The End of the 4th Estate

In the days before November 8th, millions of liberals anxiously held their breath as poll after poll predicted a clear and decisive victory for Hillary Clinton. Despite major news outlets giving her odds up to 99.9%, there was a nagging suspicion that maybe the polls were not only wrong- the fact they were predicting victory was seen as a bad sign in itself. Hadn’t Brexit occurred despite polls predicting otherwise? Didn’t they say that the Colombian peace deal was going to pass?  No trace of this anxiety was to be seen in the beaming faces of President Obama’s staffers. After all, their careers had been made possible by judiciously leveraging polling data into campaign strategies.

And yet, with all the celebration around him, Obama himself spent this final stretch of campaign season obsessing over a Buzzfeed article about Macedonian teenagers striking it rich by spreading pro-Trump misinformation across the internet. These Macedonians, anonymously writing completely fabricated click-bait from newly minted websites, garnered more readers throughout the election than the world’s most popular traditional media sources.  Just to emphasize what a weird situation this is: the website that pioneered and popularized click-bait as a media format produced serious investigative journalism about how programmers writing click-bait styled, fake-news websites were becoming more influential than traditional journalists. The president, wary of the polls sourced from the same traditional media sources whose influence was being eroded by online misinformation, sees this article from the clickbait-spewing Buzzfeed, and wonders if his polling sources can be trusted.

Who, then, can be trusted?

In some ways this is an old problem, scaled up to formidable new terrain. Due in part to the compressed timescale in which the digital and hyper-interconnected nature of current social media established itself, it becomes easy to view the now-bygone, 20th-century world of media as a baseline or natural order for journalism: as the way things were. In truth, by focusing our perspective wide enough only to capture the quick-fire history of the internet and its associated spheres of influence, the transient nature of that “old” world escapes our view. The objectivity that was once a hallmark of the media at large, and is now ruefully mourned with every new “high energy” post that proliferate across our screens, was itself a relatively direct consequence of the same kind of profit-seeking that now motivates those Macedonians today; it just so happened that for the newly consolidated & conglomerated giants of the industry of yore, it was best accomplished by garnering the largest swath of the audience they could- itself a goal best tackled by abandoning fringe biases and ideologies. Value neutral reporting, as it turns out, should perhaps be viewed less as a foundational notion for journalism, than as something of a happy consequence of how the media empires of America spun out during and immediately after their inceptions in the 20th century.

And so, one of the most fascinating parts of Donald Trump’s campaign was how he was caught lying at an unprecedented rate, and yet not only came out of it unscathed, but, emerged as the honest man of the people, crusading against the rigged corporate media, an image fueled by those newly democratised and decentralised information channels of the internet. Any other politician would have been practically crucified for the things he said, but he turned the accusations themselves into assets, proof that an elite cabal was trying to stop him and by extension the common man. And in a way, he was right. The elite in both political parties were trying to stop him, and the media’s coverage of the democratic primaries had left many people understandably frustrated.  What made Trump’s tactic work so well, is that he leveraged existing biases in the perceptions of mainstream media (MSM), and assailed their credibility to make these accusations, rather than defend the things he was accused of.

The cult of personality which coalesced around Trump grew out of the deepening cynicism in traditional media formats, coupled with the hyper-personalised echo chambers and filter bubbles which have been able to proliferate in the digital sphere. In such a context, systemic promotion and preference for the most dogmatic and emotionally charged content is allowed to incubate, giving way to an environment in which disinformation can be given just as much sway as facts- when ads and false news items occupy precisely the same space as their more credible counterparts, one’s ability to discern between them is substantially impaired.

Meaning that Trump supporters, fed up with mainstream media, were able to take to the internet and bring smiles to the faces of our Macedonian friends, happily relishing the endless Clinton conspiracy theories and rejoicing in all the implications, imagined or otherwise, of the Wikileaks dumps. Mainstream media did not fail to pick up on this (after the fact, of course), and as soon as the election results came in, the Buzzfeed article which so troubled Obama spread like wildfire, and with it a central narrative formed: “Fake News won Trump the election”. The examples ranged from twitter-bots making pro-Trump topics artificially trend, to corporate sabotage, to Russian spies, and to simple money-makers looking to make a headline reverberate across an online echo chamber.  Fake News infuriated liberals, but Trump supporters immediately turned it back around onto the MSM, and the story about Fake News was just seen as Fake News itself. Sure enough, the Washington Post jumped the gun and posted a horrendous article promoting a fake news blacklist that included several generally respected leftist and libertarian sources. Worst of all, they obtain this blacklist from “experts” at a website that turned out to have no credentials itself!

A healthy skepticism of the biases within the press may well be a good thing, but when paired with an increased susceptibility to misinformation online, the results can be dangerous. In a media landscape where no institution can establish widespread credibility, we tend to fall prey to our cognitive biases, hearing only what confirms our beliefs. This is the true danger of new media: not that mainstream media is being replaced by bloggers and websites, but that we lose any ability to discern what sources are trustworthy at all. The Press’s ability to hold governments in check is contingent largely on the trust afforded to them by public opinion. When it’s impossible to tell shills from journalists and lies from merely biases, and when the sheer amount of information available can blur the line between conspiracy and propaganda,  misinformation may become an even stronger tool for oppression than it has ever been.

Where do we go from here? The double-bind we find ourselves in is that any legal measures aimed at directly stemming the flood of misinformation would give governments tools of propaganda by allowing them to legislate the definition of “truth”. Large Data-based companies like Google & Facebook, on the other hand, have little incentive to drive out misinformation–a successful fake news article earns facebook just as much money as real news–and indeed misinformation is specifically designed to get as many views as possible.  The Click-bait style pioneered by Buzzfeed and developed by Fake News Artists has evolved into data driven science, as content creators compete among millions of peers for the tiny profit of a user’s click, and the Data companies have invested billions of dollars to ensure that content is shown to the people most likely to click it. The internet medium incorporates itself into the message at a deeper level than ever before; every piece of content has to justify itself through advertising revenue. While mass media fostered a mass culture of conformity by appealing to as large a demographic as possible, digital media is hyper-personalised, acting as an ideological one-way mirror: one’s image being constantly reflected back at them by forces beyond the glass. Ultimately it will require either a massive cultural shift away from free-to-pay internet culture, or a thorough restoration of the legitimacy of the popular press to combat such a massive structural vulnerability to misinformation, but these changes are both hard to enact and potentially incomplete. Without changing course, the internet may become a battleground of corporate and governmental propaganda, where dissent is drowned out in the noise.