Purple Magazine
— S/S 2017 issue 27

Fake News

by DANIEL PINCHBECK

 

In the 13 years since it launched, Facebook has become a tool unprecedented in its power and reach, used daily by more than a billion people across the world. Facebook functions like a public utility on a global scale — but one that is in private hands and dependent on financial capital from investors such as Goldman Sachs and revenue streams from advertisers; these factors influence how the company manages data and how it shapes the experience of its users.

In its effort to make the user experience as sticky as possible, Facebook inadvertently created the “ filter bubble” effect: they learned that people stay on Facebook longer when they keep getting the kind of news that grabs their attention. Therefore, they created sophisticated algorithms to support this tendency. What this has meant, in practice, is that people tend to see news and updates that con rm their own ideas, opinions, fears, and biases. Google developed in a similar direction.

The filter bubble effect has turned out to be an insidious design flaw — one that right-wing extremists, running sophisticated and well-funded political operations, exploit for their benefit. In the past, mainstream news sources like ABC News and The New York Times were easy to differentiate from low-level or fringe media. With the rapid development of the Internet as the primary source of news and information, this is no longer the case.

A Breitbart news article or an Alex Jones news broadcast no longer appears different in quality from a piece in Time magazine or a news anchor on CNN.
It becomes harder and harder for many people — already surfeited in cultural noise and distraction — to draw meaningful distinctions. Increasingly suspicious of mainstream media, they naturally gravitate toward alternative news that impacts them viscerally. The filter bubble effect has amplified this tendency, creating an echo chamber. People follow the news that meshes with their worldview — and exacerbates their prejudices.

In an amazingly short span of time, this has led to a crisis of institutional legitimacy that, as I write this, threatens the integrity of the United States Constitution, our governing institutions, and, potentially, the world as a whole. The extreme worldview of white supremacists and crackpot conspiracy theorists has now become the underlying ideology supporting the rapid, shocking rise of Donald Trump, a man who seems to have a severe case of narcissistic personality disorder, lacking the slightest ability to control his own impulses. His chief strategist, Steve Bannon, a former Goldman Sachs banker, was the malevolent genius behind the meteoric rise of Breitbart, an extremist news site known for publishing incendiary fake news.

The extremists learned how to exploit the fissures in people’s world views and psychologies. I would say the result is equivalent to a kind of mass hypnotism or mind control. We know from the past that this is the peril — the shadow side — of new media technologies. For instance, Fascist leaders in the 1930s were able to reach into the mass psychology of the population through radio transmissions. Radio was the new media of that time, and using it to repeat hateful messages had a hypnotizing quality, similar to the repetition of memes like #pizzagate or #lockherup on the Internet now. Amazingly, Bannon copied, almost word for word, rhetoric used by Hitler in some of Trump’s campaign speeches.

Once-marginal figures like the radio host Alex Jones became essential to the extreme right’s march to power. Jones said in videos that Hillary Clinton “personally murdered and chopped up and raped children.” He argued that members of the New World Order elite are not even human — that they are alien lizard people. In Breitbart and Alex Jones’s Infowars, we find a deep undercurrent of racism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism — like the currents that led to the Nazi Holocaust and other genocidal programs of the distant and recent past.

The question we need to ask now is: what can we do in response? As president, Trump will have a vast propaganda machine at his disposal. Considering his willingness to deny facts and scientific evidence, this is a dire situation. Unless we act quickly and in a coordinated fashion, our society may not recover from it.

Apparently, Facebook and Google are working to address this calamity by providing tools for verification and tracking that can help people discern fake and exaggerated claims from news based on real sources and evidence. The vetting process could also be handled by third par- ties — nongovernmental organizations set up for this purpose. At a time when people have lost faith in mainstream institutions, we will need a much greater level of transparency, where articles are accompanied by evidence and sources.

Verification tools may help. But we also need a new media that is proactive, solution-based, inspiring, and trustworthy. We have to radically shift the negative tone of the culture, offering a new vision of human possibility. Personally, I feel we need a counter-media that doesn’t just oppose Trump’s program, but also offers a systemic and workable alternative to neoconservatism as well as neoliberalism. We must give people the tools to understand what is happening to their world while we show them how to change it.

To this end, I am currently working with a team of television executives, directors, public artists, advertising creatives, corporate consultants, and Web developers to launch such an organization. We are calling it the Woke Network. The goal is to make media that is authentic and uncompromising, as well as uplifting. We will integrate social tools that offer people opportunities for immediate engagement, democratic decision-making, and community building. We will make media that unites the progressive community as well as media that reaches out to the disenfranchised and marginalized.

Let’s admit the stark reality: this is not a game or a rehearsal. Everything is at stake right now. We confront a severe prospect of rapid social disintegration. Many people — on both the right and the left — have lost the capacity to discriminate between lies and truth, opinion and fact, actual evidence and wish-fulfilling fantasy. In this critical time, each of us is going to be challenged as never before in our lives. We must find the courage to fight for the future of our world — for ourselves and for our children.

 

[Table of contents]

S/S 2017 issue 27

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