Posted November 25, 2018 5:00 a.m. EST

EDITOR'S NOTE: Nicholas Kristof has been a columnist for The Times since 2001. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, for his coverage of China and of the genocide in Darfur.

Something continues to nag at me about the midterm elections.

It’s the way we in the news media too often allowed ourselves to be manipulated by President Donald Trump to heighten fears about the immigrant caravan from Central America so as to benefit Republican candidates. Obviously there were many journalists who pushed back on the president’s narrative, but on the whole I’m afraid news organizations became a channel for carefully calculated fearmongering about refugees.

We in the media have, quite rightly, aggressively covered the failings of Facebook and other social media in circulating lies that manipulated voters. That’s justified: We should hold executives’ feet to the fire when they pursue profits in ways that undermine the integrity of our electoral system.

The problem is that too often we in the media engage in the same kind of profit chasing. The news business model is in part about attracting eyeballs, and cable television in particular sees that as long as the topic is Trump, revenues follow. So when Trump makes false statements about America being invaded by Central American refugees, he not only gets coverage, but also manages to control the media agenda.

At a recent Trilateral Commission conference in Silicon Valley, there was discussion of the irresponsibility of internet companies in modern democracy — but also tough words about the role of the mainstream media. Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford law professor and elections expert, told me that in 2016, Russians used mainstream media to manipulate voters even more successfully than they used Facebook.

Likewise, Alex Stamos, formerly at Facebook and now at Stanford, noted that much of the public discussion has been about how Russia used profiles of fake Americans to sow discord and falsehood. There has been less focus, he noted, on how Russia used news organizations to publicize stolen Democratic emails to hurt Hillary Clinton.

“There has not been a great deal of soul-searching in the traditional media on their role in this,” Stamos told me. “There is no easy answer for what legitimate journalists should do when newsworthy information is strategically leaked, but there might be some options to cover these stories without providing massive amplification.”

In general, as I’ve written many times, I thought that we in the media (especially cable television) fumbled 2016 but then had a much better 2017 and 2018 — until we let ourselves be used to elevate lies about the caravan to the top of the agenda. We even knew we were being manipulated and we still let it happen: As we expected, Trump lost interest in the caravan after ballots were cast and the topic faded.

Solutions are complicated, for there may well be a public interest in seeing purloined material; if Trump’s tax returns showed up in my mailbox, I would report on them even if I thought that China had stolen them and was using me to undermine the White House. Likewise, we do have to cover what a president says, even if it’s false, bigoted or demagogic — but I think we can try harder to make crystal clear the efforts at manipulating the public.

One challenge is that fact-checking doesn’t work very well. Social psychology experiments have found that when people are presented with factual corrections that contradict their beliefs, they may cling to mistaken beliefs more strongly than ever. This is called the “backfire effect.”

For example, when people wary of vaccinations were presented with information showing the benefits of vaccines, they on average became even less likely to vaccinate.

Consider the statements, “Millions of illegal votes were cast” and, “Experts dispute Trump’s claim that millions of illegal votes were cast.” The former is false, the latter correct, but Persily says that the cognitive impact on news consumers is roughly the same, seeding doubts about illegal voting.

This presents the media with a dilemma. How do we cover lies without compounding them? My answer is that we have to try harder, relying on evidence about what kind of fact-checking seems more successful. There’s an emerging literature on this topic, and not surprisingly it appears to be more effective to quote Republicans than Democrats in correcting a GOP narrative. Mocking people for their worldview is counterproductive.

We’ve managed effective fact-checking at crucial junctures in the past: The great Edward R. Murrow deflated Joseph McCarthy, and some heroic news reporters (often from the South) covered the civil rights struggle in ways that changed attitudes rather than reinforcing prejudices.

So let’s start asking ourselves the tough questions we ask of Facebook and others. We must try harder to avoid becoming a channel to spread disinformation, hatred or lies.

It’s time for my annual win-a-trip contest, in which I choose a university student to accompany me on a reporting trip to cover aspects of global poverty. This might be to Bangladesh or to American Indian reservations in the U.S. or anywhere in between. The student winner will write about the trip for nytimes.com. Information about how to apply is at nytimes.com/winatrip, and thanks in advance to the Center for Global Development in Washington for helping me pick a winner. The win-a-trip journey may involve bedbugs, rats and the worst toilets you’ve seen. But it’s a chance to shine a light on critical and neglected topics, so please encourage students to apply.

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