Bad News

cartoon by Bill Bramhall in the NY Daily News

I confess: I am easily seduced into fear over the vast amount of, and seeming power of, misinformation and disinformation in our modern world. As the US and other parts of the world slide closer and closer to embracing fascism, my anxiety about the role misinformation and disinformation, and the social and other media that traffic in them, play, just keeps growing.

So I was both challenged and relieved by an astonishing article entitled Bad News in the September edition of Harper’s magazine (the whole special issue is worth a read), written by Buzzfeed’s Joseph Bernstein. Joseph’s compellingly argued thesis is (my paraphrasing):

  1. Most of the political information, including misinformation and disinformation, read and propagated on social media is viewed by the vast majority, if it is absorbed and considered at all, with skepticism, no matter who it comes from. It almost never changes anyone’s mind.
  2. What social media have done is to simply display, in a particularly garish and ghastly fashion, what many, perhaps the majority of people already, preposterously, believe.
  3. And what we read and repost in social media is what conforms to what we already believe, and what we want to believe, often without any regard for its truth or the evidence (or lack thereof) supporting it. Social media mostly reflect, rather than influence, what we believe.
  4. In even worse news for the Silicon Valley paper billionaires, there is compelling evidence that advertising in social media, including political advertising, simply doesn’t work. It is read and appreciated by, and only by, people who were already intending to “buy” what the ad was selling. The billions that advertisers spend on social media (and in most other places), is simply a waste of money, enriching only the advertising and PR industries that sell to gullible businesses and politicians, and, of course, adding to the “cost” of the product that the consumer ultimately has to bear.
  5. Facebook, Twitter and Google, then, are basically gussied-up versions of the free “buy and sell” advertising+fluff newspapers you get in street-corner boxes and handed to you on commuter trains — they offer no content or analysis of their own, only regurgitated stuff that corporations, politicians and other sellers are willing to directly or indirectly pay them for — advertisements and promotions for products, political candidates, opinions, and ideas.
  6. Citing Jacques Ellul, author of a landmark study on propaganda, Joseph says: “Ellul dismissed a ‘common view of propaganda . . . that it is the work of a few evil men, seducers of the people.’ He compared this simplistic story to midcentury studies of advertising ‘which regard the buyer as victim and prey.’ Instead, he wrote, the propagandist and the propagandee make propaganda together. One reason to grant Silicon Valley’s assumptions about our mechanistic persuadability is that it prevents us from thinking too hard about the role we play in taking up and believing the things we want to believe. It turns a huge question about the nature of democracy in the digital age—what if ‘the people’ believe crazy things, and now everyone knows it?”

Joseph scathingly lists the long-standing dysfunctionalities of the American political and social culture that have contributed to so many believing so many “crazy things”, and the whole article is worth reading and thinking about. As for social media, he writes:

Facebook is full of ugly memes and boring groups, ignorant arguments, sensational clickbait, products no one wants, and vestigial features no one cares about. And yet the people most alarmed about Facebook’s negative influence are those who complain the most about how bad a product Facebook is. The question is: Why do disinformation workers think they are the only ones who have noticed that Facebook stinks?

He concludes:

It’s possible that the Establishment needs the theater of social-media persuasion to build a political world that still makes sense, to explain Brexit and Trump and the loss of faith in the decaying institutions of the West. The ruptures that emerged across much of the democratic world five years ago called into question the basic assumptions of so many of the participants in this debate—the social-media executives, the scholars, the journalists, the think tankers, the pollsters. A common account of social media’s persuasive effects provides a convenient explanation for how so many people thought so wrongly at more or less the same time. More than that, it creates a world of persuasion that is legible and useful to capital—to advertisers, political consultants, media companies, and of course, to the tech platforms themselves. It is a model of cause and effect in which the information circulated by a few corporations has the total power to justify the beliefs and behaviors of the demos. In a way, this world is a kind of comfort. Easy to explain, easy to tweak, and easy to sell, it is a worthy successor to the unified vision of American life produced by twentieth-century television. It is not, as Mark Zuckerberg said, “a crazy idea.” Especially if we all believe it.

