Why the moral panic about fake news might have an unpalatable outcome

Jack Shafer is right: the moral panic about fake news on social media — especially Facebook — looks like becoming serious. But, he warns, the cure (Zuckerberg becoming the world’s censor) would be worse than the disease.

Already, otherwise intelligent and calm observers are cheering plans set forth by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to censor users’ news feeds in a fashion that will eliminate fake news. Do we really want Facebook exercising this sort of top-down power to determine what is true or false? Wouldn’t we be revolted if one company owned all the newsstands and decided what was proper and improper reading fare?

Once established to crush fake news, the Facebook mechanism could be repurposed to crush other types of information that might cause moral panic. This cure for fake news is worse than the disease.

As we applaud Facebook’s decision to blue-pencil the News Feed, we need to ask why fake news exists and—as I previously wrote—why it has existed for centuries…

Good question. And the answer:

The audience for fake news resembles the crowds who pay money to attend magic shows. Magic-show patrons know going in that some of what they’re going to see is genuine. But they also know that a good portion of what they’re going to see is going to look real but be phony. Like a woman sawed in half. Or an act of levitation. Being shown something fantastical that is almost true brings delight to almost everybody. People like to be fooled…

Spot on. That’s why millions of people in the UK pay good money every day to buy the Sun and (worse) the Daily Express. It also partly explained why they liked Trump. Sad but true fact about human nature. Or, as Shafer puts it, “Deep in the brain exists a hungry lobe that loves to be deceived.” Sigh.

Literary precursors

When it dawned on me in August that Trump could conceivably pull it off, a book came to mind — Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, which is an imaginative speculation on what would have happened if Charles Lindbergh, aviator hero and Nazi sympathiser, had beaten FDR to the Presidency in 1940. So I downloaded and read it. The novel chronicles the fortunes of the (Jewish) Roth family as anti-semitism becomes more mainstream during Lindbergh’s tenure of office. It’s imaginative and clever and persuasive. But then I forgot about it as the election campaign proceeded.

A few days before the election, I noticed a colleague smugly brandishing another book — this time Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here — a cautionary tale about the fragility of democracy which describes how easily fascism could take hold in America. When I checked on Amazon I discovered that my colleague was clearly not the only person with a premonition — Amazon had run out of stocks of the volume.

And now I find that another book — this time by a famous philosopher — seems eerily prescient. It’s Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-century America, excerpts from which have been going viral across the Net. For example:

The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for – someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucratics, the tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.

Or this:

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words “n—-r” and “kike” will once again be heard in the workplace. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

Rorty wrote that in 1999.

Stuff happens, alas

The Investigatory Powers Act has passed through Parliament and will soon be law. It provides the UK intelligence agencies and police with what the Guardian‘s Ewen MacAskill described as “the most sweeping surveillance powers in the western world” and it passed into law with “barely a whimper, meeting only token resistance over the past 12 months from inside parliament and barely any from outside”. The Bill’s relatively serene passage through the legislature surprised many in government, and was probably partly due to the fact that the Labour party, under Jeremy Corbyn, seems largely uninterested in its responsibilities as the official opposition.

It’s not all bad news: the Act brings under explicit oversight a whole range of activities that were hitherto carried out under obscure, possibly dodgy, legal provisions and with totally inadequate oversight. So at least you could say that, at last, the activities of the secret state are all in a single piece of legislation.

On the other hand, the powers granted by the Act in relation to data retention are indeed sweeping, and include some new powers to conduct what is euphemistically termed ‘Equipment Interference’ — which is essentially legalised hacking; their inclusion in the Act is in effect an implicit admission that GCHQ and the security services have been doing this stuff anyway for some time.

The Act confirms that the British state’s appetite for fine-grained communications data seems insatiable and is destined to grow. Confronted with this new reality, one celebrated ex-spook once remarked that we are “a keystroke away from totalitarianism”. What he meant is that the information resources now available to states would be a godsend to an authoritarian regime that wasn’t restrained by constitutional niceties, civil liberties or human rights.

