A recent ABC / Washington Post poll of registered voters found that 75% of Trump supporters – about 30% of the American electorate – are very enthusiastic about him. This new level of enthusiasm from his supporter has occurred even though, as the same poll reveals, the majority of the electorate disapproves of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and is suspicious of what he says about it, claim he hasn’t paid his fair share of taxes, and disapprove of his overall performance at work.
How do ardent Trump supporters maintain their allegiance in the face of such widespread disapproval? A recent experiment is a case study of how selectivity in handling information allows people to embrace the world according to Trump.
My experience started with a Facebook post. I pointed out that Scientific American and the New England Journal of Medicine have published editorials on the upcoming presidential election. Both publications criticized Trump for his rejection of science and evidence; both were particularly critical of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Scientific American endorsed Joe Biden. The NEJM editors concluded that we should not allow the current “dangerously incompetent” political leaders “to keep their jobs”. These statements were unprecedented, I pointed out, because neither publication had ever published an editorial on a presidential election – not in the 175 years of Scientific American or the 208 years of the NEJM.
My post was rebuked by a staunch Trump supporter. “I disagree with you so much,” he commented. “There’s another aspect that you just don’t see. We all know the media and “publications”. Simply opinions … in my opinion.
I replied that these are highly respected scientific publications. They are not equivalent to Trump’s applause on Fox News or Trump’s criticism on MSNBC. It is highly unusual for the NEJM editorial board to take a political stance. As NEJM Editor-in-Chief Dr Eric Rubin said: “The reason we never published an editorial on the elections is that we are not a political newspaper … but the problem here is around facts, not opinion. “
My response was followed by two more comments from the Trump supporter. The former praised Trump’s handling of the pandemic, noting the border closure, the immediate availability of PPE and the Med ships that have been dispatched. The second comment took me on the job of spreading fake news.
I appreciate skepticism, which questions the veracity of knowledge claims. But this is no ordinary skepticism; because the supporter is not at all skeptical of Trump’s claims and, in fact, protects himself in a closed information system that is accepted without criticism. His Facebook page has many articles on Trump. These include the Trump tweets; pro-Trump and anti-Democrat statements, articles and videos, all taken from conservative websites including Fox News, glennbeck.com, theblaze.com, My Guns My Rights.com and CBN.com (the conservative Christian Broadcasting Network) . In Trump’s world, the “extremely liberal” New York Times is a primary source of fake news; pre-election polls based on representative samples are “lousy”, that is, biased; and postal voting will lead to the most corrupt elections in US history.
Much of the information we are exposed to in our daily lives reinforces our existing beliefs. This mostly happens de facto – due to our social networks, which tend to be like-minded. But part of the disproportionate exposure to supporting information is motivated, such as when, like this Trump supporter, people actively seek out information consistent with their views and avoid information that conflicts with those views. This process is encouraged by selective perception, in which people perceive or interpret information according to preconceived expectations. Selective perception is the reason why presidential debates rarely alter voters’ preferences. For example, in a CNN / SSRS poll of the Vice Presidential Debate, 96% of Democrats believed Kamala Harris did the best job in the debate and 92% of Republicans believed Mike Pence did the best job.
To some extent, these selectivity processes affect the way everyone – Republicans and Democrats, Conservatives and Liberals – sees and understands the world. But we all need to be aware of our natural tendency to be selective. We are not going to arrive at the truth or arrive at the best decisions if we limit ourselves to sources of information with the same underlying ideology and if we accept without criticism everything they report.
How can we overcome these trends? For starters, be aware of biased sources. The Trump supporter rejected The New York Times because of its liberal bias, but failed to acknowledge that Fox News is nothing more than a source of propaganda for Trump who never questions what he says or does. Second, check a variety of sources. Liberals should check conservative views; conservatives should learn about liberal views. Several websites place news sources along the political spectrum. See, for example, the media bias graph (https://www.adfontesmedia.com). Third, ask questions, specifically, is this true? Two impartial sources of fact-checking are Snopes and Politifact.
Royce Singleton is professor emeritus of sociology at the College of the Holy Cross. He is co-author of two textbooks on social research methods.
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