I’ll start this by piggybacking off the last episode in this series which began to sink teeth into the separate realities created by media bubbles… It’s December of 2020 as I type and record this, and I began this small project about six months ago. In the past several months I’ve tried to learn more about the development of the modern news cycle and how biases influence nearly every angle of its production and consumption, but I in no way set out to do that when I began. That’s just where my interests took me, though with so much time spent at home and in front of screens this year, it’s probably not the biggest surprise that I’ve become more interested in getting acquainted with some of the processes at work behind it.
I don’t think I ever hoped to be prescriptive when I started playing with the idea of putting these pieces together, but a part of completing this feels a little empty because I don’t have any strong personal conclusions to offer. I’m going to touch on something at the end about that, and a general outcome-focused disposition, but if I were to try to tell you what value there is in any of this up front, it might be in the gathering of other people’s ideas and trying to bridge them together to create a picture of what’s going on from my perspective.
I’m going to include a bunch of related videos and links here, the most important of which might be Jay Smooth’s Crash Course series on media literacy. One theme that runs throughout the videos and this piece alike is the relationship between trust, media, and manipulation… And the effect it’s been having on me (and maybe you, too). At the heart of the media picture is a glut of information that has little practical value to our lives, upon which entire industries have been built. In Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, author Neil Postman argues that most of the media presented to us as news is done so under what he calls “pseudo-context.” He writes,
“A pseudo-context is a structure invented to give fragmented and irrelevant information a seeming use. But the use the pseudo-context provides is not action, or problem solving, or change. It is the only use left for information with no genuine connection to our lives. And that, of course, is to amuse. The pseudo-context is the last refuge, so to say, of a culture overwhelmed by irrelevance, incoherence, and impotence.”
Postman’s argument is essentially that if news-like information fails to influence one’s day to day activities, or bear practical application, it’s essentially trivia fodder. I covered this in the last episode, but news that doesn’t fit this bill can be anything from how the local football team performed to stories about popular YouTubers who proclaim the virus to be a hoax to who the President is pardoning as he makes his exit from the White House. No matter how interesting or “important” the tidbits might appear to be, they have little practical application within my day to day life. Probably yours, too. But the implication is that breaking news is important and that our awareness of it is important, because the modern media model has been crafted to create a sense of urgency out of information that has limited practical application to most people’s lives. And as time moves on, the abundance of irrelevant information continues to grow, which dilutes what Postman calls the “information-action ratio.” More media is available now than ever, and yet an increasingly smaller proportion of it bears genuine relevance to our lives.
It’s easy to get lost in the day to day push and pull as media vies for personal attention, but one of the important things to remember is that news—and most media—exists as a business, first and foremost, and any value it adds to people’s lives is secondary; not unimportant, but secondary. This isn’t to diminish courageous, hard working journalists, or anything like that, but to emphasize one of the points Jay Smooth makes in his introduction to his series: Most media exists to manipulate. Which is something that sounds strange to say out loud, but it all kind of adds up: There is an agenda behind media, and the goal of the content is to act in accordance with that agenda to achieve a desired result.
As an example, take the New York Times, whose slogan used to be “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” which has nothing to do with whether that information is relevant to anyone’s day to day life. What is the agenda behind a statement like that? It reinforces that they are sharing news that is “worth” printing, sure, but also—I mean, isn’t it a strange thing that broadcast news—whether it be local, national, or international—has fixed time slots with regular, well-timed allocations for ads? Or that print media isn’t a sustainable medium of scale without the injection of advertising? Not really, when you consider news media’s real customers aren’t viewers, readers, and listeners, but advertisers. The goal in this case is to act in accordance with an agenda—delivering news and selling ad space against readership—to achieve a desired result—a profit motive.
With evolving technologies opening up the news of the world to most of its inhabitants, there’s no end to information that is relatively “fit to print,” but the other side of the equation has to deal with what types of media are leveraged to feed the financial requirements of the news business. While not a value embodied by all news media, the trend of leaning more heavily into partisan perspective has only been amplified to extremes with the uprising of online media. This is all well worn terrain by this point—the recognition that engagement increases when extremism reigns—but an aspect of that which falls back within the realm of Jay’s media literacy series has to do with how the online marketplace of ideas has created an increasingly divided rift in our global society.
