Farhad Manjoo, tech columnist at The New York Times, is surprised by what he has witnessed during the first weeks of the Trump presidency but says he probably shouldn’t be.
“I thought we’d see a different Trump once he took office,” Manjoo says. “Trump seems just as enamored of conspiracy theories and of what he reads on the internet as he seemed to be as a candidate. But that tendency was apparent in his campaign. To an extent, it was a theme of his campaign, which didn’t discourage people from believing Barack Obama is a secret Muslim or had been born in Kenya. Trump just avoids stuff that is evidence-based. What’s surprising is that I was surprised by it.”
A keynote speaker at The Advocacy Conference in Florida this past January, Manjoo has been a columnist for the Times since 2014 and a contributor to National Public Radio since 2009. Author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society, the native of South Africa has also written for Salon, Slate and The Wall Street Journal.
Trump’s preferred ways of getting information can be understood only in the larger context of American politics and journalism, Manjoo suggests. “The audience for mainstream news is smaller than ever,” he says. “Everything is filtered through the flavor of news we prefer.”
Fact-checking Fake News
Of course, this tendency to seek information that seems to confirm what we already believe opens the door to fake news and an increasing susceptibility to conspiracy theories.
“Unfortunately, this isn’t a problem the news media can solve through ‘fact-checking,’” Manjoo says. “Journalists seem to believe that people make choices rationally, in response to confirmable facts. But psychological studies show that we are really bad at choosing rationally — that we choose instead on what sounds good to us.”
“There’s also a lot of truth to the idea that transparency is no longer a communications strategy. It’s a reality, whether you embrace transparency or not.”
Operating with dwindling budgets, the news business is increasingly comfortable with “citizen journalism,” which presents challenges to business organizations. And citizen journalists don’t depend on established media outlets to publish damaging videos or publicize their complaints — or leaks.
“People used to worry about Mike Wallace and the team from ’60 Minutes’ showing up at your office door,” Manjoo says. “But anyone can be a Mike Wallace today, whether it is an employee or a visitor to your office. As Edward Snowden showed, anyone can leak information. There’s some truth to the idea that you are now transparent whether you choose to be or not. There’s also a lot of truth to the idea that transparency is no longer a communications strategy. It’s a reality, whether you embrace transparency or not.”
Authenticity vs. Honesty
Transparency is like authenticity, in how slippery these words’ meanings can be and how difficult they can be to practice. “Authenticity is problematic because it doesn’t mean the same thing as telling the truth or being honest,” Manjoo says. “Trump on Twitter is very authentic in that he comes across as real, when more conventional politicians don’t sound quite genuine.”
Trump “tweets like he talks — in clipped, declarative sentences,” according to Manjoo. “This is perfect for the medium, but just because he sounds authentic doesn’t mean what he says is factual. So many politicians and business leaders sound managed in their social platforms, and that’s a problem for them, even if they are telling the truth.”
No Quick Fix
No one has figured out how people can best defend themselves when they become the target of fake news or simply bad information, so Manjoo offers no simple solution. “It’s a challenge these days, because when you repeat a charge just to refute it, studies show that you spread the charge in the process — and more people than ever believe it. We saw that with those claims about Obama being born in Kenya or being a secret Muslim. I wish I had an easy answer, but I don’t.”
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