When one puts this point to spooks and government officials, however, their instinctive response is to pooh-pooh the idea. It may be technically true, they say, but — come on! — we live in a democracy and the chances of an authoritarian bully gaining power in such a polity are, well, infinitesimal.

Well, that was then and this is now. An authoritarian bully with no apparent respect for the rule of law will become president of the United States on January 20. Given that the British state has a long history of close co-operation with the US national security state, it’s possible that the new powers conferred on British agencies by the Investigatory Powers Act might mean that personal data on British subjects will be slipping noiselessly into the computerised maw of President Trump’s newly-energised security services. If this country had a functioning parliamentary opposition maybe Mrs May’s Bill would have had a rougher passage, and the Act would have been less sweeping. But the opportunity to rein in the surveillance state has been missed for a generation.

Two utopias, but only one earth

Bruno Latour has an interesting essay on the implications of Brexit and Trump. His main point is that both Trump and Clinton were selling utopian fantasies: one about reversing globalisation, the other about keeping it going but with a better bedside manner. Neither is now plausible because the earth cannot take it any more. “Our incapacity to foresee”, Latour writes,

has been the main lesson of this cataclysm: how could we have been so wrong? All the polls, all the newspapers, all the commentators, the entire intelligentsia. It is as if we had completely lacked any means of encountering those whom we struggled even to name: the “uneducated white men,” the ones that “globalization left behind”; some even tried calling them “deplorables.”

There’s no question that those people are out there, but we have utterly failed to hear their voices, let alone represent them. Despite having spent the past six weeks at American universities, I have yet to hear a single account of those “other people” that is realistic enough to truly unsettle us. They are, it seems, just as invisible, inaudible, and incomprehensible as the Barbarians outside the gates of Athens. We, the “intellectuals,” live in a bubble — or, perhaps better, on an archipelago amid a sea of discontents.

The real tragedy, though, is that the others live in a bubble, too: a world of the past completely undisturbed by climate change, a world that no fact, study, or science can shake. After all, they swallowed all the lies of the calls to restore an old order with perfect enthusiasm, while the alarm bells of the fact-checkers went on ringing unheard. A Trump goes on lying and cheating without remorse, and what a pleasure it is to be misled. We can’t expect them to play the roles of good, common-sense people, with their feet planted firmly on the ground. Their ideals are even more illusory than ours.

We thus find ourselves with our countries split in two, each half becoming ever less capable of grasping its own reality, let alone the other side’s. The first half — let us call them the globalized — believe that the horizon of emancipation and modernity (often confused with the reign of finance) can still expand to embrace the whole planet. Meanwhile, the second half has decided to retreat to the Aventine Hill, dreaming of a return to a past world…

Nice essay, worth reading in full.

Zuckerberg’s problem: he makes money from fake news

This morning’s Observer column:

Zuckerberg says that he doesn’t want fake news on Facebook, but it turns out that getting rid of it is very difficult because “identifying the ‘truth’ is complicated”. Philosophers worldwide will agree with that proposition. But you don’t need to have a Nobel prize to check whether the pope did indeed endorse Trump or whether Clinton conducted the supposed purchases of arms or a Maldives house.

Zuckerberg’s problem is that he doesn’t want to engage in that kind of fact-checking, because that would be a tacit acknowledgement that Facebook is a publisher rather than just a technology company and therefore has some editorial responsibilities. And what he omits to mention is that Facebook has a conflict of interest in these matters. It makes its vast living, remember, from monitoring and making money from the data trails of its users. The more something is “shared” on the internet, the more lucrative it is for Facebook…

Read on

Being wise after the event is not so easy either

This from Todd Gitlin:

Amid all the postmortems after an election campaign that will live in infamy, one historical principle ought to be kept uppermost in our minds. A narrow loss cannot possibly be laid at a single door. History does not work in straight lines in which A — and nothing but A — causes B, as the location, trajectory and spin of the basketball leaving the hand of LeBron James sends the ball through the hoop. It follows, then, that recriminations ought to be tempered. For one thing, as political scientist Jeff Isaac has lucidly written in an appeal for intellectual and emotional modesty: “[I]t is simply impossible to definitively settle complex questions of political and historical causality. This is what keeps historians and social scientists in business, for good or ill.”