When I hear the phrase “fake news,” for example, part of me recognizes that the term embodies a valuable idea, rightly calling out information that doesn’t align with journalistic standards embodied by reputable media outlets. But on the flip-side is that in the past twenty years we’ve seen a remarkable rise in “citizen journalism,” through blogs, then social media, which has had an impact on the credibility of what we consider to be news media, as much as anything has. That said, I don’t necessarily think the weakening of journalistic standards is what’s created the ecosystem we’re living in as much as the tactics which media companies have implemented to increase engagement have, which for them—to this point—has led to sustainable advertising revenues. Because, again, that’s an integral part of the agenda.
Take one arm that flowed from blogging culture: The introduction of reader comments attached to articles on media websites. The motivation behind allowing users to comment on articles is pretty straight forward: Online advertising rates are based on the number of times a web page is loaded in a browser window, and the more times a person refreshes a page to interact with comments increases that page’s value to its publisher. To keep things simple, if the New York Times is selling advertising, let’s say they get $10 per thousand page views per advertisement on their website. What’s one easy way to produce more interest in an article, and thusly more Hamiltons? Add a comment section and get people talking about the article. What’s one way to get more people talking about the article? Publish pieces that focus on provocative, controversial, one-sided opinion, or divisive issues that spark debate. Such articles are commented on more, shared more on social media platforms, and suddenly bear significantly more value to their publishers than they might have otherwise been as a stand-alone pieces. As the saying goes, those who manufacture umbrellas always need it to rain. The broader consequences that spring from decisions like adding comment sections are really amazing though.
It’s funny that certain publishers have recognized the limited value that features such as online comments add to the ecosystem of thought and discourse online, while others have leaned in to milking every article for all they’re worth, loading screens with interactive elements and advertising to a point of bloat. Take as an example Popular Science, which did away with hosting reader comments on its articles all the way back in 2013. A letter by then-online content director Suzanne LaBarre noted, “Comments can be bad for science. That’s why, here at PopularScience.com, we’re shutting them off.” The article continued,
“Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story. A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to ‘debate’ on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.”
Keep in mind that article was published over seven years ago—think of how our use of the internet has changed since then? So when thinking of “fake news,” I don’t necessarily think it’s worth focusing on a particular outlet, like Fox News (though I wouldn’t be mistaken in doing so), but instead about the role social media has had on the concept of news; the problem not being just the bad actors who are publishing lies, but the systems that have been created which allow for lies to be viewed on the same plane as facts. Comments level the playing field, essentially, and can erode legitimacy without themselves bearing any semblance of merit. And you have to think, what are social media sites if not indiscriminate comment pools? If that’s the case, what are we to make of a news media landscape that is driven by delivery via social media platforms?
As Jay relates in one of the media literacy series’ episodes, “When we find ourselves in an atmosphere we usually trust—like Facebook, for example—we’re less likely to question the info we find.” In an article titled, “Facebook Struggles to Balance Civility and Growth,” Kevin Roose, Mike Isaac and Sheera Frenkel write of Facebook’s recent experimentation with users’ feeds, including references to several internal experiments which were run or proposed to help curb the spread of disinformation.
“The company had surveyed users about whether certain posts they had seen were ‘good for the world’ or ‘bad for the world.’ They found that high-reach posts—posts seen by many users—were more likely to be considered ‘bad for the world,’ a finding that some employees said alarmed them.
So the team trained a machine-learning algorithm to predict posts that users would consider ‘bad for the world’ and demote them in news feeds. In early tests, the new algorithm successfully reduced the visibility of objectionable content. But it also lowered the number of times users opened Facebook, an internal metric known as ‘sessions’ that executives monitor closely.”
