The fake news problem came up in comments this morning, which reminded me of a recent long but well worth reading piece in The New Yorker, in which David Remnick discusses the coming Trumpocalypse with President Obama.
In the piece, PBO identified the fake news phenomenon as a serious matter, but his comments suggest folks haven’t truly wrapped their minds around the scale of it yet. Even its propagators underestimated its effectiveness, but you can bet your ass the beneficiaries in this cycle have noted its success. It’s the echo chamber on steroids, metastasized worldwide. An excerpt from the Remnick piece:
“Until recently, religious institutions, academia, and media set out the parameters of acceptable discourse, and it ranged from the unthinkable to the radical to the acceptable to policy,” [PBO’s political director David] Simas said. “The continuum has changed. Had Donald Trump said the things he said during the campaign eight years ago—about banning Muslims, about Mexicans, about the disabled, about women—his Republican opponents, faith leaders, academia would have denounced him and there would be no way around those voices. Now, through Facebook and Twitter, you can get around them. There is social permission for this kind of discourse. Plus, through the same social media, you can find people who agree with you, who validate these thoughts and opinions. This creates a whole new permission structure, a sense of social affirmation for what was once thought unthinkable. This is a foundational change.”
That day, as they travelled, Obama and Simas talked almost obsessively about an article in BuzzFeed that described how the Macedonian town of Veles had experienced a “digital gold rush” when a small group of young people there published more than a hundred pro-Trump Web sites, with hundreds of thousands of Facebook followers. The sites had names like TrumpVision365.com and WorldPoliticus.com, and most of the posts were wildly sensationalist, recycled from American alt-right sites. If you read such sites, you learned that Pope Francis had endorsed Trump and that Clinton had actually encouraged Trump to run, because he “can’t be bought.”
The new media ecosystem “means everything is true and nothing is true,” Obama told me later. “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll. And the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal—that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.”
We’ve discussed the Fox News phenomenon for years, how it creates a closed loop that turns formerly reasonable parents and grandparents into unrecognizable, rage-addicted assholes. Well, this is worse, and it will be with us when the last O’Reilly viewer croaks. The anti-dote to fake news should be real journalism, of course, but as I look around, that seems to be in short supply.
I think I’ll go make an extra-large shaker of old fashioneds.