Conspiracism Right And Left: The Iowa Caucus Debacle

attribute to maliceI’m proud to announce that I have been blocked by a far-left facebook page for my skepticism about the current rampant conspiracism surrounding the Iowa caucus. All I really said was that it’s much easier to explain it with incompetence and poor planning instead of some long-winded conspiracy. Are we really supposed to believe that the app company deliberately designed an app to fail at such a crucial moment?

And for those of you who don’t think there are echo chambers on the left, after banning me, the admin wrote, “Just know that I ban concern¬†trolling neoliberals on sight. Please tell me in the comments how this is unfair.” So, I thought I’d take this opportunity to totally own them.

Just kidding. I don’t care. I will miss their memes tho. Instead, this post is about comparing the conspiracism and media ecosystems of the right and left. Something you’ll be able to do in real time after reading this post.

Introduction to Media Ecosystems

Despite what you may have heard, we all have similar brains. There are some studies out there purporting to find differences in (defective) thinking depending on partisan membership. I’m not going to go through the literature here, but these studies, to the extent that they do find differences, find only small differences. Cognitive biases are apolitical. We’ve all got ’em.

So, why do some studies find that the political Right (at least in US of A) endorse conspiracies more (on average) than people on the political left? Well, here’s what THEY don’t want you to know. The tendency toward conspiracism is equivalent at the extreme ends of the political spectrum. Go to any far Right or far Left “news” site and you’ll find the crazy you’re looking for. Where the sides differ is with respect to the institutional checks on conspiracism in mainstream outlets within their respective media ecologies.

Here’s a little info we need to get out of the way before understanding media ecologies. There are three main ways that a media outlet’s importance within an ecology is measured. First, is inlinks. Inlinks are other sites that link to the site in question. If many sites have stories that link to site X, then site X is important to that media ecosystem. The other measures are facebook shares and twitter retweets; i.e., sites with many articles shared are more central to the ecosystem.

The American media environment is made up of two disconnected media ecosystems. On the right, Foxnews dominates by all measures (excluding the period in the 2016 election before they supported Trump. During that period it was Breitbart). The right wing ecosystem is disconnected from the general media ecosystem–that is, there are very few inlinks from non-right wing sources on right wing sources and very few non-right wing stories shared in the right wing media ecosystem.

In the graphs below, dark blue=left; light blue=center left; green=center; pink=center right; red=right.

ecosystem 2
Media Ecosystems based on open web/inlinks (not social media shares)


media ecosystem
Media ecosystems on Twitter

The non-right ecosystem looks different. It is made up of interconnected media outlets that are left, center-left, and center. The main hubs in this system are numerous and more ideologically diverse. They include the NY Times, Politico, CNN, The Washington Post, Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Hill, ABC News, The Huffington Post, USA Today, and the Guardian.

Apart from the number of media outlets and ideological diversity (relative to the RW media ecosystem), there’s another important difference: Institutional norms. The institutional norms of professional journalism inhibit the widescale propagation of conspiracy theories and misinformation coming from fringe sites. This is not to say that it never happens but that relative to the RW ecosystem it happens appreciably less.

Let me highlight one more thing that a RW sympathizer will correctly point out. None of this prevents some kinds of bias. A media ecosystem can produce bias through choices in framing, which perspectives to emphasize, and topic selection. But the critical difference pertaining to propagation of conspiracies and misinformation is with respect to institutional norms regarding fact-checking. I challenge anyone to say with a straight face the the institutional fact-checking norms at Fox and Breitbart are the same as those at the NY Times and Washington Post.

So, let’s return to the original topic. Why do we find that right wing partisans believe more political conspiracies and falsehoods than left wing partisans (let me again emphasize, that this is on average)? The answer has to do with the institutional norms of the main media outlets in the media ecosystems they inhabit.

The conspiracies that begin on the fringes on the right get picked up and amplified by the main outlet on the right. The story gains credibility for its target audience when the main outlet runs it. On the left there’s a different dynamic. There’s just as much crazy on the far left as on the right. However, the main media outlets (plural) in the non-RW media ecosystem don’t often amplify or give credibility to these stories. They rarely make it through the institutional filters. In fact, if they get any exposure it is often as a debunking piece. The average person who gets their news in the non-rightwing media ecosystem is rarely exposed to the outlier conspiracies. If they are exposed to them, it’s in the form of a debunking article.

Let me pause to emphasize a core principle of my critical thinking course (available for free here!): Relativity. For all evaluative claims, we must ask, Compared to what? Consider the claim, “[media source] is/is not reliable.” The issue isn’t whether a source is perfectly reliable or not. It’s whether a source is more reliable relative to alternative sources. So, to the person committing the perfectionist fallacy and argument from confirming instances right now (I know you’re out there!) ask whether Foxnews, Breitbart, The Daily Caller (#3 RW news source), are more reliable at reporting the truth relative to the NYT, Wall Street Journal, The Hill, Bloomberg, etc….

Conclusion/Fun Activity

If what I’ve said so far is true, we should be able to watch the dynamics of the non-right media ecosystem in real time handle the Iowa caucus story. Right now, there are far-left sites (mostly Bernard supporters) pushing a conspiracy theory about some kind of shenanigans (rather than incompetence) at the Iowa caucus. Supposing that strong evidence of conspiracy doesn’t appear, we should predict that the major outlets will not run this story as a plausible conspiracy theory.

Institutional norms concerning journalistic standards of evidence will prevent views from the fringe from becoming credible stories in the non-right ecosystem. If this story does get picked up at all by the major outlets in the non-right media ecosystem it will be to debunk, not to lend credibility. (All of what I’m saying is contingent on there being no new strong evidence of conspiracy emerging). Of course, the far-left sites will see all of this as evidence of conspiracy cover up.

Now, if you’re looking for a genuinely possible conspiracy theory surrounding this event, here’s one. I would put it above 50% probability that Russian twitter bots will amplify the conspiracy story in the non-right media ecosystem. Internal division is their goal. If Trump’s team is smart they’ll do the same to divide and conquer Democrats.

Expect the story to also be selectively shared in (by Fox and mid-tier outlets) in the RW media ecosystem to reinforce the idea that the Democratic Party is corrupt (not entirely false) or that they are incompetent (also not entirely false) or both.

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