Yep. Isaac’s piece is worth reading btw.

Rules for Survival


Already, as the shock subsides, people are reaching desperately for an illusion of normality. And we can see two things happening.

The first comprises efforts to persuade people that Trump can’t be as dangerous as he seemed during the campaign, that he’s a typical salesman — willing to say anything to close the deal. And that the American constitutional system was so constructed to prevent any tyrant being an efficient wielder of power.

The second is that we see the aphrodisiac effect of power in action. It’s like great wealth — power creates a force-field around individuals that leads apparently sane and decent people to lose their judgement, and sometimes their principles. And of course it’s a giant attractor for unscrupulous and ambitious people. We could see this happening on CNN on the night of the election: the panellist who was supposed to represent the Trump point of view was treated like a pariah at the beginning of the night; but by the end he had attained the status of the Oracle of Delphi. We will see a lot more of this kind of servile cringe in the months ahead.

Meanwhile in the New York Review of Books Masha Gessen, a Russian and American journalist, author, and activist noted for her opposition to Vladimir Putin, has written a powerful antidote to this kind of human frailty. Her piece is worth reading in full, but here’s an excerpt from her ‘Rules for Surviving’ autocracy.

Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. [See the photograph above.] Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization. This will happen often: humans seem to have evolved to practice denial when confronted publicly with the unacceptable…

Rule #2: Do not be taken in by small signs of normality. Consider the financial markets this week, which, having tanked overnight, rebounded following the Clinton and Obama speeches. Confronted with political volatility, the markets become suckers for calming rhetoric from authority figures. So do people. Panic can be neutralized by falsely reassuring words about how the world as we know it has not ended…

Rule #3: Institutions will not save you. It took Putin a year to take over the Russian media and four years to dismantle its electoral system; the judiciary collapsed unnoticed…

Rule #4: Be outraged. If you follow Rule #1 and believe what the autocrat-elect is saying, you will not be surprised. But in the face of the impulse to normalize, it is essential to maintain one’s capacity for shock. This will lead people to call you unreasonable and hysterical, and to accuse you of overreacting. It is no fun to be the only hysterical person in the room. Prepare yourself.

Rule #5: Don’t make compromises. Like Ted Cruz, who made the journey from calling Trump “utterly amoral” and a “pathological liar” to endorsing him in late September to praising his win as an “amazing victory for the American worker,” Republican politicians have fallen into line. Conservative pundits who broke ranks during the campaign will return to the fold. Democrats in Congress will begin to make the case for cooperation, for the sake of getting anything done—or at least, they will say, minimizing the damage…

Rule #6: Remember the future. Nothing lasts forever. Donald Trump certainly will not, and Trumpism, to the extent that it is centered on Trump’s persona, will not either. Failure to imagine the future may have lost the Democrats this election. They offered no vision of the future to counterbalance Trump’s all-too-familiar white-populist vision of an imaginary past.

Trump is president-elect. But he’s still a troll. So why do we fall for it?


Way back in July, Dave Winer wrote an astute blog post that was a model of wisdom and common sense in relation to Trump. In it he pointed out that Trump is what we Internet folks call a troll. And we know how to deal with trolls:

The simple fix

It’s so important a lesson, learned so many times by so many people, through so much pain, that it has been codified into a mantra, so we never forget.

  1. Don’t feed the troll.
  2. Don’t feed the troll.
  3. Don’t feed the troll.
  4. Don’t feed the troll.
  5. Don’t feed the troll.

