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The debate over the credibility of sources has recently received significant attention in media, especially with regards to the recent US Presidential election that has encouraged some controversy regarding the differentiation between facts and “alternative facts”. Even though media and the Internet offer readers, viewers, and followers an abundance of reliable information, “alternative facts” have managed to gain much more public attention that the “boring truth.”
2016 Election: Alternative Facts and Changing Views
According to David Greenberg’s (2016) Politico article, the public considered both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump the most unreliable candidates: less than one-third of the CBS poll stated that Clinton was trustworthy, with Trump having similar results on reliability. The campaign held by Trump has become one of the most popular due to the trail of falsehoods that can be considered “legendary” in the journalistic pastime (Greenberg 2016).
Among the popular false assertions of Trump, the assertion that American Muslims celebrated the fall of the Twin Towers, the overestimation of the sizes of crowds at rallies, as well as the false claims regarding the personal net worth of $10 billion are the most prominent. Moreover, when Lippman and Samuelson (2016) conducted a weeklong fact check of Trump’s speeches, they found that there was roughly one “alternative fact” for every five minutes.
While the majority of politicians usually stretch the truth, giving momentum to the practice of political fact-checking long before the 2016 election, the current President of the United States went much farther than the usual truth stretching, with the chain of “alternative facts” helping to support one of the most unexpected and quick victories in the history of the US presidential campaigns. If to look at the examples of the “alternative facts” presented by Donald Trump, the following citations stand out the most:
- “Really they’ve shut Christianity down” (cited in Lippman & Samuelson 2016, para. 7). According to the survey conducted by Pew Research Center (2016), 70.6% of Americans are Christian, with 25.4% of them being Evangelical Protestants and 20% Catholic, which goes against Mr. Trump’s statement about the Obama administration shutting Christianity down.
- With regards to the role of the Gulf States in mitigating the military conflict in Syria: “The Gulf States have so much money, they’re not spending anything. By the way, they’re not taking anybody, they’re not taking, and they’re not spending” (cited in Lippman & Samuelson 2016, para. 15). In reality, at a London aid conference that took place in February 2016, Gulf States pledged to donate at least $537 million to help mitigate the conflict. Moreover, the United Arab Emirates has accepted around ten thousand Syrian refugees since the beginning of the civil war in 2011 (Martinez 2015).
- “I don’t settle lawsuits. I don’t do it” (cited in Lippman & Samuelson 2016, para. 15). Despite this claim, in 2013, Mr. Trump did settle a lawsuit with more than a hundred of prospective condo buyers who lost million dollars when the Trump-branded condo project failed in Baja, California (Pfeifer 2013).
Contrast to Trump, Hillary Clinton was not fabricating facts; however, her campaign was riddled with the sense of inauthenticity, a perception that the candidate was selling herself as someone she was not (whether a feminist, an LGBT rights supporter, or a fighter for the well-being of the working class) (Greenberg 2016). Among the most prominent contradictions is Clinton’s position on gay marriage.
In 2004, when speaking in the US Senate, Clinton stated that she believed that “marriage is not just a bond, but a sacred bond between a man and a woman” (cited in Alexa 2016, para. 2). However, during the 2016 Election, Clinton positioned herself as a pro-LGBT candidate. Also, when serving as Secretary of State in 2012, Clinton strongly supported the free trade agreement (the Trans-pacific Partnership). However, in 2016, she could not afford to lose voters who were upset over the Partnership. Conveniently, Clinton changed her position to capture a larger electorate.
Therefore, just by conducting a fact check of politicians’ statements, one can come up with a long list of “alternative facts” that were not supported by credible and reliable sources. Similarly, politicians were found to conveniently “flip-flop” their positions on serious matters just to remain relevant in the society with current “mainstream” views. Both candidates in the 2016 election showed some dishonesty when it comes to gaining more votes, and misinformation along with the “alternative facts” were effective tools for misleading the public and getting the support of potential voters.
