Opinion: The Davidson Grad Who Fake-Newsed the Masses
A war rages over reality itself
The Charlotte-area Internet was aflame Wednesday evening with the tale of one Cameron Harris, a 23-year-old Davidson College graduate with a pitch-perfect real estate developer’s name and an entrepreneurial spirit who spilled to The New York Times the story of how he concocted some bullshit about Hillary Clinton election fraud when Trump needed it most. The bullshit went viral, as that brand does, and although it’s impossible to demonstrate how much Trump benefited from its spreading, it was sufficiently compelling to earn six million shares and a few thousand bucks, which young Cameron used “on student loans, car payments, and rent.”
I have a few thoughts about this.
1. This is fraud. Young Cameron lied and made money off deceiving the public. In a perfect world, this would be a felony.
2. It’s not a crime at all, which, if you think about it, is a good thing.
3. I know. This infuriates me, too. I mean, really infuriates me. Society can’t function when a critical mass of people believes garbage like this. Even if it could, this kind of hoax would still be beyond the pale, the kind of public deception that until recently would guarantee its purveyor widespread shame, and possibly a swift kick in the keister.
4. But think for a second. In order to charge young Cameron with fraud, you’d have to set up a panel or agency to determine that the content was fraudulent. The decision would rest with district attorney’s offices, or maybe a federal agency—a wing of the FCC?—to examine the evidence and level the charges.
5. In other words, it would put government in charge of regulating speech.
6. Donald Trump takes office Friday.
7. Still OK with the government regulating speech?
8. Some of the reaction I’ve seen on the social mediums seem to center on the outrage of Harris’ violation of Davidson’s honor code. I did not attend Davidson, but I know many people who do, and they speak of the code with a respect that borders on reverence.
9. In this case, greed mugged the honor code and left it in an alley. It happens. People are people, and greed is a bitch, as a wise man once said.
10. If you look at it from a certain angle, Harris’ fake news “triumph” is a case of entrepreneurship gone mad.
11. Seriously. Stripped of any public obligation, what Harris did was a victory for unrestrained, innovative entrepreneurship. He saw an opportunity, peddled a product, and made money from it. Good for him, right?
12. Well, no. This is what happens when you turn information into just another commodity, tradable on an open market and with “value” subject entirely to the whims and preconceptions of the buyer. If buyers choose to assign inflated value to giant bags of manure, then prepare yourself for a manure-based economy. The market has spoken.
13. Fareed Zakaria had some trenchant things to say about this just this week. When individuals value profit over any sense of social responsibility, you’re left with a kleptocracy, civilization by fraud:
[Alexis de] Tocqueville wrote about this when he first came to America. He called them "intermediary associations." These are the groups in between the government and the family that exist as arbiters and regulators of society—professional groups, trade associations, rotary clubs, etc. All of this Tocqueville regarded as essential to civic society and to the maintenance of a liberal democracy.
All of these intermediary associations or buffers have eroded by at least two forces. One is democratization and a greater and greater transparency. So political parties have basically become vessels for popular politicians; they have hardly any internal strength anymore. Congress used to be a closed hierarchical system and active buffer against the momentary whims of the majority, but it's mostly lost this power. We now have a much more entrepreneurial system in which Congress members can pretty much do what they want.
Most of the professional associations have been eroded by the market; they're all highly competitive businesses. Whether it's the medical association or the lawyers associations or some other guild, they rarely set the professional standards anymore. They're all entrepreneurs now. Everyone, in a sense, has become an entrepreneur.
Why is this bad? Well, entrepreneurs are great at looking out for their own narrow short-term interests. But who's going to look out for society's long-term interests in the way that a Hamilton or Madison or Tocqueville believed was so important? It's just not clear who or what plays this role anymore.
14. It seems to me that people who care enough about American society as we’ve come to know it are going to have to play that role.
15. And if the battlegrounds are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the comments sections of dubious websites, well, you fight the enemy where they are.
16. If you know something is a hoax, fake news, nonsense, say so.
17. And be prepared to make a case, too. Don’t just tap out, “This is crap,” and expect to leave it at that. Don’t just link to Snopes, either, yeoman’s work though they do.
18. It wouldn’t have been hard to find the photo Harris used, the one he said was from Ohio and which actually was from the United Kingdom. Find it, post it, use it, knock it down, and summon other people who care to help. Volume matters. Think of it as a counter-counter-intelligence campaign. You’re doing your part to win the war.
19. During the era that looms, the notion of citizenship is going to mean more, require more, than at any point in most of our lifetimes.
20. If you want to make money peddling garbage to the gullible, you can of course do that.
21. If you value the public trust—if you still believe there is such a thing—you need to fight for it.
22. Otherwise, you cede the field to the likes of Cameron, whose social experiment allowed him to pay a few bills at, possibly, a nation’s expense.