CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan went to a Trump rally in Minnesota recently to ask attendees what was on their Facebook feeds, as a way to get a sense for the information – and, more often, misinformation – they were being fed by the social media giant.
While his whole piece is fascinating, one moment in particular stood out to me. In it, O’Sullivan is interviewing a Trump supporter named Chris who brings up a video he has seen on Facebook of former Vice President Joe Biden falling asleep during a TV interview. O’Sullivan notes that the video, which was widely shared in Trump circles including by White House social media director Dan Scavino, is a fake. The actual video, which you can see here (and is from 2011), is of an interview with musician Harry Belafonte in which he appears to be sleeping. (Belafonte denied he was asleep; a representative said his earpiece wasn’t working and he was meditating.)
O’Sullivan hands the Trump supporter his phone to show him a Washington Post debunking of the video. After a few clicks and a look of perplexity, Chris says this: “Well, I mean, I definitely wouldn’t doubt that it would happen.” Asked by O’Sullivan whether the fact that the video is fake changes his mind about Biden, Chris responds, “God no.” He adds that he “missed that one” but “it was a really good laugh and, like I said, I wouldn’t doubt it.”
You really need to watch it to get the full impact. O’Sullivan’s conversation with Chris begins around the one-minute, 15-second mark of this video:
Truly stunning. When faced with undeniable proof that he is wrong, Chris admits that he “missed that one” but quickly pivots to the idea it was all a big joke (which he clearly did not think 10 seconds before, when he told O’Sullivan the video was real) and then repeats his belief that it is the sort of thing that could be true about Biden – even if this particular video was doctored.
Being confronted with facts doesn’t change his view. In fact, confronted with the facts about the video, Chris rapidly finds a way to justify it all and to stay convinced that Biden probably did fall asleep during an interview at some point (even if he has no evidence that such a thing actually occurred.)
This is the natural result of the work President Donald Trump has done to erode the ideas of “fact” and “truth” since emerging onto the political stage in 2015. As he famously/infamously said in 2018:
“Stick with us. Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news. … What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
Trump does this not because he actually believes there is no such thing as objective fact but rather because it works for him politically. He has spent the past five years casting himself as the voice of the average Joe – and telling that person that not only do the so-called “elites” in the Democratic Party, business world and media look down on them but those same people are rigging the system (all of the system) against the working person.
By disqualifying every source but those loyal to Trump, the President has created a closed-information loop in which his backers are fed loads of false information and, even when confronted with its falsehood, aren’t terribly affected by that fact. As one study – conducted by Dartmouth’s Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter – noted of Trump backers: “Individuals may be willing to change their minds about the facts, but we do not observe changes in the candidate whom they support.”
Trump and his team peddling information has become, in an incredibly twisted bit of logic, evidence to the President’s supporters of his authenticity. He might be wrong about this one thing – like Biden falling asleep in an interview – but overall he’s right that it’s the sort of thing Biden would do. So what difference does it make?
The answer is that it makes all the difference in the world. If we have reached a point where we not only can’t tell the difference between “true” and “false” but also celebrate untruth as some sort of virtue, we are in deep, deep trouble.