When it comes to politics and human nature, most things that seem new aren’t. “There’s nothing new under the sun,” a high-school history teacher of mine liked to tell us. Take, for example, our current concern over “fake news.” From the medieval belief that the Romans had betrayed their temporary allies, the Goths, by selling them out to Attila the Hun for 10,000 gold coins in the battle on the Catalaunian Plains in 451, to the German canard of the Dolchstoss betrayal that lost World War I, or the power over the popular imagination of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Illuminati and other shadowy cabals, or the persistent belief that Hitler didn’t die, Elvis didn’t die, and on and on, it is as it always has been. Human beings believe all sorts of ridiculous things, and always have.
Yet when it comes to technology and its impact on such eternal human susceptibilities, well, some things really are new. We’re seeing that right now.
A conservative friend with whom I spar sporadically over politics emailed me to ask my take on the fake-news furor. “I don't really get it,” she wrote, “because there has been fake news at least since the National Enquirer started. With the internet and twitter there’s more fake news, but hasn't it always been true that readers have to learn to determine whether sources are credible or not?”
If only things were that simple! Yes, there's always been fake news. But in previous eras it was easier to see the line that kept it “over there.” Standing at the supermarket checkout, you knew that the headline blaring “Twin Goats Born to Kindergarten Teacher” was sheer hooey being sold to entertain. But now, thanks largely to social media, this kind of thing is everywhere. Worse, certain structural checks against its propagation and its acceptance have been weakened. More and more we seem to live in a political culture ruled by hooey. And in the combustible society that is America today, fake news sparks more than just a chuckle at the checkout counter.
My conservative friend sees this phenomenon primarily through the lens of government overreach; she doesn’t care what Facebook does about fake news, since it’s a private company, but she does care about the federal government trying to control information. But I view it through a civics-and-state-of-the-citizenry lens. And in that regard, I told her, I have the impression that we’re losing some grip on reality, and that this loosening is being exacerbated by the particular kind of socialization, isolation and distortion the internet has fostered. It's well documented that people are increasingly “niched-out” online regarding their information inputs, with most Americans only tuning in to views and reports that mesh with what they already believe. This promotes a kind of rampant confirmation bias which, when you combine it with the increasing prevalence of falsehoods masking as news, plus the ready availability of conspiratorial interpretations, plus a dramatic political polarization of our society, creates a devilish trap for the susceptible mind. Add to that politicians who are cynically willing to exploit untruths – or who perhaps even don’t themselves understand (or care) what’s true or untrue – and voila, there you have it, the hooey culture.
At times in recent months the departure from reality could hardly have been more flagrant, suggesting a widespread teetering into lunacy. Take “Pizzagate,” for instance. Here is the opening of a Dec 5 New York Times article:
Edgar M. Welch, a 28-year-old father of two from Salisbury, N.C., recently read online that Comet Ping Pong, a pizza restaurant in northwest Washington, was harboring young children as sex slaves as part of a child-abuse ring led by Hillary Clinton.
How is it possible that any sane reader could encounter such a claim and not immediately dismiss it as balderdash? Sex slaves in a child-abuse ring led by Hillary? Given all that one could plausibly accuse Hillary of -- arrogance, smugness, greed for power, readiness to change almost every political position in order to get elected, and so on -- why in the world is it necessary to resort to accusing her of presiding over a sex-slave network? Can't we just, you know, dismiss this out of hand?
But Edgar M. Welch couldn't, so he took a gun and set out to save those sex slaves from the clutches of the evil Hillary. And we in turn can’t just write him off as a wacko; I’m afraid it’s not as simple as that. I’m thinking of a born-again, politically rightwing friend of mine, an avid listener to Alex Jones, Michael Savage, and other talk-radio mavens whose shows peddle a sinister worldview stocked with lurid fantasies of liberal malfeasance. My friend spends a lot of time tuned in to these merchants of hooey, via internet and radio, and as a result he is marinated in this stuff, and susceptible. A lot of people are. The guy they arrested in DC, by all accounts he is a decent citizen, family man, very religious, quotes the Bible frequently; not violent; a good father and reliable provider. I find it noteworthy that he had only recently gotten a computer and begun spending a lot of time online. Soon he falls down a rathole of dark rumor, and before you know it, he's heading to DC inflamed with righteous intent -- and carrying a gun.
