The Tribal New York Times

By Robert Wright, May 09 2021

Last week The New York Times published an article under the headline ‘Belonging Is Stronger Than Facts’: The Age of Misinformation. The piece, by Times staff writer Max Fisher, did a good job of highlighting the way the psychology of tribalism is tearing America apart. But not all of the highlighting was intentional. Some of it illuminated the fact that The New York Times—and the mindset it embodies—is itself a big part of America’s tribalism problem.

Here is the gist of the piece’s billboard paragraph: “We are in an era of endemic misinformation,” and the main drivers of the problem, “some experts believe, are social and psychological forces that make people prone to sharing and believing misinformation in the first place.”

What I like about this is that it puts the issue in generic terms—rightly suggesting that we are all prone to these forces and are all part of the problem. What I don’t like is that when it comes time for Fisher to list concrete examples of an ideological tribe abetting misinformation, the tribe is always red. There’s no hint that the blue tribe—let alone the Times itself, the blue tribe’s newspaper of record—could be part of the problem.

Here’s a complete inventory of the piece’s references to misinformation emanating from political tribes: (1) three false rumors that have circulated lately: “that President Biden plans to force Americans to eat less meat; that Virginia is eliminating advanced math in schools to advance racial equality; and that border officials are mass-purchasing copies of Vice President Kamala Harris’s book to hand out to refugee children.” (2) an experiment which found that 51 percent of Republicans said they’d share on social media a piece with the headline “Over 500 ‘Migrant Caravaners’ Arrested With Suicide Vests” even though many of them didn’t deem the headline accurate. (3) two photographs, both reminding us of instances when the red tribe was the problem.

Final tally: Red tribe 6, Blue tribe 0. 

I don’t deny that, at the moment, there seem to be more unfounded and incendiary claims getting traction in the red tribe than in the blue tribe. And I tend to believe, as blue-tribe dogma has it, that this asymmetry has persisted for a long time. Then again, I’m in the blue tribe—so I would think that, wouldn’t I?

In any event, it’s a bedrock belief of mine that we should all periodically try to look at things from the perspective of the other tribe. So I’d like to now do that—imagine red tribers reading the Times piece and listing examples of blue tribe misinformation that, in their view, should have been mentioned.

There are two reasons I consider such exercises in cognitive empathy worthwhile: (1) I think America will stand a better chance of recovering from the current disarray if more people in both tribes do these exercises; (2) I think these exercises can be valuable even from the standpoint of narrow tribal advantage. In other words, seeing my tribe through the other tribe’s eyes—in this case by examining the other tribe’s allegations that my tribe has generated misinformation—may usefully inform my tribe’s future strategy. Go Blue!

If you asked a group of randomly selected Trump boosters to name two momentous cases of blue tribe misinformation, near the top of the list would be these: (1) the Russiagate claims of collusion; (2) what some Trump supporters call “the Charlottesville lie”—the widespread misrepresentation (they say) of Trump’s infamous “fine people on both sides” line. Let’s take them in order.

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Fisher writes that “in times of perceived conflict or social change, we seek security in groups. And that makes us eager to consume information, true or not, that lets us see the world as a conflict putting our righteous ingroup against a nefarious outgroup… Framing everything as a grand conflict against scheming enemies can feel enormously reassuring.” Well, the premise of Russiagate—that Trump colluded with Russia, promising favorable policies in exchange for Putin’s helping him get elected—certainly depicted Trump and his team as a “scheming enemy.” And when you add in the suspicion that Trump harbors deep authoritarian leanings, the alleged Trump-Putin axis looks abundantly “nefarious.”  

These aren’t the only things that gave the Russiagate story legs. There was circumstantial evidence in favor of the collusion theory, including the fact that Putin did do some meddling in the election. Still, the Mueller investigation, given two years, subpoena power, and a $32 million budget, never found anything very close to a smoking gun. 

Who knows? Maybe there’s a smoking gun still out there somewhere. But for present purposes that doesn’t matter as much as this: time and again, Trump opponents did show themselves (in Fisher’s language) “eager to consume information, true or not,” that depicted Trump as sinister.

For example: BuzzFeed sent Resistance social media into overdrive by reporting that Mueller’s investigators had found evidence that Trump directed his attorney to lie to Congress about Trump’s Russia connections. Unfortunately, as Mueller later pointed out, Mueller’s investigators hadn’t in fact found that.

And the New York Times reported that in 2016 the Trump campaign had repeatedly been in touch with “senior Russian intelligence officials.” This claim puzzled the FBI official in charge of investigating Russia’s 2016 election interference; he marked up his copy of the article extensively, labeling the lead paragraph “misleading and inaccurate.” But this markup didn’t emerge until years after publication of the Times story, which in the meanwhile had spread far and wide via the usual Resistance channels.

When the Mueller report came out, Trump claimed vindication. He had insisted all along that Russiagate was a hoax, a witch hunt fueled by the fake news media. Mueller’s failure to find strong evidence of collusion only strengthened the conviction of Trump’s followers that he had been right.

The release of the Mueller report wouldn’t have been nearly as helpful to Trump had blue tribe media and social media not spent the preceding years overreacting to Russiagate—had MSNBC not devoted whole shows to dissecting thinly sourced reports of Trump wrongdoing; had blue Twitter and blue Facebook not pulsated over every hint of a Russiagate breakthrough; and had various print media outlets, including the New York Times, not responded predictably to the resulting incentive structure, straining to produce reports that damned Trump and tilting their headlines and lede paragraphs in the same direction.

