Relativism and the Disinformation Epidemic

Trump’s unhinged and deceitful presidency continues. Just when you think you’ve heard it all he suggests that citizens inject themselves with the chlorine-based chemical as a possible cure for the coronavirus.

There is surely a degradation of truth and a decline in reasoning and decision-making quality. And I don’t accept the argument that those who make such statements are elitist and should be ignored because they are just trying to tell others what to think. The attack on others as elitist is an emotional way to gain ground in an argument without having to do the hard work of evidence-based reasoning. Satire, humor, and innuendo have replaced some journalism – not all. The vacuous cliché “perception is reality” has taken on hallucinogenic qualities in the Trump administration. At one time a candidate could skillfully influence an audience into perceiving him or her in a certain way; that is, they could present themselves as concerned about the welfare of citizens, or a good family man, hard-working, etc. But now the so-called created realities are rank lies that ultimately do harm to good political order. The Willie Horton ad was an early creation perception from the right. A perception that was clearly racist and a lying misrepresentation of a group of people based on a crude violent stereotype. [Do you want to see the Willie Horton ad? Go here] The Swift boat ad that turned John Kerry into a coward rather than the hero was a direct attack on the American military’s credibility and diminished the honorable behavior of a veteran. [Go here to see Swift boat ads and read about the controversy] We are a long way now from slight rhetorical flourishes that enhance the candidate’s credibility or something equally as innocuous.

Trump spent years defining himself to meet his momentary interests. He was at once a hotel magnate, then had a clothing line, is the head of a university, purveyor of steaks and bottled water, playboy, TV reality star, and civic leader. All of these images had to be embedded in his name so his only strategy was to create phony events designed to gain attention and associate his name with the perceptions. He is clearly a modern PT Barnum. What seems true and possible to believe has replaced truth in the traditional sense of the term which implies some connection between reality and comprehension of that reality. [I would encourage the reader to seek out Daniel Boorstin’s book, The Image, which treats these issues clearly and incisively]

The challenge now is not to just correct wrong information, which implies a truth to some other type of information, but to control disinformation which is purposefully false and misleading with the intent to deceive. One strategy used by the right and FOX News is to make outrageous statements (e.g. the Clintons killed Vince Foster) and state them quickly and briefly on the various talk shows and then drop the issue. But the media echo chamber picks up the story from Fox and repeats it on smaller more localized media thereby keeping it alive and repeating it often enough for portions of the audience to believe it or at least cast doubt on the accused.

More than ever before, there are plenty of warnings about the fragility of American democracy. And many of these warnings are exaggerated or overheated. But as Levitsky and Ziblatt maintained in their book “How Democracies Die” the most dangerous trends are a polarized and uninformed public that has the very institutions of democracy used against the public. The drift toward authoritarianism is inevitable when reasoning and analytical skills are in decline and the quality of information required to make sound decisions is compromised. Interestingly, Trump’s trivial, inconsequential, uninformed, and non-substantive messages will hobble American democracy.

But it will be entertaining.




About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on April 26, 2020, in Communication and Conflict Resolution. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Relativism and the Disinformation Epidemic.

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