To put it another way, Facebook’s business model—or agenda—is based around people using Facebook more, and when Facebook users see less “bad for the world” content, they tend to use Facebook less. To put it another another way, as tech critic John Gruber writes, “Facebook knowingly pushes polarizing misinformation, particularly to conservatives, because it’s addictive and despite knowing exactly what they’re doing and why it’s wrong and that it’s making the world worse.” Or, as is noted in his book, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, Ryan Holiday adds,
“Pageview journalism treats people by what they appear to want—from data that is unrepresentative to say the least—and gives them this and only this until they have forgotten that there could be anything else. It takes the audience at their worst and makes them worse. And then, when criticized, publishers throw up their hands as if to say, ‘We wish people liked better stuff too,’ as if they had nothing to do with it.”
A lot has changed with social media in the past decade, perhaps nothing greater than the fully completed shift from being social networking sites to media networks based around social connections. Writer Charlie Warzel followed the Facebook feeds of three strangers in the lead up to the election and posted his reflections on what he saw in an article titled, “What Facebook Fed the Baby Boomers,” adding,
“What I observed is a platform that gathered our past and present friendships, colleagues, acquaintances and hobbies and slowly turned them into primary news sources. And made us miserable in the process. […] [As] Facebook evolved, these weak connections became unlikely information nodes. Mr. Young and Ms. Pierce [the subjects of his piece] were now getting their commentary from people they hardly knew, whose politics had once been unknown or illegible.”
The wave is endless, largely rendering concepts such as historical context moot. I mean, can you remember which articles rolled through your news feed last week? How about last month? It’s impossible to keep track without making a concerted effort to do so. This is where returning to Postman’s concept of pseudo-context bears consideration, as he writes,
“[If] the event is entirely self-contained, devoid of any relationship to your past knowledge or future plans, if that is the beginning and end of your encounter with [it], then the appearance of context provided by the conjunction of sentence and image is illusory, and so is the impression of meaning attached to it. You will, in fact, have ‘learned’ nothing. […] At best you are left with an amusing bit of trivia, good for trading in cocktail party chatter or solving a crossword puzzle, but nothing more.”
He continues in another section of his book,
“We do not refuse to remember; neither do we find it exactly useless to remember. Rather, we are being rendered unfit to remember. For if remembering is to be something more than nostalgia, it requires a contextual basis—a theory, a vision, a metaphor—something within which facts can be organized and patterns discerned.”
In other words, because we have been trained to value the novelty of daily news as important, the torrent of information we receive on a daily basis has rendered most historical context for it expendable.
There’s one last piece in this immediate picture I think is worth pointing out, and it’s that the availability of quality media and information is becoming increasingly watered down by the means which support its delivery. Take for example Google’s own search results which are revealing to be less and less relevant with each passing year. (As a quick sidenote: In-house advertising accounts for more than 80% of Google’s revenue, a figure which is dwarfed by Facebook’s reliance, where ads account for 98% of the company’s total revenue—again, remember what their agenda is if that’s how they make their profits.) The convenience and format of sites such as Twitter and Facebook value only what has just happened to keep users refreshing to see what’s new, pulling the arm on the slot machine—so to speak—in the pursuit of fresh content. The price to use Google is nothing, just as it is with Facebook and Twitter, but that doesn’t mean there is no cost. This issue can probably be best summed up by the title of Nathan J. Robinson’s article, “The Truth Is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free.” In it, he writes,
“[A] lot of the most vital information will end up locked behind the paywall. And while I am not much of a New Yorker fan either, it’s concerning that the Hoover Institute will freely give you Richard Epstein’s infamous article downplaying the threat of coronavirus, but Isaac Chotiner’s interview demolishing Epstein requires a monthly subscription, meaning that the lie is more accessible than its refutation. […]
Possibly even worse is the fact that so much academic writing is kept behind vastly more costly paywalls. A white supremacist on YouTube will tell you all about race and IQ but if you want to read a careful scholarly refutation, obtaining a legal PDF from the journal publisher would cost you $14.95, a price nobody in their right mind would pay for one article if they can’t get institutional access.”
