Thursday, November 24, 2016
"My ignorance is just as good as your knowledge." - Isaac Asimov
As an increasing number of voters get their “news” from social media and other online sources, and even those opting for old-world television often choose rather biased networks prone to report opinion and mythology as facts. It’s all about attracting eyeballs, no matter the means. Even with a meagre voter turnout (43% of eligible voters didn’t) in this most recent election, clearly enough of those who voted did so based on blatantly false information, enough to determine the outcome. Like, the Pope endorsed Donald Trump or that Hillary Clinton is about to be indicted.
It’s bad enough that the Supreme Court has loosed billionaires or wealthy aggregations to spread their bias in so-called SuperPacs under their Citizens United opinion, but so many falsehoods were leaked into the ether, that even when their veracity was conclusively challenged, they lingered online and drifted into viral online permanence. That some of these falsehoods may have been perpetrated with some of the Citizens United money only made matters worse.
On his farewell European tour, President Obama made these remarks in Berlin: “‘Because in an age where there’s so much active misinformation and its packaged very well and it looks the same when you see it on a Facebook page or you turn on your television,’ Mr. Obama said. ‘If everything seems to be the same and no distinctions are made, then we won’t know what to protect… I got all caught up in that one,’ he said.
“Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, recently said fake news on the social network was rare, and dismissed notions that such reports might have swayed the election as ‘pretty crazy.’… But executives and employees at Facebook have been questioning if, or how, the social network helped influence the opinions and votes of Americans, according to interviews with current and former Facebook employees.
“Bogus news stories appearing online and on social media appear to have had a greater reach in the final months of the campaign than articles by authoritative, mainstream news outlets, according to an analysis of Facebook activity by BuzzFeed.
“In the three months before Election Day, the most popular stories produced by hoax sites and ‘hyperpartisan blogs’ generated more engagement — likes, shares and comments — on Facebook than the most popular articles by major news websites, the analysis found.
“Among the 20 most popular fake election stories identified by BuzzFeed, all but three favored Mr. Trump or denigrated Hillary Clinton… Facebook and Google, which has also faced mounting criticism over distribution of fake stories on its platforms, said this week that they would take aim at the fake news sites’ online sources of revenue. [By denying ad revenue to fake new sites].” New York Times, November 17th. Mr. Trump seemed to live on Twitter during the campaign, and a Pew report tells us that 68% of America used Facebook. These two online outlets probably accounted for the vast majority of false online reports.
Between the First Amendment and the inability of courts to act fast enough, there is a huge problem getting truth to the American constituency. If voters cannot access the truth, if they are subjected to what appear to be credible-if-totally-false news, can democracy sustain? Voters do not seem to be developing the kind of “check the facts” skepticism necessary to counter this tsunami of falsehoods… and there doesn’t appear to be any movement in that direction.
“Online, we must parse a deluge of data, some of it completely fake, some of it somewhere between fact and falsity. On November 11, for instance, a website called The Conservative Daily Post tweeted a story headlined: ‘Maryland REFUSING Electoral College, Hillary Given Presidency As More States Follow CLICK HERE.’ The story was a lie, based on details of to give their votes to the national popular vote winner. It happened nearly a decade ago, but there it was, being shared on social media as if it were Maryland’s response to the recent election of President Trump. In any case, Maryland's electoral college votes already went to Clinton, a fact pointed out by numerous commenters. (An equal number of commenters seemed to take the news at face value.)… The Conservative Daily Post later removed the tweet, but the retweets, , and the remain online.” FastCompany.com, November 18th.
This trend is beyond disturbing, bringing into question whether the contemporary form of our democratic institutions can even hold-up under this onslaught. Legitimate news sources are increasingly marginalized, facing extinction based on economic realities alone. “[On his recent German trip, Obama also said] ‘If we are not serious about the facts and what's true and what's not,’ he said, ‘particularly in the social media era when so many get information from sound bites and snippets off their phone, if we can't discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.’…
“In the last fifteen years blogging has changed the way news is written, reported, and distributed. No longer do writers and pundits require a printing press or much financial wherewithal—they simply need a computer and an internet connection. While this diversification has brought about a smorgasbord of new points of view and methods of reporting, it has also opened the floodgates to a spectrum of unvetted information providers. As journalism has expanded online, pontificators and gossips have proliferated. And as eyeballs have moved online too, local news organizations—especially those in rural, small and medium-sized localities—have suffered precipitous drops in advertising, meaning layoffs, severely cut resources, and outright shutdowns.
“At the same time, point-of-view journalism, wherein reporters intimate or disclose their subjective opinions or their stance on particular issues, began taking hold. The rejection of the style of reporting, an attempt to appear unbiased in factual presentations, may have helped to foster an environment in which readers mistrust reporters who have a personal view on a given topic. Meanwhile, online and elsewhere, news blends together with entertainment—a response perhaps to failing revenue and a constant need for pageviews. On a variety of websites geared toward younger, largely progressive audiences, —a word that now slyly encompasses reported story, advertising plugs, opinion and just about anything that resides on the web—shares much of the same tone. Blogs have blossomed into full blown media companies and brought with them a sarcastic, edgy voice that can undermine their credibility. Fake or poorly reported news has adopted a tone of authority. The result is a jostling media landscape where the conspiracy theorists become indistinguishable from the credible sources.
“‘The whole flow of the information is a lot more conversational and a lot more decentralized,’ says Rich Edmonds, media analyst at the Poynter Institute…. Of course, the news a person ends up receiving depends greatly on where they go looking for it. Newspapers used to be the gatekeepers of information, separating out the nonsense from the stuff of import. But they no longer occupy the grand role they once did. Meanwhile, readers have turned to the places where they increasingly get the rest of their information, often for free: from the web and their phones. Online platforms, seeking ever more engagement and higher ad revenues, are more than happy to oblige. Earlier this year, Facebook launched Instant Articles in order to directly host publisher content and better serve it to users, and Google's AMP service now offers publishers a similar feature in its search results.
“‘We’re seeing a whole ratcheting up of how much consumption of news has moved to Google, Facebook, etc,’ says Edmonds. On the whole, 14% of people found social media to be the most helpful source for catching up on the election, according to Pew. Roughly the same percentage of people thought news websites were the most helpful resources for understanding the election cycle. There is also a lot of overlap when it comes to where people are sourcing their news: Pew reports that nearly half of all Americans have more than five sources they turn to for election coverage.” FastCompany.com.
In the end, the product of our elections is no better than the basis on which people vote. How can we introduce sufficient healthy skepticism or make those who disseminate false news responsible for their falsehoods? If this election was bad, what are our next elections going to look like as social media becomes even more pervasive?
I’m Peter Dekom, and the pervasive spread of falsehoods-as-truth in social media may indeed be an existential threat to democracy itself.