The 2016 presidential election was bizarre, for lack of a better word. On one side, the eventual victor seemed to court scandal and outrage openly, making provocative speeches and offering a new controversy seemingly every day. On the other side, Clinton seemed unable to shake controversy as Wikileaks released a steady drip of emails at a pace designed to keep the scandal fresh in the public mind. Of all the things revealed by the email leaks, the most important had nothing to do with the content of the emails themselves. The most important thing we could have possibly learned from the email leaks has to do with our own ability to responsibly engage the news.
The massive release of internal communications of the Clinton campaign offered a buffet of information that could be twisted out of context and reported to suit an agenda. Setting aside the argument of whether or not there actually was anything outrageous in the emails, in this article we will take a look at a couple of cases where media outlets, and even Wikileaks themselves, used the emails to push a sensationalized story.
Taco Bowl Engagement
One of the gotcha moments the email leaks provided was an opportunity for media outlets to paint the DNC as a racist, hypocritical organization. This came in the form of a memo that used the unfortunate phrase, “taco bowl engagement.”
The email above will likely wind up in orientation packets for staffers in every political campaign for years. This email provided easy fodder for any political opponent or media outlet to paint the picture of a racist and hypocritical Democratic party. In fact, at the time it was easy to find a headline that centered around the words, “Democratic party” and “Taco Bowl.”
The headline is often most if not all of the impression people get of a news story. If a reader did click into the story a biased source would show only that email and rail against the Clinton campaign’s hypocrisy. A source attempting balance might have told a different story. If you look a little closer at the email above, you’ll see that it was written on the sixth of May. It immediately followed the Cinco de Mayo tweet from Donald Trump.
Without the context of Donald Trump’s tweet, the email seems offensive. Within the correct context, it is apparent that the email was meant to mock what the Clinton campaign saw as a hollow and meaningless attempt to pander to latino voters.
The best thing about Wikileaks is that their source information is accessible to everyone. The taco bowl situation requires a bit of thinking, but digging a little bit deeper shows information contrary to what many headlines were saying.
Another example comes straight from the Wikileaks Twitter account and shows that even they can be guilty of sensationalizing and removing context to paint a picture. Wikileaks took a document that they received detailing strategy to win over latino voters, and presented a highlighted image of that document on their Twitter feed. The highlighted sections, when read alone, paint a pretty negative picture that makes the Clinton campaign look like they want to manipulate latino voters to their own ends.
If you read that section, the picture of the manipulation is an easy one to imagine. Again, the fact that the source material is open for anyone to view allows for more context to be drawn, and in fact, in this case, one doesn’t even need to open the full document to see a bit more of the picture. If you read the section that is not highlighted under objectives, an entirely different motive comes into view. The stated objectives are to empower US Hispanics to register and vote, to develop a relationship based on trust and inclusion, and to increase turnout of Hispanic voters. That doesn’t seem very manipulative after more thought.
In fact, if you read the source document, you will see that the main issue it defines is, “US Hispanics have been underrepresented and marginalized in education, finance and civic representation, while being the fastest growing demographic in the US, in the last 40 years.”
Full perspective is only gained when the source material and context of the article is taken into consideration. It is ironic that in the age of instant access to massive amounts of information, many of us have become less informed. As soon as the term fake news came into our parlance, the meaning of it changed from an article made of whole cloth to an accusation you throw at an article that doesn’t confirm your preconceived notions. Fake news is not new, and censorship is not the answer. Censorship or causing internet media platforms to take on a more active editorial role will threaten the free flow of ideas that our freedom of speech provides us. If censorship is brought into play, we lose the protection of the fourth estate. If internet media platforms take on an editorial role, we hand over control of our information flow to a private business entity in a way that invites opaque controls and manipulation.
Instead, the only real answer to the problem is that Americans have to become more responsible consumers of information. We live in an age where you can have unprecedented access to information that is delivered to you freely if you just look. You can look at data from many government organizations, polling sites, statistics aggregators, and fact checkers. Ignorance really is a choice.
Bias is a part of human nature. It’s impossible not to have some kind of bias whether you’re reporting the news or consuming it. Some try harder to mitigate their bias than others, but nobody has a perfect scorecard. Even a site like Wikileaks can be shown (as we have here) to deliver their news in a sensationalized and somewhat misleading way even if the intent is merely to bring visibility to their reporting rather than to push a narrative that fits an agenda. It’s a part of the for profit news model. Going forward, the only way we will fulfill the duty of the well informed electorate that Jefferson spoke of is to start looking deeper into the news that we’re offered, even if (and perhaps especially) it confirms our current beliefs.