On Jan. 23, 72 hours after the inauguration of President Trump, a new phrase entered America’s lexicon during an interview between Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, and Chuck Todd from Meet the Press.
In justifying Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s claim that the 2017 inauguration crowd was in fact the largest in history, Conway referred to the statement as an “alternative fact,” a term that has been added to Urban Dictionary and used by countless media outlets to describe the actions of the POTUS during his 26 days in office thus far.
Alternative facts will stand uncontested as a legacy of the Trump administration. President Trump spent his first week in the most powerful seat in the world offering alternative facts that distort inauguration crowd sizes, embellish voter fraud claims and misrepresent crime rates in Chicago and Philadelphia. All are among the numerous opinions the President has made public in 140 characters or less.
“The phrase ‘alternative facts’ is somewhat disconcerting. It brings to mind the saying, ‘Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts,’” professor of political science Douglas Hume, J.D. said. “As professors and as students, we should strive to know the truth about the issues we are studying, and this should include an analysis of facts.”
According to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, a poll conducted across party lines, the percentage of trust in the media following the election declined among Trump and Clinton supporters alike. Trust in the media among Trump supporters significantly fell by 6 percent to 15 percent by the end of the election cycle.
By establishing a contentious relationship between the White House and the media from the very first press conference, President Trump sent a strong message. He has called an all-out war on the media, taking every opportunity to discredit journalists—and the media has responded quickly and aggressively.
“The two major political orientations, conservatives and liberals, are in a struggle for power over the opinions of the people…Each side is going to try its hardest to win the never-ending fight. Consequently, the right will try to make the left look bad, and the left will try to make the right look bad,” Daniel Friend, a junior political science and humanities major, said.
Friend is unsurprised by the mudslinging of alternative facts used by both political parties, attributing the phenomenon to the combined powers of the free press and rapidly improving technology.
“News reporting is no longer only in the hands of large media corporations or local papers, but to anyone with access to the internet. As a result, conflicting sets of ‘facts’ are becoming more prevalent. An article on Facebook will say one thing, and a trending hashtag on Twitter will indicate the complete opposite,” Friend said.
Alternative facts have come to a heightened hostile peak as recently seen when Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced on the Senate floor for reportedly criticizing Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“The minute we deliberately refuse to listen to other points of view—no matter how vehemently we might disagree with them—then we have killed the possibility of any kind of understanding or reconciliation whatsoever,” political science professor Brian Plummer, Ph.D., said.
Department of Political Science and History Chair Daniel Palm, Ph.D., expressed the importance of remembering what we have in common as Americans.
“For all our differences, we agree on caring for our constitutional democratic republic that aims toward equal rights before law, rule of law, limited government and individual liberty,” Palm said.
Ultimately, alternative facts are not the sole culprit of the deep-seated trust between party lines, but rather may demonstrate a preservation of basic individual rights.
“In the end, ‘alternative facts’ aren’t entirely bad. The vast amount of them might be indicative of a divided nation, which is certainly a problem we should seek to correct, but it’s also indicative of a nation that still defends our right to free speech,” Friend said.
In an age where contentious alternative facts pervade in the forms of misinformed articles and word of mouth, Hume urges people to attack ideas, not people.
“I think vigorous debate and dissent is a cornerstone of our democracy. Likewise, college should be a time to discuss difficult issues and engage in conversation with others who may have different views than us,” Hume said.
Hume calls upon the APU community to consider contrasting perspectives when determining real facts.
“Facts should be verifiable. Anything other than verified facts is simply opinion, or conjecture. We need to be careful when presented with two sets of ‘facts.’ In a courtroom, a judge or a jury is the fact-finder and has to decide which set of facts best represents the verifiable evidence available. To be responsible citizens, I think we need to do the same thing,” Hume said.