A GHOST haunts American journalism – the specter of serial misinformation about events of major national significance. In one case after another, over the past decades the media have not only been wrong, but presented the opposite of the truth. This appalling pattern recurred with metronomic regularity, starting with the pre-Iraq war period and recently culminating in the Russiagate.
At first glance, the cases of Russiagate and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) may seem to have little in common. The former has its origins in a political operation championed by Hillary Clinton supporters, which turned into one of the most fateful episodes in a rich bipartisan history of US election shenanigans, as the US media engulfed with it. credulity the farrago of the absurd claims contained in a file. concocted by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele. Some five years after the events, the Steele case became a serious source of embarrassment – “trash”, as Washington post columnist Erik Wemple said so – and now unfolds like a bad actor story, an uplifting tale of what can happen when the quest for political supremacy turns into a jumbled battle for victory at all costs. The second was an analytical estimate gone awry, our nation’s biggest intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor. It’s a tale of government bureaucrats, working under intense pressure from a Republican White House, who have been seduced by unexamined assumptions and overconfident claims.
The key to each of these cases is collective rather than individual failure – a widespread inability to determine where the truth lies amidst sensational claims, information gaps and willful deception. Frankly speaking, the very institutions that once served as bulwarks against error now published, amplified, and exploited fraudulent reports. Leaders in the intelligence community have helped legitimize rather than debunk the invented Steele dossier. Consider the deceptive Iraqi defector Curveball, whom German intelligence sources viewed with skepticism, but US officials did not. His false accounts of Iraqi biological weapons labs were at the heart of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s dismal address to the United Nations Security Council. Professional standards that normally preserve the integrity of journalism and intelligence work have been thrown overboard as unnecessary ballast. The result was a Gadarene-style stampede of group thought impervious – if not openly hostile – to skeptical questioning, which was detrimental to US national security. Understanding the factors that have combined to produce this phenomenon can help alleviate our institutional susceptibility to a recurrence of such errors.
POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS. One of the key questions in these episodes is why journalists and government officials have jumped to flawed conclusions so quickly and so fiercely resisted any challenge to their judgments, despite the fragile foundation of trust. Why have intelligence analysts dismissed the alternative hypotheses in the case of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, while describing their consensus judgment that Saddam Hussein hid large caches of such weapons as a “slam dunk?” Why did the media so quickly accept the wacky suggestion that Steele, banned from traveling to Russia, could make a few phone calls and uncover highly sensitive Kremlin secrets inaccessible to the world’s best intelligence organizations?
Many are quick to accuse Russiagate of political bias, and there is certainly something to this accusation. Investigations revealed texts, emails and social media comments from career bureaucrats involved in the scandal who smelled of partisanship, and it is clear that many media figures across our country cared more about toppling Donald. Trump than to clarify their facts.
But the policy had little to do with bipartisan rush to pass judgment on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or with concerns on both sides of the aisle about Trump’s relationship with Russia. This does not explain why organizations with multiple layers of analytical and editorial review designed to eliminate deception, factual errors, and weakly substantiated judgments have been fooled on a large scale.
Psychologists have a term for the urge to make a final judgment in the midst of ambiguity: “the need for closure”. Research shows that to varying degrees, most people are worried about uncertainty. In our efforts to avoid this distress, we often quickly focus on a simple and emotionally satisfying explanation for a new development, and we resist information that could undermine our certainty. Those who question the basis of our determination provoke deep hostility, even “annulment.” Arie Kruglanski, the social psychologist at the University of Maryland who pioneered epistemic closure research, has shown that this bias tends to grow stronger in times of emergency or crisis, such as in the aftermath of terrorist incidents.
For many Americans, Trump’s election in 2016 was almost as traumatic as the events of September 11, 2001. Both Democrats and a significant number of Republican traditionalists viewed his unorthodox views as crossing the line. Media coverage of the campaign gave Trump almost no chance of victory, and it is certainly no exaggeration to say that his upset triumph produced significant post-election shock. Their surprise made government officials and journalists particularly inclined to anchor early on a simple and easy-to-grasp explanation, despite its shallow evidentiary basis: that Trump and Vladimir Putin had plotted to steal the election. In other words, one of the most important factors in the Russiagate and WMD cases in Iraq was not politics, but fear.
INFORMATION OVERLOAD. This perception of crisis almost certainly reinforced the impact of a second factor in both episodes: a cacophony of news sources. Unlike in the past, when the respected print and broadcast media could take the time to deliver authoritative verdicts on what was factually correct and what was not, social media means that a large number of individuals, with or without relevant expertise, can flood the digital sphere. in real time with affirmations, rumors, second and third hand accounts and even conscious deception.
Social media rewards the first to post a new development, whether their news sources are verified or not. Posts that go viral are usually those that elicit strong emotional responses, such as outrage, rather than those that seek balance, objectivity, and a rigorous supply. Facebook and Twitter are called “social” media for good reason: their users typically use information sharing as a form of socialization. Publications which gain the approval of others are valued over publications which provide intrusive truths. The struggle for attention and status in the 24/7 digital realm punishes those who recognize the importance of carefully studying competing hypotheses and resist the rush to judgment. Sorting out fact from fiction under these circumstances is a formidable challenge.
One would imagine that in theory an abundance of information sources would increase the likelihood that a wide range of viewpoints would be considered and increase the chances of focusing on the truth. In practice, the reverse tends to occur. Many people, including those in government and news organizations, are often overwhelmed by a flood of information. They seek refuge by forming echo chambers of like-minded people resistant to various points of view, and they are particularly susceptible to confirmation bias, the tendency to see what we already believe when sorting through sets of information. . Intelligence analysts were operating in a comparatively smaller pre-Facebook news environment before the Iraq war, but even then they “simply ignored evidence that did not support their assumptions,” according to the Iraqi Commission on weapons of mass destruction. This phenomenon was played out on a large scale during the Russiagate.
REWRITE THE Rules. One of the temptations in times of crisis is to believe that the organizational procedures, methodological standards and professional ethics that govern operations in normal times no longer apply. In the world of journalism, this belief has helped Ben Smith, the New York Times media columnist, called resistance journalism: Put aside “the old rules of fairness and open-mindedness” in order to produce “damaging reports on the most hated personalities of the loudest voices”. Media critic Matt Taibbi observed that “reporting the controversy” – documenting reactions to allegations rather than investigating the allegations themselves – has always been a creative way for journalists to avoid the traditional rules of vetting. facts. The difference during the Russiagate, he says, is that news organizations celebrated, rather than condemned, such a sleight of hand. They would have been wiser to resist the trend towards resistance journalism, a fancy term that was meant to serve as a license to distort the truth.
The rule breaking in government has taken different forms. Leaks of classified information have fueled much of the media coverage of the WMD problem in Iraq. The leaks turned into a flood during the Russiagate, when many government officials unofficially told reporters they saw themselves as part of the anti-Trump “resistance”, and one even published an anonymous editorial in the newspaper. New York Times describing his opposition to the president. The FBI cited Steele’s bogus case in a FISA court request to allow unprecedented intelligence gathering on a major presidential campaign. Former FBI Director James Comey used his own version of “flagging the controversy” to justify including the Steele dossier in a special intelligence briefing for Trump in January 2017, telling the president-elect that the claims still unpublished dossier was the subject of major Washington Cocktail Gossip. The fact of his briefing itself leaked almost immediately, making it a fair game for publishing and kicking off years of Steele-inspired allegations.