The real story here is how these conspiracy theories get started and circulated, how they get out of control, and what havoc they wreak when they do. A lot of fake news is business, pure and simple -- petty frauds committed by hucksters in Russia or Reno or wherever, monetized via ads sold on a per-click basis. (Here’s an interesting article laying out the business of websites making money from advertising connected to fake news.) Some of it is anarchic, hacker-style mischief for mischief’s sake. And some of it is straightforward propaganda -- which, as we are reminded by Yale political philosopher Jason Stanley’s new book, How Propaganda Works, is a tactic of persuasion that cynically deploys false claims, half-truths and reductively tendentious storytelling to manipulate voters emotionally and sway us to a certain point of view.
Whatever the motive, the dynamic whereby some person creates a fake information meme – whether for profit, politics or perverse pleasure -- is hard to reverse in the internet age. In Pizzagate, for instance, some lawyer in Georgia, tweeting as a state representative – bogus tweets issuing from a bogus identity -- claimed that the stories debunking Pizzagate as fake news were all themselves fake. This hall-of-mirrors effect makes it extremely difficult to debunk fake news. Here’s an article taking a look at Snopes.com, the nonpartisan fact-checking and myth-debunking website. It notes a 40% uptick in traffic at the group’s website “during a prolonged presidential campaign in which the facts became a partisan issue and reality itself seemed up for grabs.” Ominously, Snopes itself has become the target of a lot of fake news, like the canard that its founder, David Mikkelson, was once arrested for running a pit bull ring. That’s right up there with Hillary’s sex-slave ring. Such wild slanders have a specific aim -- namely, to discredit fact-checking, slurring it as a lefty conspiracy to censor and silence the right. In other words, if you don’t like the facts, deny them, then pour lies all over any organization that attempts to assert them.
Another example. In the weeks after the election, conservative talk shows and online sites were rife with the accusation (repeated emphatically by Trump) that people were being delivered by the busload to protest Trump’s election – fake protestors, that is, paid and deployed by Democratic Party interests. Here is a comprehensive Snopes.com debunking and explanation of one such meme. It began when a Trump supporter in Austin, Texas saw some buses caravanning toward the city center; knowing that protests were planned for that day, he snapped a photo and posted as follows: Paid fake protesters were bussed in to the anti-Trump protests in Austin, Texas. They must have spent a lot of Soros money on this operation. There was a whole string of busses. It figures. Everything they do is fake or paid for.
As it turned out, the buses were headed to a data-software company convention. This was easily provable, and in fact the guy who did the original tweet eventually followed it up with an admission that he’d been wrong. But by then it was too late. The story was out there, and people had gobbled it up. It’s well documented that when an initial news story is subsequently amended or retracted, the change does relatively little to erase the original impression lodged in people’s minds. And this effect is greatly amplified when the story corroborates something the reader wants to believe.
It’s important to understand that this isn’t just extreme spin I’m talking about. Spin is so 1990; we are way beyond that now! Spin was about interpreting the news; hooey is about inventing it. Spin meant saying that a papal encyclical on capitalism and poverty jibed with your candidate’s priorities. Hooey means saying that Pope Francis just endorsed your candidate.
All of this is pretty bad. And Trump makes it much, much worse. Incessantly he has cranked up the fake-news machine, going back to those thousands of Muslims he claimed to have seen cheering in New Jersey as the World Trade Centers burned, and continuing up to his recent bold assertion that he actually won the popular vote “in a landslide,” but was robbed by voter fraud. Trump is both symptom and accelerator of our mis- and disinformation problem; both the paragon of fake news and a major source of it. In a Times op-ed published just before the election, Jason Stanley -- author of that propaganda study I alluded to -- accused Trump of “rhetorical tactics unprecedented in recent American electoral history,” noting that he “repeatedly endorsed obviously false claims” and made many “odd comments, retractions, semi-retractions and outright false statements” — all with the goal of propagating a view of America as a direly imperiled country, overrun with crime and corruption, that only he could save.
