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Information divide is fueling nation's political divide

 
“The greatest cause of our growing partisan divide is our information divide. The left and right are getting different news so democrats and republicans are not on the same page.” Those statements were made by a republican senator during a recent interview, and I think most would agree. In fact, most of us are aware that, in general, media has become increasingly biased. But do we realize just how powerful its influence is on not only how we think about issues, but what we think about? So to whom are we giving that power?

People tend to believe what they hear the most, so how do we know what’s true? To put the information we get into perspective it helps to ask some questions about our news sources:

  1- Who owns the media site and/or who is the author of the news content? How transparent are they about revealing their identity and do they reside in the U.S. or in another country? And who funds them?
  2- Why does the source exist? Is it to educate using content that includes various perspectives? Or is it to promote only one point of view?
  3- What is the purpose of the content? Is it to inform about specific issues using specific information that can be fact-checked? Or does it use statements, questions and/or allegations alluding to unsupported or vague “facts” to elicit emotions and reinforce one viewpoint?
  4- Where is the content from? Are those sources of information revealed? Are their identities transparent?
  5- How does their news compare to others? Is their information disputed or verified on other news sites that are transparent? Do the sites have accuracy or accountability clauses in their ethical standards or core principle statements?

Most Americans use several news sources and according to polls, mainstream TV and newspapers are the most viewed. Ratings for accuracy vary mostly according to political leanings and, as the senator pointed out, viewership tends to be segregated into two camps, liberal and conservative, each with different content and perspectives. It’s not hard to see how this information divide is fueling our country’s political divide, but there’s another problem.

Conservatives rightly complain that most mainstream media are left leaning and especially TV news programs, both local and national, some more liberal than others. FOX news is the only mainstream option for conservatives and it has by far the largest numbers of viewers simply because there’s no other choice of mainstream TV news for conservative viewers. This is a huge problem but for a reason perhaps some haven’t considered.

As a predominantly capitalist country, most U.S. citizens believe in the checks and balances of competition; when businesses compete they’re more likely to be held accountable to their market. To consolidate all conservative mainstream viewers into one site owned by one person, allows that one person a monopoly of influence on how the largest group of viewers think about issues and what they think about, without any other conservative mainstream news competitor that might balance the content with a more moderate perspective or check it for accuracy.

Liberal leaning TV news programs commit their own sins of commission and omission. They cover a range of biases, but having choices can help to moderate at least some people’s perspectives. And their viewers have the advantage of business competition. Since competitors make it big news when their rivals “get it wrong” they’re forced to be somewhat accountable to their viewers for accuracy. However, since they compete for the same group of viewers, much of their content overlaps. Some information may come from government agencies like the CDC, but it’d be a stretch to pin overlaps on, as some have alluded, government collusion (defined as “secret or illegal cooperation or conspiracy, especially in order to cheat or deceive others”).

It’d be easier to believe that social media sites or a single news program with no checks and balances might be more inclined to conspire with governments than several independently run businesses.

Polls show the main viewer complaint about mainstream media is that their content isn’t well balanced with differing perspectives, which shows that most people really do want to know the truth about issues. So let’s tell our news sources what we want.

Social media’s dubious sides are more covert. Most disturbing is that several social media news websites are registered through companies like Who is Guard and Proxy Protection, that shield the identity and location of their owners. Just as questionable, some news websites are known to have been registered by owners who live in other countries, or with fictitious identities. Some use URL, design and logos that mimic other websites. And some sites are known to deliberately publish hoaxes or news satire intended to be humorous that profit through clickbait, especially when people believe it and it goes viral. And being less visible than mainstream media, social media information can spread without first being challenged by anyone. Unless sued like Alex Jones recently, they’re generally not held accountable for what they say.

So who owns the news sites we use? And which sources are really the most reliable, transparent and accountable?

That brings us to censorship. Our Constitution has guaranteed protection of our freedom of speech. However, the Supreme Court has determined some exceptions. Our government can prohibit some speech that “may cause a breach of the peace or violence”. And in some instances “negligently or implicitly false statements of fact” may lead to civil liability.

So is the information on our news sites causing a breach of the peace, violence, and/or a civil liability? Antithetically, in Germany during the 1930s Nazi propaganda and censorship produced all three. Their unchecked false propaganda insidiously inspired the anti-Semitism, hate and ultimately violence committed against the Jews and the wealthy, and their campaign of fear and violence suppressed those who would speak out against it.

So what’s the end result of that which our own news sources are putting out? How vulnerable are we Americans to disinformation? And for those of us who want to know the truth about issues, how willing are we to find it?

Nothing stands in the way of seeing truth more than our own preconceptions. So let’s put them aside for a moment and honestly ask ourselves some questions.

Do we really know who’s influencing our thoughts and emotions? Are we well informed of all sides of the issues or do we listen to sources that only reinforce our beliefs? Do we ever question what they say or, more importantly, what they don’t say? Can we justify making decisions for our country knowing only one side of issues any more than we would for our own families? And most importantly, what kind of America do we want for our children and grandchildren?

Will it be a country divided with partisan fear, hate and violence, or united through civil discourse by well informed citizens? It’s our call.
Georgia Earley
Bonners Ferry

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Mike Weland, Publisher
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