So what we’ve got is a system which not only levels the playing field between truth and lies, but one which also increasingly favors promoting lies and falsehoods due to the price-tag inherent in producing well-reasoned works that meet any sort of reasonable publishing standard. To rephrase Robinson, bullshit is free but the truth will cost you. And by Facebook’s measure, bullshit is also what’s going to get people to use their platform more, and it’s what’s going to drive the most eyes to the most websites to produce the most advertising revenue. It’s no wonder that politics and media have long since been intertwined with one another, and that both flourish when bullshit is peddled as truth. It only makes sense, then, that in a time when disinformation formally has a green light to receive the same level of exposure as truth, that officials and representatives would be elected on the backs campaigns built squarely on pillars of bullshit. There’s definitely a through line here.
That explanation comes from professor and philosopher Harry Frankfurt, describing the thesis for his book, simply titled On Bullshit. I remember first watching this video with Frankfurt’s description sometime in 2016 when it was posted in the context of Donald Trump’s election, but I don’t recall what I thought about it other than it angered me. The more time has wore on, the more that idea of bullshit has become visible, ultimately leading to the blueprints behind Trump’s platform being unveiled by Steve Bannon. Writing for Vox, Sean Illing discusses Trump’s impeachment, the minuscule impact it had—and why—and how that all fits into the gameplan of weaponized bullshit. I recommend reading the whole thing, but I’ll quote it at length here to focus on Bannon’s influence leading up to the proceeding,
“Despite all the incontrovertible facts at the center of this story, it was always inevitable that this process would change very few minds. No matter how clear a case the Democrats made, it was always highly likely that no single version of the truth was ever going to be accepted.
This fact underscores a serious problem for our democratic culture. No amount of evidence, on virtually any topic, is likely to move public opinion one way or the other. We can attribute some of this to rank partisanship—some people simply refuse to acknowledge inconvenient facts about their own side.
But there’s another, equally vexing problem. We live in a media ecosystem that overwhelms people with information. Some of that information is accurate, some of it is bogus, and much of it is intentionally misleading. The result is a polity that has increasingly given up on finding out the truth. As Sabrina Tavernise and Aidan Gardiner put it in a New York Times piece, ‘people are numb and disoriented, struggling to discern what is real in a sea of slant, fake, and fact.’ This is partly why an earth-shattering historical event like a president’s impeachment did very little to move public opinion.
The core challenge we’re facing today is information saturation and a hackable media system. If you follow politics at all, you know how exhausting the environment is. The sheer volume of content, the dizzying number of narratives and counternarratives, and the pace of the news cycle are too much for anyone to process.
One response to this situation is to walk away and tune everything out. After all, it takes real effort to comb through the bullshit, and most people have busy lives and limited bandwidth. Another reaction is to retreat into tribal allegiances. There’s Team Liberal and Team Conservative, and pretty much everyone knows which side they’re on. So you stick to the places that feed you the information you most want to hear. […]
We’re in an age of manufactured nihilism.
The issue for many people isn’t exactly a denial of truth as such. It’s more a growing weariness over the process of finding the truth at all. And that weariness leads more and more people to abandon the idea that the truth is knowable.
I call this ‘manufactured’ because it’s the consequence of a deliberate strategy. It was distilled almost perfectly by Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News and chief strategist for Donald Trump. ‘The Democrats don’t matter,’ Bannon reportedly said in 2018. ‘The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.'”
The world we live in is confusing enough without bad actors creating false narratives to interject distrust in an already wobbly system. But that’s what’s happened and that’s what’s happening. Distrust in journalism is high. Distrust in politics is high. Distrust in the American Democratic system is high. But none of this happened by mistake. And in sowing the seeds of confusion, Bannon set in play a model that had been well established in the none-too-distant past on the other side of the world by a regime determined to gain control by blurring reality to a point of total distortion.
It’s not a stretch to suggest agendas like Bannon’s and Surkov’s have succeeded—open today’s news, the zone feels particularly flooded with bullshit. The BBC has a wonderful podcast series called The Puppet Master which documents Surkov’s rise and influence, but how this model has played out in America—particularly how it’s ascended in 2020—is nothing short of amazing. Journalist and author Maria Ressa says “The goal of Russian disinformation is not to make you believe in anything, but to destroy your trust in everything.” And that sounds familiar, right? Stepping back from the horrific nightmare of it all, it really is something, isn’t it? And while we’ve seen how this plays out in ways from a crumbled social discourse to a fractured government, unintended or planned, a response to this rise in distrust has been a subsequent rise of a revamped Satanic Panic for the new millennium, led by a Presidential figurehead seen by those of a conspiratorial mindset as a champion of the righteous. The widespread uptick in conspiracy theory thinking is truly bizarre.