How do we live as citizens with a president prone (or even committed) to reckless untruths? Take Trump’s claim to have won the popular vote. My conservative friend, who’s highly educated and equipped with a good deal of skepticism, more or less just brushes it off: Trump doesn’t really mean that kind of thing, she says, not literally anyway; it was just bluster, just an emotional release after a tough race, and an expression of frustration at recount attempts initiated by the Greens and backed by Hillary’s people. You can’t take it at face value.
But others on her side, as I pointed out to her, do and will. They’re gonna accept whole hog the lie that Trump won the popular vote; they’ll swallow the whole canard and metabolize it as an established fact. Sure enough, reporting shows that more than half of Americans currently believe that Trump had the popular vote stolen from him. To this end, fake news memes ramify dynamically, one falsehood compounding another. In October, a story published by Christian Times Newspaper claimed that tens of thousands of fraudulent ballots, already marked for Clinton, had been found in a warehouse in Ohio -- inside sealed ballot boxes that would be counted alongside real ballot boxes. Snopes disproved it; but once again, by then it had already gone viral and been seen by many millions of people.
Many of those will be the same people sitting around years from now blathering about how Trump won the popular vote in 2016, only to have it stolen by “crooked Hillary.” Can’t you just picture it? Some guy in a bar will say, "Yeah, remember all those fake Hillary ballots they found in a warehouse in Ohio?” And another will pitch in, “Yeah, and that Soros guy who paid busloads of fake protestors in Texas?”
False, false, and false. But... who cares? Do such things as facts and non-facts, truth and lies, even exist any more? What makes me despair, what actually kinda freaks me out, is that we seem to have arrived at a point where no one is willing to acknowledge and accept a politically uncomfortable or inconvenient fact. Only powerful and useful fictions matter.
To put this despair in context, it helps to revisit a notorious exchange that took place between a presidential minion and a journalist a dozen years ago. The antagonists were Karl Rove, then an aide to President George W. Bush, and reporter Ron Suskind, who recounted the exchange in his 2004 New York Times Magazine article, “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush.” Scolded by Rove for writing something critical of the Bush White House, Suskind defended what he’d written on the grounds that it was true -- whereupon Rove reproached him in a manner that Suskind in his article glossed as follows:
[Rove] said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
It was a breathtakingly Orwellian assertion of power’s contempt for truth – and twelve years further down this road, the entire political culture seems to have capitulated to it. “People don’t know what to believe anymore,” says Snopes’ managing editor. “Everything is really strange right now. It used to be that if you got too far from the mainstream, you were shunned for being a little nutty. Now there is so much nutty going around that it’s socially acceptable to embrace wild accusations. No one is embarrassed by anything anymore.”
Amid such nuttiness, I quake to imagine the state of “the reader's ability to determine whether sources are real or not” that my conservative friend is counting on to keep the republic in balance. Does anyone think that ability is functioning very well? Or that our new President will help restore it and rebuild our sense of reality? Indeed he seems dedicated to the opposite mission.
I wonder if, all those years when Americans worried about the advent of an Orwellian regime and era, we were looking for the wrong thing. Maybe we thought it would be more sinister, and less buffoonish and banal. But the end result is the same, a reckless and thoroughgoing contempt for the very idea of truth. This calamity has been some time in the making. But it took Donald Trump to bring it to completion. His whoppers, evasions and crass untruths are the final obsequies for the reality-based community. Kiss it goodbye! The BS from now is gonna be yuuuuuuge; worse, it’s going to emanate from the White House. The candidate of hooey shows every sign of becoming the president of hooey.
Happy New Year!