Trump and fake news

What is fake news? We used to call it media bias, which has been with us as long as the press has. There is a symbiotic relationship between the press and the government. The government cannot survive without the press to validate its claims; the press cannot survive without a government to report on. The fight is not over the press, but the extent to which it should shade the truth either in favor or against the government. Neutrality is not an option.

The best work I know of on this topic is by Gentzkow and Shapiro, who developed a clever way to measure bias in the media—basically by comparing the language that media outlets use with the language used by politicians of various ideological stripes. Yes, the Times is on the left, and Fox is on the right; all news organizations  are located on a point along the ideological spectrum.

Their most interesting finding is that the ideological slant of a news organization reflects the ideological slant of its customers. This reflects a Bayesian logic. A conservative sees the world in a certain way, and so will be more likely to believe a media outlet that sees it in a similar way. Same for liberals. In order to attract customers, a news outlet provides a consistent level of bias that reflects the ideology of the people who are its most natural customers. In the old days of print newspapers, the newspapers would reflect the biases of the people in their area of distribution. Nowadays, national media divide up their audience by finding demographic groups that are not already represented. Fox made a killing because the national news channels catered to liberals and moderates, ignoring a huge segment of the population.

In the era of social media, everyone can very easily read news from across the ideological spectrum. With conservatives easily being able to read the stuff that liberal news organizations sell to their customers, and liberals being able to see the stuff that conservative news organizations purvey, trust in the press has fallen to a new low. People can circulate to their ideological pals the latest outrage from a news organization that doesn’t see them as its audience–“can you believe that!” Fake news is born.

But I suspect these poll numbers conceal a fallacy of aggregation. Just as voters distrust Congress but trust their own congressional representatives, people distrust the press as a whole while trusting the specific news organizations that they rely on. That is the Bayesian logic of Gentzkow and Shapiro. In fact, in common usage the “press” probably means the New York Times and CNN, not Fox and the Wall Street Journal. That is why the poll numbers indicate that Republicans have lost more faith in the “press” than Democrats have.

The underlying truth is that liberals trust liberal news organizations and conservatives trust conservative news organizations: the press has never had more influence or enjoyed more trust, in the disaggregated sense–or so I believe.

If all this is true, Trump faces a dilemma. By attacking the press as a whole, he can blame another institution for his failures and establish himself as an independent source of the truth. In principle anyway, he can appeal to the masses for support by claiming that the elite press misleads them. Here is the  logic of populism at work. But the press encompasses the conservative press—so he is implicitly attacking institutions that his conservative supporters trust, probably more than they trust him.

The alternative is to attack only the liberal press, giving up on possible mass appeal and doubling down on his conservative base. But if Trump attacks only the liberal press, then he is implicitly tying himself to the good opinion of the conservative press. If the conservative journalists finally turn on him (some already have), Trump will lose credibility among his core supporters, and very quickly. Meanwhile, he gives free publicity to the liberal press, to whom moderates will increasingly turn as their doubts about Trump gain force.

In true Trumpian fashion, Trump has tried to resolve this contradiction by attacking what he calls the “fake news media,” encompassing an ambiguous group that includes the liberal media but presumably excludes conservative outlets, but only as long as they continue to support him. He can add Fox to the list if it ever turns on him, but if he does his position will become ever more precarious. Trump needs the media more than he is willing to admit. Hence his impotent rage.