In his video “In Search of a Flat Earth,” YouTuber Dan Olson takes on one such conspiracy that has gained notoriety and momentum in recent years (I’ll add, rather bafflingly so): That the world is actually not round, but flat. I recommend watching the whole of his project—particularly so because he’s smart as hell and from my hometown—but one of the main takeaways comes in his ability to distill what might be at the heart of modern conspiracy thinking and how it fits into reacting to a system that is ripe with distrust.
“On the surface Flat Earthers share many of the same anxieties as the rest of us: They are worried about the power structures that have immense influence over our lives, and the shared fictions that society operates on like money and rent. But there is, perhaps, an over-willingness to treat them as harmless cranks, as though we can start from their shared frustrations with the world, and just gently nudge them in a more sensible direction.
These common anxieties are a shared coordinate that is, I think, far more superficial than we would want it to be, because while we’re all worried and skeptical of what people in power are doing, Flat Earthers have very, very different ideas about who’s in power and what they’re trying to do with it. Flat Earthers are not otherwise empty vessels who believe one kooky thing. They believe that thing because it suits their purposes. Flat Earthers have an agenda. The end goal of conspiratorial beliefs is to simplify reality by attributing the high-chaos state of the world to a singular active force or group opposed by an equally singular solution. […] Their anxiety is that the world has become too complex, that too many things are changing, and that science and progressivism are actively malicious elements working to obstruct the true nature of God.
Most people don’t actually believe Flat Earth because they were persuaded by shoddy evidence, or they found other evidence to be less persuasive about the nature of the physical world. They do so because it says something they already believe about the nature of the social world. Flat Earth is a thing people want to believe because if it were true, it would be irrefutable proof of everything else they believe. Flat Earth is a system that selectively delegitimizes power structures and does so by working backwards. Flat Earth insists that you are being lied to by ‘them,’ typically gays, liberals, or Jews, in order to obfuscate the existence of God, and are thus not merely an opponent of their isolationist, xenophobic policies, but an enemy of righteousness itself.”
This ties into is the universe of neo-Satanic Panic thinking, broadly known as QAnon. And for those unfamiliar who thought Flat Earthers were on some weird shit, you haven’t seen anything yet… Per the Anti-Defamation League, “QAnon is a wide-reaching conspiracy theory popular among a range of right-wing extremists and even some public supporters of President Trump.” They continue, “Fundamentally, the theory claims that almost every president in recent American history up until Donald Trump has been a puppet put in place by a global elite of power brokers hell bent on enriching themselves and maintaining their Satanic child-murdering sex cult.”
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, and I’d say “you can’t make this shit up,” but clearly you can because they absolutely did. If you’ve ever heard of Pizzagate—that’s QAnon. As people who spout this kind of stuff are now entering office as elected officials, I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to learn about it, but rather than getting too deep into it, I’d like to just recommend some resources for those who are interested in learning how this all came to be:
- Kirby Ferguson’s video essay, “Trump, QAnon and The Return of Magic”
- “The Conspiracy Rush” from the CBC’s Ideas podcast
- “Country of Liars” from the Reply All podcast
- The New York Times’ Rabbit Hole podcast series
- And Ferguson’s most recent video essay, titled “Constantly Wrong: The Case Against Conspiracy Theories”
There’s a thread of continuity amid the conspiracy theory angles, held together by that last line I quoted from Olson’s Flat Earthers video, speaking of “an enemy of righteousness itself.” As I was searching to learn more about Vladislav Surkov I came across an episode about him on the cheekily titled QAnon Anonymous podcast, which later aired an interesting take on how some this bizarrely integrates into fundamentalist Christian belief. (For the sake of the blog post I’m going to blend several people talking into a single dialog, but the audio of the section I’m referencing kicks off around 44:33 of the podcast.) Here goes:
“While people were getting obsessed with ‘Revelation’ again in the evangelical community, there was also this secondary obsession people were having with this notion of spiritual warfare. And there was this book that came out called This Present Darkness, that was exceptionally popular among evangelical Christians—it’s kind of like a Stephen King book—where Christians are existing in this town and right past the veil of reality there are demons and angels fighting for their souls in a very active way. And then Christians can then communicate to these angels and demons through their prayers. And so it’s really this fantasy where Christians are actually fighting demons through their prayers, and then there’s passages in the Bible about spiritual warfare and wearing the armor of Christ in a variety of ways. But this notion of angels and devils being very very real really took off in the Pentecostal community, and I feel like so much of the QAnon stuff really extends from this moment where the Satanic pedophiles are something that I think people can actually really think about in their imagination ’cause they’ve been imagining that Satan has been controlling people’s actions for all of these years.
