Welcome to the Post-Truth Age
The Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year for 2016 is “post-truth,” defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” It beat “alt-right” due to a 2000% increase in usage from 2015. What kind of neo-Orwellian dystopia have we fallen into? I feel like I’m in some science fiction novel (not for the first time). It’s as if truth and facts are obsolete, quaint hangovers from a bygone era. How did we get here?
I think it began with the abject failure of a criminally negligent media, in particular cable and network news, who decided that eyeballs = ratings = profits was the prime directive. Don’t even talk to me about the “liberal media.” That’s another fake narrative. Without reliable news sources the public turned to websites and radio shows that confirmed their own biases, Left to the left and Right to the right. Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert coined “truthiness” (Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2006) as the quality of seeming to be true, feeling true, whether it was or not. It’s called magical thinking. The stage was set for the birth of the bastard child of lies and distortion — real fake news.
“I gave birth to a space alien’s baby!” I remember seeing that one among the supermarket tabloids at the check-out line. The king of these rags (now only online) was The Weekly World News, and their wacky headlines like “Surgeons cut my head off — and sewed it back on!” or “Elvis is alive — and running for president!” were crazy and funny, and not meant to be taken seriously. Similarly, Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report” skewered the news beautifully. Ironically, there was more real truth there than in the news media. Best-known of the online sites is “The Onion.” In all these cases, we know they’re fake from the outset, or at least we should. It turned out that some of Colbert’s viewers agreed with his satire of Right-wing commentators.
In the last few years, though, fake news has become politically weaponized into a billion dollar enterprise, nearly all of it Right-wing lies and conspiracies. Remember the “death panels” under Obamacare who would unplug Grandma? All the time the actual death panels were in the health insurance companies. Fox alleged News (0% trans-facts!), the official propaganda arm of the Republican Party, has been doing this for twenty years. Coast-to-coast Right-wing hate radio blares out lies 24/7. “Breitbart News” and “The Drudge Report” are the main players among thousands on the web. Fake news became a thriving cottage industry on the internet, to the extent that it may have influenced the recent election.
BuzzFeed discovered over 100 sites just in the little town of Veles, Macedonia, all operated by teenagers trying to make a buck in a bad economy. And boy, howdy, are they ever raking it in. They don’t care about American politics; they just want to generate shares on Facebook. Ads you display may only generate a quarter of a cent each time someone clicks on it. That may not sound like much until it gets into the millions of clicks, forwards, and shares. Now you’re talking real money — like $10,000 a month. It didn’t take long to figure out what gets the most clicks; anything pro-Trump that feeds into “low-information” voters’ pre-conceived conspiracies. Here are a few of their headlines: “Oprah tells Fox News host that ‘some white people have to die’ — her reasoning is unbelievable,” “Pope Francis forbids Catholics from voting for Hillary,” “BREAKING: Proof surfaces that Obama born in Kenya, Trump was right all along!” They said they tried experimenting with pro-Bernie Sanders sites earlier in the election, but that none of them got anywhere close to the clicks that pro-Trump sites get on a daily basis. This is a theme we’ll see repeated.
Paul Horner, 38, has created a Facebook fake news empire, making a pretty good living. His story about Obama invalidating the election results got over 250,000 Facebook shares. In a recent interview on www.theintercept.com he said, “Honestly, people [he’s talking about Americans here] are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, they’d already accepted it. It’s real scary. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide.” This was fake, too, but appeared on Facebook half a million times. NPR decided to track down the source, the “Denver Guardian,” a site built & designed on a pretty common platform — WordPress. They dug up a name, Jestin Coler, and got an interview. He’s the founder of Disinfomedia, which has lots of sites and writers. He says he started this in 2013 to highlight alt-right extremism, then publicly denounce it with facts. He wrote one story about people in Colorado (where marijuana is legal) buying pot with food stamps. “We tried similar things on liberals,” he says, “It just never has worked. You’ll get debunked within the first two comments . . .” Lately he’s gone more towards satire: “Chris Christie nominated to Supreme Food Court.”
I read a study from 2012, “Low-Effort Thought Promotes Political Conservatism,” Edelman, Crandall, et al. (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 38 (6) 808-8020). Their data suggested that conservatism may be a process consequence of low-effort thought; that “when effortful deliberate thought is disengaged, endorsement of conservative ideology increases.” What we call Right-wing political belief arises “from a need to manage uncertainty and threat.” As I’ve been saying for years, conservative thought is based in fear, and they have a tendency to get stuck in the primitive part of the brain, the amygdala, that controls fear and aggression. Susan Jacoby, in her book The Age of American Unreason, calls it junk thought. Americans are increasingly distrustful of the knowledge and education of those whom they call elites, and like petulant children they retreated into fantasy and irrationality. That’s why it’s difficult to have a dialog with them; they’re literally hard-wired. Their minds are made up, so don’t try and confuse them with facts.
More ominous than all this are the connections between hordes of fake news sites and the Russian government. The Nov. 24th Washington Post: “The flood of fake news this election got from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign” with the idea of “undermining faith in American democracy” had the main goal of punishing Hillary Clinton and elevating Donald Trump. Clint Walls, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, worked with two other researchers, tracking the operation. Thousands of botnets, Twitter bots, and hired human trolls created networks of postings on social media accounts. “The sophistication of Russian tactics may complicate efforts by Facebook and Google to crack down on them,” Watts said. “It was the standard mode during the Cold War, but the internet puts it all on steroids.”
Another group, PropOrNot, is a nonpartisan collection of researchers with foreign policy, military, and technological backgrounds. They’ve also shown the startling reach and effectiveness of Russian propaganda campaigns. The group used internet analytic tools to trace origins of tweets, and mapped connections among social media accounts that consistently delivered synchronized messages. Identifying website codes revealed common ownership. Exact phrases and sentences echoed by sites and social media accounts in rapid succession. They identified over 200 sites with combined audiences of 15 million Americans. On Facebook alone, they estimated more than 213 million views. Both groups of researchers called the content surprisingly and emotionally potent, feeding into pop conspiracy theories like Hillary being connected to a vast global banking cabal (exactly what Trump was blathering about late in the campaign!). Russian state-owned networks like RT and Sputnik amplified misleading stories already circulating online, causing news algorithms to ID them as trending. These efforts helped them to outcompete traditional media outlets. Combined with the recent report that officials from the Russian Foreign Ministry admitted they had been in contact with Trump campaign officials throughout the election, and you have the makings of a real, not fake, conspiracy.
Two days before I posted this, a NC man walked into a D.C. pizzeria with an AR-15, and fired a few rounds, one through a door lock. He was looking for the child sex slaves he’d heard Hillary and John Podesta had in tunnels below. The story started a month before and the pizzeria had already had death threats and other problems. Police persuaded the man to give himself up, but what next?
Could we possibly have a better representative for a fact-free reality than a dimwitted orange reality TV star as leader of the free world? A poster boy for lies and completely unfounded conspiracy theories? And the more lies he tells, the more his supporters reward him for “telling it like it is.” One of his first tweets after the election was a fake story about paid protesters, incited by the media. Scottie Nell Hughes a main Trump surrogate, told PBS’s Diane Rehm Nov. 30th: “Everybody has a way of interpreting [facts] to be the truth, or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.” Setting her syntax aside, at least they finally admit it.
It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. — Mark Twain