The Chilling Effect of Fake News As Isolationist Propaganda

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Vacant minds For Rent

“There’s a tendency to assume that our political leaders are masters of their message. But what we see from Miller, Abbott, and others suggests that the tail may actually be wagging the dog. They seem to enjoy spreading memes and sharing stories that fire up their base, but the ease with which they’re taken in by fake quotes and photoshopped images suggests that they’re not so much the people pulling the strings as they are the audience for string-pulling, whether they be created by lulz-seeking users on message boards or foreign agents. It’s alarming when the people behaving like any other sucker on the Internet are in high office, blithely sharing things that are compatible with their worldview—even if those things have been carefully fabricated to support it.

‘A Brief History of Texas Officials Falling for Fake Memes’, Dan Solomon

This article from Texas Monthly is instructive for me in thinking about the social media ‘censorship’ debate sparked by the removal of Facebook, YouTube, and Spotify’s removal of Austin-based Infowars from their services. Platform banning has proved to be an effective way of silencing voices who attract mass attention. However, the benefits may be temporary since the misdirected outrage that these divisive figureheads harness still smolders among the body politic. And someone new is always coming along to exploit it.

But what happens when your elected officials are falling for the same outrage memes? It may be one thing to pass paranoid delusions around with your friends but the situation passes another landmark in absurdity when your government officials are making decisions based on the fake narratives filling their heads and newsfeeds?

What made democracies strong in the past — a strong commitment to free speech and the free exchange of ideas — makes them profoundly vulnerable in the era of democratized propaganda and rampant misinformation.

Renee DiResta

It’s hard to believe that Texas is being run by people who believe deliberate fabrications about the nature of reality. If they don’t believe this stuff literally, it’s chilling to think they cynically deploy these memes as a power play to unite and rile their political base. To these politicians, are these incendiary memes simply instruments of retaining power? After all, ‘Vote for me or die’ is the most powerful of all campaign messages.

And personally, I shrug at the paternalism angle because I know better than to expose myself to this nonsense. Banning peddlers of falsehoods cannot save us from destructive worldviews. But as long as facts are invented to manipulate people’s emotions and then spread virally through social media networks then democracy as it was originally conceived will be impossible. Sound decision making requires accurate information about the world and so an informed citizenry is a necessary prerequisite for making the right collective decisions.

Still, an important question to ask is what would cause a significant portion of grown-ups to give up on reality. Are these people stupid or angry? Are their needs as a citizen being neglected? I would have to say that it runs deeper than ignorance vs. enlightenment. I also hesitate to chalk it all up to greed, ignorance, or racism. There is a strange tribalism going on where people are signaling their membership of a group by paying fealty to outrageous lies and ruinous policy decisions.

I’ve heard it said that every country gets the government it deserves but this is an embarrassing low.

ViralFakeScreenshot

It’s true because it feels true. Even though it’s false.

Further Reading

With Alex Jones, Facebook’s Worst Demons Abroad Begin to Come HomeNew York Times:

The problem, he said, goes beyond a few underregulated extremists. It also involves the algorithm-driven newsfeed that is core to the company’s business model. ‘They are blind to seeing the real repercussions,’ Mr. Dissanayake said of Facebook’s leaders.

The Quislings of American CollapseMedium:

People don’t betray their own tribes or families or countries unless, usually, they feel betrayed themselves. And so I think that these men feel deeply betrayed. Not just because they are “becoming a minority” and so on. But because they are the most downwardly mobile of all. White men in this group are the ones in society who have the biggest gap between the life they expected — and the life they live. They expected to live like their fathers — comfortable, stable lives where they sat atop old systems of racism, greed, oppression, and misogyny. But those systems have cracked apart, too, as America has collapsed. Everybody’s life is falling apart, more or less, unless you’re Jeff Bezos.

Presented here is the idea that online common spaces should be held accountable for absurd bloviations and distortions of common truth. Even though I said that I was agnostic about ‘censorship’ I do believe we should hold these companies to a higher standard since they dictate the content of an ever-increasing share of our daily lives.

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