And so now, all of a sudden, it seems like the book of ‘Revelation,’ in some way, is playing a part in politics. And normally a cult would—normally the reality testing if you were inside a cult would maybe make you question things, but this is like a cult where the reality testing is off because ultimately the President of the United States, who is the most powerful person in the planet, is there kind of as your figurehead. So, your imagination is directly connected to the most powerful person on Earth. […]
And so it is interesting, it’s this idea that in like this hyper militarized kind of America—after the Cold War made everyone pay attention to nukes and how many weapons we have and are we competing with others and is our stock pile big enough, you know—if you believe that Satan’s at work, the question is through who? And I have to unravel the riddle the same way you gotta unravel the scriptures.
This is also coinciding with the general trend, a low point in evangelicalism, and I think before Trump there was a real concern within the Republican party about what the marriage between evangelicalism and its relevancy within American culture would be with politics moving forward. And I think Trump—as we see now with what’s happened with Mr. Falwell at Liberty University—they had to make odd bedfellows, right? And again it’s about circling the square: How can I be both a devout Christian and also support this guy who’s so clearly un-Christian in every single aspect of his life, but I still want to feel like I’m part of this savior culture, that I’m saving people, that I’m a warrior for good. Q offers a really profoundly useful circling of that square, right? It’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, maybe he’s married three times and has cheated on all his wives and is a horrible person and probably a rapist, but he’s saving the children, right? He’s actually beyond, he’s like a demigod, we can’t really judge him at this point. He’s like holding a flaming sword with wings sprouting out the back. I mean, it’s exactly what Arthur was saying earlier, that just outside the realm of reality there’s a very real battle going on between angels and demons.
But not just that, but the redemption story is absolutely fundamental to Pentecostal Christianity. The My Pillow guy used to be a crackhead and he talks about it constantly. So, it’s like, yeah he did all this bad shit, but then he totally found Christ and now he’s leading the digital soldiers in this new war that’s both a meme war but also a hidden spiritual war involving demons, and it’s horrifying stuff.”
This is extreme (though for more, it reconciles with ideas in Kirby Ferguson’s “…Return of Magic” video), but in times of great fear and widespread financial and health insecurity, such as the one we’re living through—combined with the absence of consensus truth—we seem to become prone to upticks in variations of bizarre magical thinking which people slip into, which serve to undermine reality. But the thing is, it’s not that everyone reading one side of the news, or living in one side of the tribe, believes in all the weird little fantasies that each individual pocket believes in, but that they bear that single commonality of fighting the enemy of “righteousness itself” (which just happens to be something loosely resembling liberal ideology, in this case, though it’s named as everything from “socialism” to the “Deep State” by those who oppose it).
And when media companies are given this absolute goldmine to work with, an endless fuel of cheap to produce content lacking any historical context built on a bedrock of zero commonly agreed upon journalistic standards, it’s going to keep churning through that goldmine until the cash cow goes dry… Or—as we’ve seen of late with far right backlash against Fox News—until they have to actually report the world’s news as it actually exists in actual reality (even though doing so apparently just prompted many of Fox News’ viewers and readers to jump ship to outlets that go even farther in blatantly and shamelessly masquerading indisputable propaganda as fact).
