Opinion: Reality Still Matters
A new era of misinformation has dawned. We'll resist it
MTV News published an extraordinary essay Wednesday by a writer named Brian Phillips. Its faux-clickbait headline: “Shirtless Trump Saves Drowning Kitten.” (A “must-read”!) It’s nominally about Facebook, but Phillips’ commentary about the Social Network’s enabling of fake news Trojan horses is a deeper and more chilling examination of information, and misinformation, and what we’re all in for with no end in sight.
Facebook's algorithm, which promotes some links over others and controls which links appear to which users, likewise reflects a series of editorial choices, and it is itself a bad choice, because it turns over the architecture of American information to a system that is infinitely scammable. I have my own issues with the New York Times, but when your all-powerful social network accidentally replaces newspapers with a cartel of Macedonian teens generating fake pro-Trump stories for money, then friend, you have made a mistake …
One of the conditions of democratic resistance is having an accurate picture of what to resist. Confusion is an authoritarian tool; life under a strongman means not simply being lied to but being beset by contradiction and uncertainty until the line between truth and falsehood blurs and a kind of exhaustion settles over questions of fact. Politically speaking, precision is freedom … Authoritarianism doesn't really want to convince its supporters that their fantasies are true, because truth claims are subject to verification, and thus to the possible discrediting of authority. Authoritarianism wants to convince its supporters that nothing is true, that the whole machinery of truth is an intolerable imposition on their psyches, and thus that they might as well give free rein to their fantasies.
This is what Orwell meant when he wrote that the goal of totalitarianism is to destroy our “common basis of agreement” …
In this climate, the problem of fake news on Facebook seems trivial, because it has nothing to do with what's happening on the street. It is also frighteningly essential, because democracy depends on a public forum, and ours is upside down …
An America where we are all entitled to our own facts is a country where the only difference between cruelty and justice is branding.
I did a TEDx talk on this general idea two-and-a-half years ago, though nowhere near as well. (The lone comment on my talk on YouTube reads, in full, “when you study moron geoengineering every,” which strikes me as poignant and appropriate.) I’ve thought for a while that the Internet and social media have turned information into any other commodity, like wood screws or organic lettuce: What matters isn’t what’s true but what will sell.
I now think it's actually worse. The world of information at the moment resembles an out-of-control stock market. Certain stocks are ridiculously and arbitrarily overvalued. Others are tied to tangible, valuable assets and undervalued. Values fluctuate wildly, hour to hour, determined entirely by “the market,” which is not some separate, benevolent overlord. It’s us.
Sellers assume no responsibility for the true value, or lack of it, of any offering. If the market assigns value to it through clicks and shares and pageviews, that’s all that matters. There’s a reason why the term people use as shorthand for isolation of thought is the same one people use to label a grossly inflated financial market—and you know what happens periodically to bubbles, and to markets.
The nation and world seem poised to enter an era of misinformation unlike any before it, a period of deep confusion about what is and isn’t real, and the atomization of the populace into duelling tribes—what Joan Didion, in a completely different context more than 30 years ago, described as “a state in which no ground is solid, no depth of field reliable, no perception so definite that it might not dissolve into its reverse.”
Charlotte is a city magazine. I don’t want to overestimate its influence. What I can tell you is that what I and my colleagues write may infuriate you, make you scoff, make you laugh in derision, make you want to throw the glossy pages across the room in disgust. But none of it will attempt to deliberately misinform you, or make cloudy what’s clear. This is an unsettling place to be—an acknowledgment that two plus two still equals four as a statement of principle—but it’s where we are, and all we can do.