An unprecedented year and what it means for journalism in 2021

Journalists faced new obstacles and rose to new heights in 2020. What will the news look like in 2021?

“The speed of the news cycle was a new kind of dizzying. If you missed a day (or even a few hours) of news, you felt like a stranger in a foreign land. If it’s tough for those of us whose job it is to keep up, imagine the person who reads a couple headlines during their lunch break, or catches a few televised newscasts a week.”

I wrote that for CNN’s Reliable Sources newsletter looking back at the year that was… 2017.

If I had only known what 2020 would bring.

It’s easy to forget that the year was off to a ferocious pace before a global pandemic, worldwide protests over racial injustice, and an Election Day-turned-Week-turned-Month. In January alone, wildfires still raged in Australia, a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, NBA superstar Kobe Bryant and his daughter died in a helicopter crash, and the House held the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.

Journalists faced new obstacles and rose to new heights in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic placed pressures on newsrooms that transitioned to remote work. Broadcast anchors set up makeshift studios in spare bedrooms while reporters joined frontline responders to tell their stories.

Continue reading “An unprecedented year and what it means for journalism in 2021”

[Published] Burst the bubble

The toxicity that leads some of us to unplug from social media is a feature, not a bug. 

I’ve been vaguely familiar with the social media app Parler for maybe a year. The free speech haven made a splash after the election, attracting conservatives fed up with perceived bias from Facebook and Twitter. Though Parler imagines itself a free wheeling marketplace of ideas, its recruiting efforts have attracted a decidedly homogenous user base.

Echo chambers are nothing new. But here in Arkansas, we saw an example of the type of rhetoric one can feel comfortable expressing in such a place, when the police chief of a small town posted “parleys” calling for violence against Democrats on the national stage, and in your community.

This piece gave me a chance to revisit some important themes throughout 2020 – that social media coupled with a pandemic is a recipe for heightened partisanship – and to take a look at a new dimension of hyperpolarization: the radicalization resulting from constant enemy-making.

Partisans aren’t just encouraged by affirmations of their in-group; they are galvanized by demonizations of out-groups. Straw men and memes mocking the “other side” prevail across partisan filter bubbles, creating what Italian researchers called an “emotional contagion” of negativity and what a new study out of the University of Virginia deemed a “phenomenon of animosity.”

This was also a chance to share some surface findings from a study of partisan social media bubbles during the election. Look for more of that on the horizon soon.

Read the full story in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

See more of my media appearances here.

[Published] Why coronavirus conspiracies are thriving

The longer we stay at home and social distance during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the more misinformation and conspiracy seem to thrive. Sure, the supply-side is spraying nonsense in every direction for profit, power, anarchy, or all the above. But the flood of falsehoods exists in part because demand is through the roof. The same measures keeping us safe from coronavirus are making us susceptible to misinformation about it.

It was the Plandemic video that really got my attention. I wasn’t just seeing it shared by my more conspiratorial friends, but by seemingly everyone on my Facebook news feed. So I started digging into what we know of selective exposure and cognitive outcome involvement, paired with early research on coronavirus messaging, to explain why conditions are ripe for conspiracies to travel beyond their usual circles, and what can be done at the state and individual level to combat it.

Read the full story in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

See more of my media appearances here.

[Published] How Christianity Today’s anti-Trump piece sparked a battle over social identity

For those questioning whether the church is guilty of worshiping a political idol, consider how defenders of Christian morality and witness must approach Christians as a skeptical, if not hostile, audience.

I’ve been writing about the evangelical dilemma over Donald Trump since the 2016 election (“Donald Trump is dividing the church”). Back then, it wasn’t rare to find church leaders as outspoken critics of the Republican nominee. But those voices have quieted, some even reversing course, through President Trump’s first term.

So it was interesting to see the reaction from the politically religious (or is it religiously political?) Evangelical church when Christianity Today published an editorial calling for Trump to be removed from office.

Touching on findings from my dissertation about dual religious-political identities and research into Christian nationalism by Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, I take a look at the bigger picture for the church:

It’s at the fusion of this religious and political social identity that Trump finds his most loyal supporters, and why anyone trying to untie that thread is a threat. The messaging by Christianity Today and by Trump and his allies exhibit the state of the church under the gospel of Trump, and a battle over who belongs.

Read the full story in RELEVANT Magazine.

See more of my media appearances here.

White nationalists tricked media about school shooter… and fooled me too

What went wrong, and how it fits into the new age of misinformation.

A few hours after a gunman opened fire on his fellow students in Parkland, Florida, alt-right websites like Infowars were already trying to blame Muslims, Communists, Trump opponents, democrats… anyone and everyone on their enemies list.

The problem isn’t “waiting to politicize” — that ship has long since sailed — it’s creating downright false narratives to affirm one’s own “side.”

One Twitter user who goes by “Respectable Lawyer” had a viral moment debunking the Infowars conspiracy (not even addressing the typical Alex Jones line that the shooting was a “false flag” carried out by actors).

The following afternoon, the Anti-Defamation League reported that it had spoken to the leader of a white nationalist group called Republic of Florida who claimed the shooter was a member. Reporters began trying to confirm. The AP, ABC, and the Daily Beast all spoke to the group leader and found corroborating sources on social media.

They ran the story. Others picked up on it. I, having read versions published by the AP, LA Times, BuzzFeed, and the Daily Beast, shared the latter to my Twitter followers.

It was all an orchestrated hoax.

Continue reading “White nationalists tricked media about school shooter… and fooled me too”