It’s all part of a system, structured around assembling a confused citizenry, unsure of what to make of anything beyond a belief that feeling right is paramount to being right. It’s a little bit of a tangent, but this thinking of how to build a consortium around a group of individuals who have very little in common, and whose values even seem at odds with each other, is outlined well in this video called “The Alt-Right Playbook: You Go High, We Go Low.”
“The Left is, in fact, a very heterogeneous group with a mountain of conflicting interests and decades of infighting, so it’s very hard to appeal to all of them and wealthy donors. Republicans don’t have this problem, or, at least, they don’t have it as bad. Despite many, in some ways, even more passionate and fundamental differences, conservatives value loyalty and in-group cohesion, and this keeps them coming together every four years in a surprisingly unified voting block. It also helps that they fucking hate us, and most would sooner vote for a Republican they despise than any kind of Democrat. And, lucky for them, the things conservative voters want are much more aligned with corporate interests. […]
And I’ll say one thing for Republicans: They believe in something. It’s a bunch of classist, racist, misogynist doolally, but they believe it, and they govern according to those beliefs. There is no contradiction in blocking a liberal Judge and bullying Democrats to confirm a conservative one: They want to overturn the right to abortion, and will do whatever it takes to put a pro-lifer on the bench. It’s fully consistent behavior. And the problem isn’t that they break a bunch of rules along the way, it’s that what they’re trying to accomplish is wrong.”
The ability of modern media to present information as equally reputable despite a general dearth of credibility, all under an umbrella of pseudo-context, has accelerated the weaponization of disinformation. And when that disinformation ties disparate parties together, there are strange consequences, like the rallying together of everyone from neo-Nazis to New World Order truthers to your meemaw because they think abortion is baby murder. I’m absolutely preaching right now, but the truth matters little when individuals genuinely believe they’re fighting on behalf of a morally righteous cause, even when doing so overlooks a bottomless pit of what they deem to be less consequential amorality. (Far be it to ask the side championing the merits of lawfulness to use critical thinking or compassion when discussing the children their regime has separated from their parents and locked up in cages, or how they value private property over humanity while suggesting themselves to be “followers” of Christ, despite embodying few principles behind his teachings, including how money will destroy you, power will corrupt, and that the truly righteous are to bear sympathy for the meek among us…) But I digress.
An ideological system reconcilable with a snowstorm of bullshit is what brought together the bulk of the 74 million voters who recently cast their ballot for Donald Trump: An adaptable pseudo-Christianity that shapeshifts to conform to the individual’s fluid concepts of morality. And it’s impossible to think of those people as anything but, because that’s sort of how the cycle usually works itself out, right? Sources focus in on problematic attitudes and behaviors of an opposing side, with arguments having nowhere to go but to devolve into a string of bad faith memes. This has created black and white “sides” to issues that are incredibly nuanced, with media reconfirming to each that they’re right, and that what they’re feeling is true. And it’s not in spite of us thinking we’re above it that we get in trouble, but because we tend to think we are that we get deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole.
“The more immune you think you are to this kind of advertising, the more susceptible you become as a result. This is a well observed phenomenon called the third person effect. Essentially, thinking you’re immune to subconscious advertisement and brainwashing causes you to let your guard down, making you even more susceptible to it. People think, ‘Well, I’m smart, I wouldn’t fall for that!’ But the truth is, being manipulated, whether it be by cults, politicians, or advertisements, has nothing to do with how intelligent you are. The reason they use these manipulative tactics is because they’re effective. Which means that often, even if people consciously know something, what’s more important when evaluating their world view is how it makes them feel. For instance, if you asked most people if they cared in principle if their food was made ethically, they would probably say ‘Yes.’ And if you asked those same people if they thought their quirky friend Wendy’s made food ethically, they’d probably be like, ‘Nah, probably not.'”
That’s a quote by YouTuber Sarah Z (who, is also from my hometown – shoutout to all the people making great things from Calgary), from a video focusing on social media advertising. As with everything I’ve mentioned, definitely watch the whole thing and then dive into her other work because she’s great, but this is what’s at the heart of—I think—this entire series: Feeling, and what it leads us to do within a system of broken trust and rampant manipulation.