It remains unclear why in this day and age, where technologies guide every sphere of human relationships and daily interactions, politicians can still get away with spreading false information and persuading the public to vote for them. According to the research article conducted by Metzger and Flanagin (2013), digital media have profoundly changed the information landscape. This means that any information can be either corroborated or disproved, which should have been done with the statements given my Mr. Trump as well as the inconsistencies in Mrs. Clinton’s positions regarding important social, economic, and political issues.
Importance of Source Reliability
The good news is that the Internet is a rich and powerful source of help, information, and expertise, and anyone looking to fact-check someone else for telling the truth can use this tool to their advantage. On the other hand, the bad news is that the Internet currently holds an unlimited amount of information, and supply of expertise increases with regards to every subject, so it becomes unclear which expertise should be trusted, and which should be disregarded.
The primary concern for the general public is how do they find correct sources of information and determine which are reliable. In the case of the 2016 election, there was an outburst of false stories (“fake news”) circulating on social media that were targeted at harming the reputation of one of the presidential candidates.
The problem with such news from unreliable sources was that the public believed in them, especially with the most popular stories being directly related to candidates, not to mention that the majority of fake stories favored Trump over Clinton (Allcott & Gentzjow 2017). According to the research article by Allcott and Gentzjow (2017), if to put the fake news, false statements, and the presence of unreliable sources together, it can be hypothesized that Trump would not have had such a success during the campaign.
To a large extent, unreliable and not credible sources that could have an impact on the public opinion are gaining incredible importance because of a number of reasons. First, the barriers to entering the industry of media are very low because it is currently cheap and easy to set up websites and because it is relatively uncomplicated to monetize the web content by employing advertising platforms. Second, the Internet and social media platforms are well-suited for distributing lies and fake news. Third, according to the poll conducted by Gallup, there is a steady decline in the public’s trust in mass media, which, in turn, contributes to the rise in popularity of social media news websites (Swift 2016).
When speaking of the importance of using credible and reliable sources in the modern informational environment, it is hard to disregard the events that occurred in the course of the 2016 US Presidential election, especially the lies both candidates were spreading. Despite the fact that reputable media sources fact-checked some statements, the impact of the investigation was not as prominent as the impact from the media sources that followed the route of sensationalist reporting instead of laying out the facts. Furthermore, because the entire world watched the 2016 election envelop, it is not surprising that unreliable and unsupported information reached the masses – because it had a greater impact on the public compared to the “boring truth.”
Unfortunately, the sphere of politics has never been characterised by a lot of truthful statements since during presidential campaigns and elections, candidates usually tend to over-exaggerate some figures or make generalised statements to capture the attention of potential voters. Therefore, it is important to be cautious of those statements and opt for reliable sources of information that have sustained a good reputation and developed trusting relationships with readers or followers. Overall, the 2016 election shed light on the issue of source reliability and credibility that has never been as important as today.
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Alexa, A 2016, Clinton contradictions: Hillary’s ever-changing policy positions. 2017. Web.
Allcott, H & Gentzkow, M 2017, ‘Social media and fake news in the 2016 election’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 31, no. 2, pp. 211-236.
Greenberg, D 2016, Are Clinton and Trump the biggest liars to run for president? Web.
Lippman, D & Samuelson, S 2016, Trump’s week of errors, exaggerations and flat-out falsehoods. Web.
Martinez, M 2015, Syrian refugees: which countries welcome them, which ones don’t. Web.
Metzger, M & Flanagin, A 2013, ‘Credibility and trust of information in online environments: the use of cognitive heuristics’, Journal of Pragmatics, vol. 59, pp. 210-220.
Pew Research Center 2016, Religions. Web.
Pfeifer, S 2013, Donald Trump settles lawsuit over Baja condo resort that went bust. Web.
Swift, A 2016, Americans’ trust in mass media sinks to new low. Web.