Over on Fox “News,” a recent segment with Tucker Carlson suggested that vaccines are more dangerous than getting COVID. Why do conservatives fall for this kind of nonsense?

Multiple recent studies show that Republicans are as much as 8.5 times more likely to both believe and share fake or false “news” with others than are Democrats. The phenomenon is obvious, actually: while as many as half of Republicans believe the 2020 election was “stolen” from Trump, there is no similarly disprovable “big lie” embraced by Democrats.

And it is not limited to things like elections that are overtly political: Republicans are more likely than Democrats to reject basic science about COVID, and thus die of the disease at much higher rates than Democrats.

Even when their lives and their families’ lives are at stake, Republicans let themselves be suckered into believing things that are easily proven false. It is gotten so bad that Republicans are more than 400% more likely to be banned from Twitter than Democrats. Why is this? It turns out there are several reasons.

First, conservatives are more vulnerable to listening to and believing people who present themselves as authority figures. This tracks back to George Lakoff’s finding that conservatives are most comfortable in a world that’s run along “strict father” lines, while progressives prefer a “nurturing family” model of society and politics.

While a strict father limits freedom, he also provides a sense of safety: “Father will protect and take care of you.” Putting your trust in authoritarian figures diminishes the complexity of life: there’s less to have to know or worry about if you believe that “father” has it all under control. But it also makes conservatives more vulnerable to believing any old thing that “father” tells them.

Second, there’s more conservative misinformation out there than there is liberal misinformation. Thus, conservatives are more likely to be exposed to it and to share it. To a large extent, this flows from the conservative worldview being more adolescent, narcissistic and “me-centered,” with the myth of the “rugged individual” at its center. Ayn Rand’s writing epitomizes this.

The conservative worldview putting, as it does, the “freedom of the individual” above the “welfare of society,” is much more vulnerable to corporate-funded pitches that work to increase profits. The core message of most advertising is, after all, “You are the most important person in the world and you want this product.”

And make no mistake about it: a lot of what passes as news and commentary is actually advertising for the idea that corporations and billionaires should be able to do whatever they want.

“Low taxes, reduced regulations, smaller government”: it is a sales pitch. Our tax law is organized in such a way that anything that increases profits is tax-deductible to a corporation, so, for example, we’ve seen in the past few decades:

  • The tobacco industry organizing “smokers rights” groups in the 1970s and 1980s to keep people addicted and buying their products.
  • The fossil fuel industry organizing “climate change denial” think tanks, websites, and PR efforts to resist any efforts to “green” our power sources in ways that would decrease their profitability.
  • The weapons industry funneling millions into front groups like the NRA to buy politicians who will make it easier to sell their products, regardless of how many people die in accidental and mass shootings.
  • Rightwing media organizations promoting blatant lies from “Father Trump” about COVID and the 2020 election because Trump’s base of followers — their audience — is large enough to drive significant advertising revenues.

Just these four points have become foundational to the GOP: Republican politicians are fond of being pictured with cigars and guns while denying climate change and deifying rightwing media. While Republicans have always been vulnerable to this sort of psychological manipulation, we had guardrails in place to protect the public from being swamped by it.

When Reagan took down the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, Congress passed bipartisan legislation putting it back into effect: Reagan vetoed it.

Various versions of the Telecommunications Act dating back to the 1920s limited the ability of corporations or the morbidly rich to own large numbers of radio and TV stations or have cross-ownership with newspapers. Those limits were all ended in 1996 when President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996: within a few years a handful of rightwing networks owned thousands of stations.

But even if those two guardrails for democracy were reinstituted, they do nothing for or about the internet or social media, which now competes with legacy media for the minds and hearts of Americans. Almost half of Americans get much or most of their news from social media, and social media doesn’t have editors or systems to make sure that what people think his news is actually news.

Giant corporations and the morbidly rich people they create — along with foreign governments — can thus use their extraordinary resources to flood the internet with favorable websites pretending to be news and information sources, all while overwhelming social media conversations with their paid trolls and smart bots.

As I laid out in The Hidden History of Big Brother in America, Section 230 of Clinton’s Telecommunications Act eliminates most possibilities of holding social media or websites responsible for bad behavior ranging from lies to threats to online plots to overthrow the government.

This “get out of jail free” card has made more than few social media billionaires, and with that money they will continue to carefully restrain Congress from any meaningful regulation, just as the media empires that grew out of the end of the Fairness Doctrine and radio/TV ownership limits will use their platforms to prevent any effort to reinstate those laws.

Which presents the majority of Americans who subscribe to the “nurturing family” model of life and politics with a problem: how do we protect our friends and families (and, thus, our democratic republic) from falling prey to corporate, billionaire, and foreign hustlers who are spending billions to control our understanding of reality?

Finland has started teaching critical thinking skills and media literacy in its school system to combat, in part, the lies and misinformation that spill into their homes daily from Russian television stations on their border. Given how Republicans are all-in on banning books and censoring teachers, though, it’s unlikely anything like that will happen any day soon here in the United States.

For the time being, we’ll have to double down on pushing real information to deluded friends and family, using the “parental controls” on elderly parents’ TV to block Fox, and sharing progressive media and websites far and wide. And doing everything we can to elect politicians who will tell the truth and hold democracy as a higher value than simple political power.

Because if the fake news wins and neofascist politicians like Trump again gain serious national power, America will be on a fast track down the same road as Russia.

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