Facts all come with points of view
Facts don't do what I want them to
The internet is filled with things that aren’t true, the world discovered this week. Gosh. Who would have thought it?
The propagation of bogus “news” through social networks is the latest "blame anyone except us" theory to account for the election of Donald Trump. Having already blamed Vladimir Putin, James Comey, and Julian Assange for Hillary Clinton’s defeat, bien pensant opinion has moved onto blaming Facebook and Google. But something doesn't quite add up here.
Before we examine the evidence that "post-fact" internet stories turned tens of millions of Americans' brains into mush, let's start with a few undisputed, but still unsettling, aspects to this story.
Firstly, the "fake news" story has highlighted Facebook's role in influencing popular opinion. This is overdue. Facebook has the same view on ethical matters that Boris Johnson has on cake: "pro cake, and pro eating it". Social responsibility doesn’t come easily to the internet platforms like Facebook, who ensure they take as little as possible.
Like Google News, Facebook wants the benefits that accrue from being a publisher (a re-publisher, really, since all Facebook does is drive other people’s bits around) but none of the costly and tedious drawbacks, like fact-checking, liabilities, or exercising editorial judgement over the placement of material. Sometimes just being honest seems to be excruciatingly painful for The Social Network.
Secondly, no one is disputing that there’s crazy stuff out there, and people like crazy stuff. Buzzfeed reported on a bot farm in Macedonia cranking out ludicrous Trump stories for click bait, which if you think about it, isn't so far from what Buzzfeed does. The "fake stories stole the Election" notion comes from adjustments that Facebook made to its News feed algorithm that introduced more recommendations from "Friends" into people's feeds. By August, the crazy stuff had overtaken serious journalism. Is that surprising? Crazy stuff is very clickable, and Facebook is funded by your clicks.
The answer, apparently, is that to stop people clicking on crazy stuff, you take the crazy stuff away from people. You force Facebook to stop carrying anything crazy in a section labelled "News".
This sounds like an obvious idea, but a few snags immediately arise. One, people carry on sharing the crazy stuff anyway, and two, it reveals Facebook for what it is, and it isn't the Wizard of Oz. It's a publisher, pretending not to be. It's easy enough for Facebook to filter out the bogus imitations of genuine news brands, the obviously deranged UFO sites, and the parody sites, but beyond that, it gets problematic very quickly.
Wait a sec... what happened to the news?
"Fake news" is now an issue because economically and in terms of social status, the full-time media has collapsed - and it's collapsing harder (and had further to fall) in the United States than anywhere else. Facebook is not an innocent bystander here, nor are the "digital gurus" who've urged what were once healthy print businesses to commit digital suicide.
The specific cultural and economic context is also important here. Almost uniquely, American journalists take a vow of objectivity. The news industry regards itself as a profession, not a trade. One newspaper editor famously boasted that he never voted, since participating in the political process might sully him somehow. The USA doesn't have variety of newsprint that other countries do, where you can choose from a range of biases and prejudices.
Outside the US, news organisations credit their readers and viewers with sufficient intelligence that they can identify biases, and are comfortable with that. In the USA, the Holy Word trickles down from The New York Times, the self-styled "Gray Lady", on down.
So Americans have always got their news in other ways. These other ways are just more visible now. Undeniably, some of Trump's most notorious online supporters revelled in flinging around toxic sludge, notable for its rage and paranoia.
The "fake news" seems to mirror Trump's conduct and philosophy, described to me as "Disneyland turbo-fascism". But that base is a fraction of the total vote. I was astonished to find that estimates of the real engagement numbers (including Shares and Likes) for the "fake stories" were actually so low - both for real and crazy items. Not one story (real or crazy) achieved one million page views, clicks or Likes combined. Over the years, I've had dozens, if not hundreds of stories with over a million page views within a couple of days. And we're a tech site. Could it be possible that Facebook, which invests in no original content of its own, could be inflating its influence to induce more respectable outlets to provide it with free material? Just a thought.
In reality, Trump was carried to victory by the middle class: an inconvenient fact that you're not hearing very much. Trump couldn't persuade America he was a nice person, but then he didn't have to. He persuaded a risk-averse middle class that he'd do a less bad job than the other candidates. While some Trump supporters raged furiously at the "MSM", many more simply view the media more coolly and dispassionately, as a court press, one that's essentially on the same side as the politicians, not ordinary Americans.
This is something that developed in the 1980s, author Mark Hertsgaard argued in his book On Bended Knee. Since then the social experience of the college-educated political and media classes has narrowed even further.
Peasants can't be trusted to pick their reads
The "post-fact" and "fake news" panics tell us much more about the prejudices of the accuser than they do about the post-Trump news landscape. An arrangement of completely true facts can give a completely misleading picture. It can even be incendiary. The "fake news" moral panic doesn't account for agency. Did anyone believe what they read in Weekly World News, or for that matter very much of what they read in The Sun? The population, we are told, is now apparently mesmerised by "emotion" not "reason".
This slander not only denigrates the real, lived experience, it also reveals a deep fear of the masses, who clearly can't be trusted to decide who governs them. What troubling times these must be for our Brahmin caste of experts and technocrats.
Ironies abound here.
When not castigating "post fact" politics, the political and media classes can be often be found citing from, and sometimes even lionising citing Wikipedia, surely a "post-fact" digital pioneer. (A fact does not need to be true, merely "verifiable", meaning someone somewhere on the internet has typed it into a computer.)
And some of the loudest sneerers seem to live in a fantasy world of their own, something Adam Curtis addressed in his recent film Hypernormalisation. Ever followed a "net neutrality" discussion on a tech blog? Or one about or TTP, TTIP? The "non-fake media" is awash with fantasy. Filtering social networks easily slips into old media protectionism.
Only a stubborn technology utopian can now argue that social networks, playgrounds for rage and virtue signalling, have elevated political discussion. Personally, I think they have been catastrophic for rational debate, hollowing out the middle ground.
Some people would rather visit a dentist without anaesthetic, than be seen to be agree on a point made by somebody that they would usually disagree with. Yet such alliances are the glue of politics. We'd all love to have a population that was less angry and paranoid. But that requires engagement, and the "Fake News" moral panic suggests a desire not to engage, but rather to ensure the masses are neither seen nor heard.
Professional media outlets stand much to gain from disengaging with social networks completely, and starting their own distribution networks. More than ever, a clickbait world (that is itself riddled with ad fraud), they need new economic models, so their reliance on Facebook falls to zero. Leave Facebook to the crazies, guys.
One final irony. One of the reasons advanced for Trump's appeal offering simplistic solutions. Solving complicated issue sounded easy. Much like "banning fake news", I guess. ®