So if we want to be concerned about the nonsensical, potentially destructive beliefs of so many of our fellow citizens, we should not be blaming social and other media or trying to “fix” them, but asking ourselves how such preposterous beliefs came to be so widespread in the first place — probably long before social media (and the responses of many to climate change, systemic racism, and CoVid-19) brought these preposterous beliefs to our chagrined attention.

For example: If we want to understand skepticism, in the US especially, of the pronouncements of public health experts about the pandemic, we might start by appreciating that the US health system has evolved to be an utterly and obscenely bloated and inept bureaucracy, offering a pay-as-you-go (if you can afford it) two-tier system that has evolved to benefit for-profit insurance companies, for-profit pharmaceutical companies, extravagantly expensive medical schools, self-entitled corporate executives and extremely rich citizens, and the politicians whose campaigns they fund, and no one else.

As a result, as many Americans use “alternative” medicine resources (many of them shady and even dangerous, like homeopathy and faith healing) as use the expensive, dysfunctional “primary” healthcare system. Most Americans have in one way or another been abused (by neglect, malpractice, or misinformation) by the US medical system, which is, in fact, one of the leading causes of death in the country. So when someone suggests that the latest mandates (which seem to change all too quickly with the political winds), vaccines, and other impositions of the pandemic are fraudulent, there’s a lot of people who are already predisposed to believe that’s true.

What’s more interesting, then, than the role the social and other media have played in providing a venue for the expression of extreme distrust, is what lies behind our propensity to believe they have played any role at all? Americans elected Nixon, and Reagan, before there were social media. They built bomb shelters, believed “better dead than Red”, and held anti-communist witch hunts. They fell for religious and political bigots, organized vigilante groups and worse, believed in absurd and deadly cures for physical and mental diseases, and joined all manner of cults. Why should the 21st century context for what people believe, and are prepared to do in support of those beliefs, be any different? The average American, according to a recent Forbes report, reads at below a sixth grade level of comprehension.

So what if we were to acknowledge that social media are just over-hyped bit players in a bewildered world that has always been prone to believing falsehoods because they’re more comfortable and consistent with what people want to believe, than the truth? What do we do then?

Well, we could ridicule them, get outraged by them, shun them, or dismiss them as “deplorables”. Or we could reach out to them, without expectations, and understand how they came to believe what they believe. Not that we’re going to change their minds. Sorry, idealists, that ain’t going to happen. Any more than you’re going to join the ranks of the Trumpists and Brexiteers and born-again creationist hordes and conspiracy theorists and faith healers and QAnon groupies. But just to understand where we stand. We, plural.

Our human civilization culture, with its 7.8B hostages, is collapsing, ecologically, economically, and, inevitably, to some extent socially as well. We all sense it. The evidence is everywhere. Sooner or later, as collapse takes hold, we are going to have to start to build local communities from the ground up with the people with whom we find ourselves. Some, perhaps most, of those people are going to believe, and believe in, some ludicrous things, things that will horrify and appal you, and you’re not going to talk them out of their beliefs.

You’re going to have to build a local community that works with them. Might as well start now to figure out what you’re going to have to work with.

In the meantime, if you’re paying for advertising, especially on social media, Joseph’s article should convince you that you’re being had. If someone in the business of persuasion — a corporation or a politician or a media ‘representative’ or a guru or an ‘influencer’ or a movement ‘leader’ or an op-ed writer — tries to sell you something, anything… caveat emptor.

But then, if you were going to buy what they’re selling, you would have bought it anyway. So… never mind.

PS: Bonus: Joseph is interviewed by Harper’s web editor on this podcast.

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2 Responses to Bad News

  1. Mukesh says:

    Very interesting take on the impact of social media on our psyche. While most of Henry’s arguments are sound, I also think that there is another effect that we are missing here.

    There are a lot of people who don’t have an opinion about most things themselves and tend to move in the direction of the current. It is these people sitting on the fence and who can be swayed in either direction that the misinformation or disinformation targets and moves.

    In my opinion, this is a vast majority of people and large enough in numbers to sway a political campaign one way or another.

    Just my 2 cents.

  2. John Whiting says:

    Self-sufficient local communities took millenia to evolve, with detailed knowledge of every aspect of their environment. People who only know what they read and hear on the internet will suddenly find themselves in an environment as foreign to them as the far side of the moon.

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