We see this especially in how people talk about politics online. Take, for instance, a recent study of tweets mentioning “fake news.” Over the course of 15 months, study authors Jianing Li and Min-Hsin Su of the University of Wisconsin-Madison found an uptick in the number of tweets that used the words “we” or “our” and “they” or “their” in conjunction with the phrase “fake news.” Essentially, the researchers concluded that online discussions about “fake news” were a way for conservatives to create a sense of group belonging (“This is the worst kind of fake news possible. We have to stop this sort of thing”) while also establishing a shared enemy (“Fake News Media is a Hate Group. They hate President Trump”). The use of pronouns that signify group belonging (like “we”) and group opposition (like “they”) are useful on social media platforms, like Twitter, where users interact with strangers. Even though users might not know one another personally, they are still attempting to cultivate a community, which is certainly true of users who tweet about politics.
Another study that looked at trust in news media, by University of California, Berkeley, political scientists Taeku Lee and Christian Hosam, found that this attitude, independent of partisanship, helped predict a number of political opinions, such as support for a pathway to citizenship and affirmative action. But arguably, what was more consequential is that over time (from 2016 to 2019), the role of media distrust in opinion formation shifted such that individuals who distrust the media more consistently consolidated around Trump. Essentially, that media distrust now operates “as a basis for Americans to sort themselves into political tribes,” according to Lee. And as their study suggests, “fake news” functions as a “shibboleth,” or a way for Trump supporters to distinguish themselves, ideologically, even from other Republicans. It is possible that “a new form of conservatism is likely brewing with media distrust being one of its biggest factors,” Hosam told me.