Has public distrust become the new normal?

Has public distrust become the new normal?

Matthew Broder, Writer

At the risk of sounding like every corporation since mid-March, we are living in unprecedented times. The first global pandemic the world has seen in nearly a century has wreaked havoc on our daily lives in ways we never thought possible. Racial tensions seem near a breaking point. The sky is orange over San Francisco. The largest-stakes election in US history will have consequences, whether good or bad, that will affect American politics and society for quite literally decades to come. This election is now less than two months away and between two parties that are becoming increasingly unwilling to compromise. In the all-or-nothing politics of today, you’re either with us or against us. Either you’re a freedom-loving American or a rotten commie-socialist. Either a socially responsible, open-minded individual, or a racist Confederate neo-Nazi. In the words of George Bush: “It seems like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together.” 

Too often it seems we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions. Some judge cops by the racist ones and protesters by the peaceful ones, others the cops by the good ones and the protestors by the rioting ones. But it seems we as a society will not allow anyone to be in the middle. We can’t judge each by the vast majority of their members – the vast majority of peaceful protestors, the vast majority of good cops – while condemning the bad apples of each. Unfortunately, it’s these bad apples who we see poisoning the evening news, polluting our social media feeds, and tainting the public image of these groups. Prejudice and anger have become almost an integral facet of American politics. Pleasant discussions always seem to devolve into bitter debate, with name-calling and catastrophizing and ultimatums aplenty. I have to be right, and you have to be wrong. 

And yet, despite the certainty everyone seems to have regarding their opinions, we live in an era of false information. At first it was tabloids, but no one really believed those. Then we had to worry about illegitimate websites, but as soon as we figured that out, everyone had moved to social media for their news. It doesn’t take a degree in I.T. to know that social media is even less reliable. Anyone can claim anything, and somebody out there will take it as gospel. Throw in a fake source from one of those unreliable websites (or your own for that matter) and you’ve got yourself news that will flood the explore feed. What’s more, with the rise of deep-faking and voice-cloning, anybody with a spare GPU, some coding knowledge, and a bit of time on their hands can make anyone say anything. Want Nancy Pelosi to slur her words? Somebody did that. Want Donald Trump to use a racial slur? Someone’s done that. Want your friend Cedric Bruges to sing a meme song from a Japanese video game? I did that: It’s on my Instagram. All that took was editing a bit of code from the first page of Google search results, a bit of computer muscle, and about 10 minutes. It’s not perfect, but if I really wanted it to look convincing, I could. And that’s just me on a Saturday night. Imagine what a larger team with professional coders and much more powerful hardware could do. 

Even traditional news organizations have slowly been ruining their credibility. Public trust in mass media is near an all-time low: only 41% of Americans say they trust American media. It’s rebounded significantly from 32% in 2016, but it’s still quite worrying. If the majority of Americans feel they can’t trust these massive news corporations with thousands of employees, they’ll have nowhere to turn but to smaller networks with smaller staffs and less abilities to fact-check information. Certainly, these smaller organizations do the best they can to provide factual, objective, bias-free information. Snopes and PolitiFact, for example, are two great sources which evaluate popular claims in the media from a facts-oriented perspective. But these are small organizations with tens of employees. Working incredibly hard? Yes. Valiantly providing an incredibly important service for comparatively little compensation? Yes. But can they stand up to worldwide media giants with thousands of employees? No. A few large corporations have monopolized the dissemination of news to millions of Americans, and, politics aside, is that not a bit dystopic? Imagine if a few private companies controlled another industry like CNN, Fox, and NBC dominate the news industry? Oh wait. That’s Amazon, and they control far more than just one industry.

In a time as uncertain as ours, Americans need to be able to whole-heartedly trust the information they receive. Unfortunately, we cannot. People two decades ago would have been amazed at the influx of information available to the general public. But how much of that can we trust? It seems we’re coming dangerously close to a future where the vast majority of information isn’t able to be trusted. This public distrust in information does nothing but divide us further. And, after all, united we stand, divided we fall.