We’re all susceptible to stupid behavior because we’re human and we have feelings. And while it stokes internal flames of self-righteous validation to mock Flat Earthers or evangelicals, how many moments from my own past should be greeted with well deserved criticism or mockery if put under a microscope? I mean, at another time in my life I bought into a time share with someone I wasn’t even married to because I was scared that if I didn’t, I’d lose that person. A few years before then, I went and sat in an office for what was surely one of the strangest job interviews I’ve ever had and I walked away almost spending several hundred dollars on a pyramid scheme so I could sell knives door to door. I wish I was kidding when I say that, but why did I do those things? Feelings. My life is flush with embarrassing decisions made on behalf of what I felt I should do at the moment. Feelings make people do some weird stuff. Particularly when what’s at stake is a feeling of comfort.
In Sarah’s video, that comfort means overlooking a troublesome ethical quandary in favor of a convenient, inexpensive meal. But it’s also part of what’s been haunting me every step of the way this year as it relates to broader questions of equality and my values. During this summer’s riots, I remember becoming emotional on a phone call with my dad. I don’t recall my phrasing, but my message was that maybe we do need to burn it all down. The crazy thing is, burning down the entire system seems like an easier path from this point than reforming it into a system that actually works. And while starting over seems extreme, it also seems more comfortable than trying confront and change today’s problems.
Over the past several weeks I’ve had a strong feeling bubbling up when thinking about my relationship to creating online, feeling like I have to be able to distill this collage of information into some sort of “real life change”… As though there’s a test on the horizon on which I’ll be graded, or that it even makes sense to have a conclusion to offer from what’s essentially been a few months of me thinking aloud. In the last episode I referenced a forthcoming “series” of posts I was thinking about, and this could go on forever—this series—or just the act of putting ideas online, but that isn’t going to happen. Like many things I’ve created online, this was just something I wanted to try to see what would happen if I did, and now that I have I don’t quite know what to make of it.
If there’s one thing to be said for all this, however, it’s that I’ve become more aware of how I’ve allowed other people’s agendas to drive my own behaviors. A few episodes back I asked a question of myself, surrounding my decision to pursue a career in a helping profession, challenging who I was really helping in the process of doing so. Here’s another moment where it feels like my actions have drifted away from my intentions, where the status quo has become spending far too much time online consumed by media that only serves to reconfirm my pre-existing beliefs. As Neil Postman might remind me, so very little of it helps me actually “learn” anything. And when taking a step back, investing myself in all of it and feeding it back through a podcast with my name on it is kind of a curious way of amusing myself.
Maybe that’ll end up being the takeaway of this, that it’s helped guide a process of self-evaluation? This participatory medisphere is such a strange place to be a citizen of—consuming, producing, translating, informing, expressing oneself via content without there ever being much thought given to the idea of sufficiency. Like, when am I done here? I know myself better than to suggest here that I’d be able to unplug from it all even if I tried to, but I do know that the strangest year of my life has shown me a lot about how I don’t want to live moving forward, and that involves a whole hell of a lot less internet time. It might take a while to understand what that means, and even longer to put it into action, particularly because at every corner of life is another attention leech whose agenda is to manipulate me into thinking that giving it my attention is important, when the reality of the matter is that I’m only ever going to waste more time and fall deeper away from the things in my life that actually help give it meaning.
- This episode features the song “Self Driving” by Smo, used under a Creative Commons license from the Free Music Archive.
- “Crash Course Media Literacy” is a 12-episode YouTube series produced by Crash Course.
- Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business was published by Neil Postman in 1985.
- Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator was published by Ryan Holiday in 2012.
- The “Shapeshifting” segment about Vladislav Surkov is taken from the 2016 BBC documentary by HyperNormalisation.
- the slowdown is available in its entirety on Spotify.
Addendum: Also worth considering is Crash Course’s Introduction to Navigating Digital Information series.
the slowdown, Part 1: Is This Water?
the slowdown, Part 2: The “Good” White People
the slowdown, Part 3: To the Benefit of Whom?
the slowdown, Part 4: Separate Realities
the slowdown, Part 5: Amusing Myself to Death (you are here)