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Uncomfortable truths, lies & conspiracy theories

04 Nov 2020  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Uncomfortable truths, lies & conspiracy theories

With the U.S election result hanging in the balance, Ray Snoddy assesses the media divide between facts and falsehoods

It’s not often these days you look to the Daily Express for exciting predictions and prophecy.

Yet there it was, the results of Express polling suggesting that Trump was on course for a landslide victory with no less than 83% thinking it would be so.

It may not exactly have been a landslide but the Daily Express got closer to the truth on the night than just about any other poll, pollster or so called experts - some of whom were even predicting a Biden landslide.

How did the Express do it? Easy. The poll was complete nonsense and was taken up online by asking visitors to to forecast what the result of the U.S Presidential election would be.

More than 83% of the 2,200, presumably British respondents, thought Donald J. Trump was going to win and there you had an immediate  “landslide.”

On the day, national newspapers which didn’t have their own exclusive polls to rely on, faced the usual problem in their paper editions of dealing with the tyranny of a major developing news story in U.S time-zones, while broadcasters and online galloped  away with the actuality.

The best many newspapers could do was to change the headlines and coverage through the editions as if it were a century ago during the early hours, before coming to a sensible consensus in final editions that the outcome of the election was on a “knife edge.”

The Daily Star sidestepped the dilemma with what is becoming its own brand of vulgar eloquence.

'Old Fart Wins Election (He’s either 74 or 77. He’s either a lunatic or senile. And he’ll probably be due a little nap right about now!)' the front-page read.

The final outcome of the Presidential election may not be known for days or weeks, although there is a clear path for Joe Biden to reach the White House if all the early and postal ballots are counted and verified and if, as predicted, they break favourably for Biden and the Democrats.

One abiding truth can already be stated with confidence and that is that President Trump has done much better than almost anyone outside his family circle thought  – not least the pollsters - in both the popular vote and in the intricacies of the electoral college.

Somewhere at the heart of this conundrum lies the role of the media, or to be precise two very different forms of media occupying parallel universes, which rarely, if ever, touch.

On one side there is the social media, home to unfettered, half-truths, lies and conspiracy theories, plus Fox News pumping out slightly more respectable versions of the above, 24-hours a day.

Rather bizarrely in recent days, Fox has not been sufficiently pro-Trump enough for Donald Trump who seemed to think that daring to air the views of Joe Biden amounted to an act of betrayal.

On the other side, for all their imperfections, stand the established media, which for want of a better term can, at least in aspiration, be called “the fact-based media.”

Among the facts that publications such as the New York Times and the Washington Post have uncovered is that in the four years of his presidency, Donald Trump has been responsible for some 40,000 false or misleading statements.

It is a record that can only be equalled or beaten if Trump does indeed win a second term.

The problem for American society, American democracy even, is that these two sides of the media chasm rarely connect, suggesting at the very least, an enduring, dysfunctional divide of reinforcing prejudices.

Across the divide the facts are frightening – around 40-45% of Americans get their news, and only get their news, from social media and Fox.

An equal percentage stick to the fact-based media and never the twain shall meet.

A whole academic industry will now renew its efforts to try to untangle ancient questions about whether deeper social divisions are merely reflected in the media or whether the media, with the turbo-boost of online technologies and algorithms, actually causes the mayhem.

There is no shortage of evidence that the social media for all its convenience and beauty is also a social problem.

NewsGuard, which has set up an Election Misinformation Tracking Centre, has found no shortage of false claims on largely conservative-leaning websites.

One from the key state of Michigan alleged that 846 “dead” people had voted illegally. In fact, they had voted perfectly legally while alive but had died between posting their votes and election day.

A website claimed that in Iowa, a judge had thrown away 50,000 illegal ballots. The Associated Press reported that 50,000 requests for a ballot had been invalidated because they had not been properly filled in and that the citizens involved were free to apply again or vote on the day.

And so it goes on.

The claimed that counterfeit mail-in ballots for Biden would be added to the overall mix and votes for Trump would be “lost in the mail.”

NewsGuard says there is no evidence of the existence of counterfeit votes, or that Trump votes have gone missing., run by a former Breitbart editor, suggested that a Trump landslide would be flipped by mail-in votes emerging a week after election day.

In fact there is no evidence Democrats have abused the mail-in system and mail-ins will not flip anything, rather they will reveal the true winner.

For a moment, forget the endless conspiracy theories amplified by social media however serious the impact.

Two other truths are self-evident.

Whatever the final outcome, if liberals hoped the U.S election would mark the high water mark of populism in the media or anywhere else – it clearly hasn’t worked.

Even if Donald Trump narrowly fails to beat the electoral college trap, populist leaders everywhere will take comfort from the fact that many millions of Americans, more than last time, voted for Trump despite everything he has said and done and not done, up to and including 233,000 Covid-19 deaths.

The other uncomfortable truth is that the polling industry has taken another massive hit. Last time, polls on the popular vote for Hilary Clinton were very accurate – a 2.5% lead rather than the predicted 3%. Not so this time.

Either the pollsters were talking to the wrong people or the people they talked to lied about their voting intentions.

It could also be that the polling industry, rather like the institutions of the fact-based media, are seen as part of the establishment conspiracy and have become caught up in the rage of the average Joe.

In such a world, God help us all.

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RogerGane, CEO, OMG! on 4 Nov 2020
“The first rule of forecasting is that it's difficult - especially when it's about the future. Election polling is different to most market research (sorry 'insights;!) attempts to measure behaviour, because though it, like conventional audience measurement, relies on respondent claims - they relate to the future not the recent past. In that sense they come closer to being measures of opinion or attitude, than behaviour. In addition, election polling has always struggled to reflect the electorate properly starting with Truman/Dewey in 1948, and with plenty of UK examples too. In part this is because the variables which need to be controlled in order to measure the electorate accurately, tend to vary from election to election. So all in all it's a mugs game. Stick to media audience measurement - at least no one can prove you got that wrong!”