This is one thing I mean when I say that cognitive empathy can be good for your tribe. It’s useful to realize, if only in retrospect, how your tribe’s rampant tribalism confirmed the narrative of the other tribe. Maybe next time you can try to show more restraint.

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And what about the “Charlottesville lie”? In 2017, several days after a protest against the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue—a protest that had included neo-Nazis and white nationalists—Trump was asked why he’d taken so long to issue an earlier statement on the event. In the course of his answer, he said there were “fine people on both sides.” Within the blue tribe, the idea that Trump had been talking about neo-Nazis and white nationalists quickly congealed.

In fact, though, Trump had gone on to clarify that “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally.”

Yet the New York Times, in the lede paragraph of its editorial on Trump’s comments, wrote this: “Given one more chance to forcefully condemn the neo-Nazis and white supremacists whose rally in Charlottesville, Va., ended in violence and a counterprotester’s death, Mr. Trump angrily insisted, as he had suggested on Saturday, that both sides were equally to blame.” You have to tip your hat to the author: the editorial doesn’t exactly say that Trump failed to condemn neo-Nazis—which it couldn’t, since he had in fact condemned neo-Nazis—but it leaves readers under the impression that he failed to condemn neo-Nazis.

Meanwhile, in its reportorial pages, the Times ran a piece by Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush which led with the assertion that Trump had equated “activists protesting racism with the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who rampaged in Charlottesville” and added that never before “has he gone as far in defending their actions.” A caption under a photo accompanying the piece said Trump had “declined to specifically condemn Nazi and white supremacist groups.” The headline above the piece was Trump Gives White Supremacists an Unequivocal Boost.

In defense of the Times: It would be easier to accurately summarize Trump’s impromptu utterances if they didn’t sound like the product of a random word generator. Still, in this case, if you give the transcript of Trump’s meandering and elliptical remarks the close reading that Times staffers should have given them, it’s pretty clear what he’s saying: (1) Though some of the protestors—including the neo-Nazis and white nationalists—were bad people whom he condemns, he thinks it’s possible to attend a protest in favor of preserving a statue of Robert E. Lee and still be a “fine” person—and he thinks many of the Charlottesville protestors fit that description; (2) He thinks some of the counterprotestors on the “alt-left”—he probably had in mind Antifa—were “very, very violent” and attacked protestors, and in that sense there was “blame on both sides.”

I’m not defending these claims. And I’m not defending Trump’s failure to just condemn neo-Nazis and white nationalists and leave it at that. And I’m not saying he wasn’t trying to have it both ways—condemn them while giving them a dog whistle. (The Haberman-Thrush piece notes that some of them welcomed his remarks.) I’m just saying the New York Times repeatedly did a bad job of fairly and accurately characterizing what he actually said—and I had always thought that part of the New York Times’s job is to fairly and accurately characterize stuff.

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In this case, as in the Russiagate case, blue tribe media did Trump a kind of service. In the eyes of his followers, they confirmed his narrative: that coastal elites hold him and his followers in contempt and will resort to dishonesty to discredit him.

So, again, cognitive empathy proves a tribal asset: It can help you realize when, by trying to weaken the other tribe’s leader, you’re actually strengthening his grip on his followers.

Now, you might argue that in this case the other tribe’s leader actually did wind up being weakened. Maybe blue media, in fostering the belief that Trump had called neo-Nazis “fine people”—or at least had refused to condemn them—helped get Biden elected.

Maybe. But blue media’s coverage of the “fine people” story—along with its coverage of Russiagate and other stories—probably had another effect as well: It made supporters of Trump more willing to believe his claim that Biden had gotten elected through fraud. After all, the people claiming otherwise were the people who show up in blue media—and we know blue media’s track record when it comes to covering Trump.

In other words: Even if blue-tribe misinformation on balance serves the tribe’s tactical goals—and I personally am skeptical—that misinformation is also, along with red-tribe misinformation, tearing the country apart.

I’m not saying the two kinds of misinformation are equal in quantity or quality. The three red-tribe rumors listed in the Times piece are different in kind from the flawed blue-tribe journalism I’ve described. You could do a whole dissertation on differences in the sorts of cognitive distortions the two tribes are most susceptible to. What’s clear is that the two are locked into a vicious circle: the crazier and more hostile the information coming from the other tribe seems, the more threatening that tribe seems, and the more deeply inclined your tribe will be to latch onto and spread dubious information that demonizes the other tribe. Which in turn…

I know Max Fisher slightly, and I consider him a good, conscientious reporter. I don’t think he intentionally steered his piece in the Times away from the subject of blue tribe misinformation. I just think that he, as a member of the blue tribe, is naturally more struck by red tribe misinformation.

That’s how confirmation bias—one of several cognitive biases that constitute the psychology of tribalism—works: you notice and embrace evidence that confirms your world view and you either don’t notice or reject evidence that challenges it. So the author of that deeply misleading Times editorial on Charlottesville may well not have been consciously dishonest. And Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush may not have realized they were putting some tribal spin on their piece. (To their partial credit, they did, in paragraph eight, quote Trump saying “I’ve condemned neo-Nazis,” though they never quoted his more emphatic—“should be condemned totally”—version of that.)

Last week’s New York Times piece was part of an encouraging trend. There is more and more discussion of what an unreliable instrument the human mind is, more and more awareness that a big part of America’s problem is the psychology of tribalism. Now we just need more awareness of the fact that the psychology of tribalism isn’t something that afflicts only the other tribe.

This piece originally appeared in the paid version of the Nonzero Newsletter. If you like it we hope you’ll consider becoming a paid subscriber.

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(Photo credit:  Frieder BlickleCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

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