While much of the Democratic votership was blindsided by Trump’s victory last November, cognitive linguist George Lakoff was not. In his 2016 paper “Understanding Trump,” Lakoff predicted that Trump would get 47% of the vote; he was off by only one percentage point. “[I] told exactly why, and what he did and how he worked and why he was very smart,” says Lakoff, adding that Trump “used other people's brains to his advantage.”
“I wasn't surprised he won,” agrees Robert Rosenthal of the Center for Investigative Reporting. “But I was listening to his words, and I found them the dark side of America that I don't really see. And I was sorry that he didn't have a different message for the country, and for the whole world really.”
What last year’s campaign and events since the inauguration have pointed up is that an information war is raging in our country, in both mainstream news and on social media. The news media has been struggling with how to handle the daily stream of statements from the new president and his lieutenants. What is a lie, what is factual, and what is an “alternative fact?” And do facts even matter?
According to Lakoff, liberals are focused on facts and decry the post-fact world, while conservatives pay more attention to values and narratives. Those, Lakoff maintains, are more likely to be remembered by the human brain.
The rise of so-called “fake news” has only made the situation all the more complex.
“Fake news has always existed,” says Rosenthal. “You know, propaganda, disinformation. I think the difference today is that you have the technology to spread it instantly and through social media. And we are now in an information Civil War, because you believe what you want to believe and you don't believe what they believe.”
The control of information by autocratic dictatorships has historically led to the worst outcomes, Rosenthal adds. He sees potential in the current climate for the nation to go down a similar path.
“It's not just journalism or media – it’s the way information moves in the way it moves today and it's accelerated,” Rosenthal continues. “And the fact is that the president now is the biggest and most influential publisher in the world, through Twitter.”
If the truth is able to rise to the surface, will it make a difference? In other words, can facts change hearts and minds? They may not, says Lakoff, and there’s a deep reason why: people cling strongly to their own worldview, whether progressive or conservative, and will eschew information that doesn’t conform with it.
“Your very identity is wrapped up in that worldview,” Lakoff explains. “That's who you are. Because what is important is, it defines right and wrong, and you want to think you're right in everything you do – everybody does.”
Anything entailed by ones moral worldview must be a higher truth, says Lakoff.
“And if it isn't a fact, if it isn’t out there independent of the worldview – that becomes an alternative fact.”
Conservatives have been more successful at making their message resonate with the country, says Lakoff, because they’ve mastered the key concepts taught by marketing professors.
“They study the way that people really think in terms of frames, metaphors, images, narratives and emotions,” he explains. In other words: “Advertising. You repeat, repeat, repeat, right? That is the way they’re taught, and it’s second nature that they get to market their ideas.”
Rosenthal recommends being a wide consumer of news sources in order to counteract the “firehose” of tweets coming from the White House – which are reinforced by right-wing media. “A lot of that is diversion, is distraction, is trial balloons,” he told the crowd. “And you need to take time…to consume information now. You really have to go to multiple sources.
“And I think it's really important also to go to sources you are going to be appalled by, in terms of how they're telling a story.”
Whether you’re a liberal or conservative, it seems, the most important way to navigate the information superhighway? Keep your eyes open, and read the signs on both sides of the road.