Misinformation and Inoculation in Trump’s America

I’d like to take a moment to shine a spotlight on the mind games that seem to be dividing so many Americans. There’s a concept known as the “Inoculation Theory” relevant in political communication strategies. Essentially, it describes what happens when you like the president of the United States and resist persuasive attempts by those who dislike him or her.

President Donald J. Trump’s complaints about “fake news” set up his base of supporters to resist any future unflattering reports as political propaganda while accepting positive news as truthful reinforcement of why they are correct in liking him.

I can see now that I likely employed this same train of thinking during President Obama’s 8 years in the White House. There were many things Obama did during that time that I disliked (failure to close Gitmo and prevent the rise of ISIS, etc.), but he enjoyed my unwavering support precisely because of the bombardment of unfair criticism hurled at him by conservatives. Whenever they did not pay him proper respect as president of this country, accusing him of being a foreign-born illegitimate candidate or branding him a secret Muslim, it reinforced my resistance to any legitimate criticism he might have genuinely deserved.

I automatically dismissed harsh commentary as racist nonsense, especially if I challenged someone on Facebook to be more specific and they could only offer vague generalities to justify their dislike of the man. In criticizing Trump, therefore, I attempt to be as specific as possible with indisputable facts rather than spun rhetoric.

Trump’s political opponents would be wise not to exaggerate the way Obama’s did, but I’ve seen the name Hitler thrown around a good bit. When something obviously prejudiced is said against their man, it destroys acceptance of any underlying truths that might actually be paired beyond the hyperbole. The wall at the border is not the only one that goes up when the president’s supporters get defensive.

The inoculation theory I referred to earlier in this article draws comparison with the concept of vaccination. In a normal vaccination, a weakened form of the virus is injected into an individual in order to build resistance to the disease. A similar procedure is used to “inoculate” an individual from attacks on his belief.

According to the theory, a weakened or smaller dose of a contrary argument called the inoculation message is given to the people. These individuals who have been exposed to the weaker argument develop a defense system that helps them to retain their beliefs and not change their attitudes when they are confronted with a stronger form of the argument.

It’s important to look at Innoculation Theory and Trump’s claims of “fake news” within the context of technological and cultural disruptions. Over the past decade, the rise of blogging, indiscriminate sharing on social media, and the economic collapse of the traditional newsroom model have taken news-gathering and information sharing in disturbing directions.

We now tend to gravitate toward media that reinforces our existing belief system. There’s a danger to our democracy when Fox News or MSNBC present “facts” from particular points of view, emphasizing those elements of stories that reinforce a conservative or progressive ideology. Fox News may completely ignore a story in which Trump looks bad while MSNBC may devote hours of air time to talking heads analyzing every possible angle of that story BECAUSE it makes Trump look bad and vice versa with Obama.

Innoculation Theory offers solutions for those of us who want to cut through the haze of “alternative facts”.

A January article in The Guardian newspaper in the UK stated, “The challenge is in delivering the facts and inoculation to the individuals who are being exposed to the misinformation. Conservative media outlets are the primary misinformation delivery system, but are unlikely to also publish facts and explanations about why their misinformation is wrong. However, while individuals who rely solely upon biased media outlets may be incurable, the majority of the public could potentially be inoculated against misinformation.”

Conclusion: Facts by themselves are insufficient, but explaining the flaws underpinning associated misinformation can help weaken its effect and increase public acceptance of the facts.

It is true that the major media organizations are in the hands of a few elites. The major news channels, newspapers and other mass media instruments are a part of large corporation and conglomerations. The information presented to the public will be varying as per the interests of these organizations. As a part of maximizing profit they sacrifice some news objectives. The extensive financial interests of these organizations may endanger the quality of news. It is common around the world that the medias in the hands of government being puppets.

For this very reason, I attempt to get my information from multiple sources and treat it with a measured amount of skepticism. For low information voters, i.e., those who do not follow politics regularly or lack a complete understanding of the delicate nuances of policy issues, it is very easy to accept that what they see and hear is the whole truth rather than one piece of it from one side of the political aisle. It is easier for “demonizing” of a social issue or a person to be accepted.