In 1927, in California, Charlotte Anita Whitney was convicted for allegedly helping in the establishment of the Communist Labor Party of America, a group charged by the state with promoting violent overthrow of the government. Whitney, however, denied her and her contemporaries’ intent to become an instrument of aggression, sparking the landmark Supreme Court case Whitney v. California. During this time, the political climate was defined by intense opposition and abhorrent speech on both ends of the political spectrum, with many middle-class Americans distraught, caught between two polarized sides.
It was not unlike today’s political climate.
Today’s media outlets are swirling with accusations of fake news, alternative facts, and other classifications, and it can be difficult for readers to discern whether what they are reading is true or false, leading to the possibility of biased or factually inaccurate news.
To measure the “truthfulness” of various news organizations, we used Buzzfeed’s Facebook Fact Check dataset. The dataset describes a week’s worth of Facebook posts from mainstream, left, and right wing news outlets. Each article posted by a news outlet was tagged with a “truth rating”: ‘no factual content’, ‘mostly false’, ‘mixture of true and false’, and ‘mostly true’. Through exploration of this dataset and research, we want to gain insight on whether the distribution of true content leans to one political viewpoint or another, and if so, why a “truth polarization” might exist.
In order to quantify the truth rating, we assigned each of these categories a scaled truth rating value from 0 to 1, with 1 representing ‘mostly true’. Our graph, titled ‘Difference Between Ratings Among News Outlets,’ shows us that media establishments regarded as ‘mainstream’ generally have higher truth ratings than partisan outlets. For example, ABC News Politics, CNN Politics, and Politico have a mean truth rating of 0.952, compared to hyperpartisan left-wing and right-wing outlets which have an average truth rating of 0.677 and 0.694 respectively. Although there is a slight difference in truth rating between the left and right wing media outlets, after conducting a hypothesis test, we found that this is not a statistically significant difference. Our resulting p-value, over 0.7, leads us to believe that far left and right wing media report the truth at about the same rate, with any discrepancy between the two is due to random chance. There is quite a large gap in the truth rate between the mainstream and partisan media outlets — a fact that won’t come as a surprise to many. From this analysis, we have confirmed that the mainstream media is the most reliable source of accurate information.
Before continuing with our analysis, it is important to note that the dataset label, “no factual content,” has the capacity to skew analysis in a way that may be misleading — the label seems to suggest that posts assigned to this rating are entirely false. However, upon investigating the posts with this label, we learned that a large percentage of these tagged posts were primarily entertainment posts, consisting of political memes, cartoons, and parody videos. It would be inaccurate to assign these posts a numerical rating that will drag down the “truthfulness” of news outlet. When the data with the label “no factual content” label is removed from our graphs above, a slightly different result is shown, in which the truth rating of left-wing media increases. This is because many of the posts under the left category were labeled to have ‘no factual content’. The tendency of posts to fall under this category may be attributed to the popularity of political satire in left-wing media. Though media under the ‘no factual content’ category is not fake news, it tends to be partisan ideas and attacks on the opposite party. The issue with posts such as these is that they tend to reinforce people’s pre-existing beliefs. Nevertheless, mainstream media still appears to be significantly more reliable.
The mainstream news outlets, such as ABC News Politics, CNN Politics, and Politico have mostly true factual content among the other news outlets from the “Relationship Between Post Type and Rating” graph. One of the biggest reasons is that these news sources are impartial and they want to make it as informative as possible for the people to understand political issues. The liberal and conservative sources have opinionated content, which comprises of slandering the other party and stating half-truth arguments. This is a problem because many people will be brainwashed by their political bases and they lack the consciousness to construct their own opinions. In other words, most citizens listen to outrageous news based on biased information, so there is a high probability that they will offer an incomplete and uncompassionate opinion. Most politicians fail to justify their argument. Their arguments try to stir the anger of many citizens and they attack other politicians from the other party on a personal level. Instead, they should be figuring out how to marginalize some personal issues and focus on climate change and tax reformation. These key topics are lacking in the news outlets we follow today because most of the time, the media often puts more emphasis on issues that entertain, rather than to inform. This is driven by the incentive to bring in viewers, who are drawn in by scandals and polling updates.
So, amidst the similar intense shock and fiery discourse that was sparked throughout the nation due to Whitney v. California between proponents of liberalism and adamant conservatives alike, there was one significant takeaway from the chaos. This was in the form of Justice Louis Brandeis’ words, which would be known to the majority of scholars today to be the most remarkable and greatest defense of the freedom of speech in American history. He wrote that “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
While media outlets on either end of the political spectrum may skew their content to adhere to a particular political ideology or target a particular interest group, it is important that we remain prudent and engage in civil discourse with those we may disagree with. In this way, we can transcend the sensationalist prose of articles and other forms of media, and together embark on a collective journey to discover the truth.