by Philip Bump August 1 at 12:59 PM Email the author President Trump’s campaign rallies are meant to center on one thing and one thing only: Trump. He holds the rallies, years before he’s on the ballot again, because it gives him two things that he greatly enjoys, a microphone and an adoring audience. The coverage of those rallies and their popularity with his base, though, means that non-Trump issues seep into the public consciousness. Slogans, random individuals, people promoting causes. Trump is the main attraction, but sideshows can draw the spotlight. One did on Tuesday. A number of people at Trump’s rally in Florida held signs or wore shirts referring to “QAnon,” a hopelessly complex and obviously unhinged conspiracy theory that centers on the idea of an insider in the Trump administration, “Q,” leaking information about the president’s secret work on uprooting child sex rings and building a case against prominent Democrats and celebrities for complicity. These are the more normal and comprehensible components of the theory. But why this? Why now? Why is this something that has managed to take root among supporters of Trump? Decline in trust in the media The likely path America took to get to this point starts with the decline in trust in mass media. This decline, well established in the public imagination, has happened more recently than many believe. As recently as 2005, half the country had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust and confidence in the media, according to Gallup polling. In 2016, driven lower by the presidential election, that figure was 32 percent. Last year, a slight rebound, driven by Democrats, to 41 percent. Among Republicans, trust in the media stayed at a low of 14 percent. The growth of the Internet, fostering other media and communities That recent downward slide overlaps with the rise of the Internet and social media. The splintering of the media as an institution into a thousand outlets of varying intent and legitimacy has both blurred the line of what constitutes media (does Infowars count?) and painted media outlets generally with the broad brush of inaccuracy. Social media also allow examples of mistakes or bad arguments to spread rapidly, where they can be seized upon by those looking to disparage an outlet’s reporting as an example of why the outlet shouldn’t be trusted. The Internet has also flattened time in a way that a mistake made years ago is as accessible and looks just as recent as one made yesterday. Those looking to build portfolios of skepticism against media outlets have a great deal of ammunition with which to do so. This is a recently popular rhetorical tactic: If there’s one counterexample to an argument, that argument is presented as obviously inaccurate. Scale vanishes; as long as any doubt can be introduced, reasonable doubt is granted. In addition to the Internet providing a petri dish for media outlets of varying quality, it has served as fertile ground for communities more broadly. Before the
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