Etc. Yet we keep feeding the troll.


Why indeed? Last night, the cast of the Broadway musical Hamilton gave Vice President-elect Pence a bit of a lecture. Right on cue, Trump then tweeted:

“The Theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!”

You can imagine the result. Liberal apoplexy on social media. Which leads the inimitable Jack Shafer to write:

Meanwhile, in the villainous golden lair he maintains in Trump Tower, Baby Donald laughed his best Dr. Evil laugh. Got ‘em again, he thought. Yesterday’s settlement of the Trump University lawsuit is the real news, but my Twitter incitement will dominate all else for at least 12 hours as people tweet, “How could he?”, “Oh, now he’s for safe spaces?” and “Don’t tell artists what to say or do!”

Spot on. And Trump’s opponents fell for it hook, line and sinker. As Shafer notes,

Have none of them been paying attention to Trump’s Twitter strategy for the past 17 months? For anybody who has read a half-dozen of Trump’s tweets, the pattern is obvious. He compiles these tweets precisely in order to elicit strident protest. It doesn’t matter to Trump that the cast of Hamilton was polite and respectful to Pence. It doesn’t matter that being rude to office holders is an inalienable right—hell, a responsibility!—of all Americans. To Trump’s followers the content of any one of his rebukes matters less than whom it’s directed at — New York liberals and their fellow travelers in this instance.

What’s been truly amazing about Trump’s Twitter strategy is how spectacularly successful it’s been. All through the campaign, while the rest of the world was asleep he unfailingly composed a tweet that ensured that he would lead the following morning’s news. And all that people could say was that a person who tweeted in the middle of the night must be off his head. Au contraire. Trump used Twitter as a way of keeping mainstream TV news on the hook.

And he’s still doing it.

So back to Dave Winer’s advice: stop feeding the troll. Let him tweet into the void. And focus instead on his plan to install his family in the Presidential Palace that we used to call the White House and the diehard reactionaries he’s installing in charge of the national security state.

How did we get here?

Gary Wills has a sobering piece in the New York Review of Books. After looking at some pre-Trump demagogues — Father Charles Coughlin, Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace — he observes that Lleaders are made by followers. So…

The real question should be: what did the followers want that they could supply? Demagogues can touch exposed nerves, but some perceived crisis has to expose the nerves in the first place. Each of these men (only men) rode a turgid wave of turmoil caused by some menacing development. The Depression was the crisis Coughlin claimed to meet, by blaming it on the Jews. The cold war created the Commie scare that gave McCarthy his hunting license. The civil rights movement made Wallace a grubby improbable knight of the Old South. What is the crisis that created that parasite on the Republican Party called Trump?

What do his followers want to be saved from, even by a not-very-palatable savior? Two crises have, with some justification, been listed. First there is the shock some whites feel at having a black man in the Oval Office treated as superior to them. A second crisis is the growing income inequality, letting whatever money is still being made float inevitably up to those who are already rich. These anxieties do, undoubtedly, gnaw at Trump’s followers. But I think a deeper crisis underlies them both, not shouldering them aside but pitching in to make them both more pervasive and more intense.

This is the shuddering distrust of every kind of authority—a contempt for the whole political system, its “establishment,” the Congress, its institutions (like the Fed), its “mainstream” media, the international arrangements it has made (not only the trade deals but the treaty obligations under NATO and other defense agreements). This is a staggering injection of bile into the public discourse. It does not answer, or even address, the question: what kind of order can be maintained in a society that does not recognize the legitimacy of any offices?

What has caused this bitter disillusion? It is the burrowing and undermining infection of the Iraq war—the longest in our history, one that keeps upsetting order abroad and at home. The war’s many costs—not just in lives and money but in psychic and political damage—remain only half-visible in America, as hidden as the returning coffins that could not be photographed for years…

All true. But I suspect that for many of the folks who voted for Trump, the Iraq war was the last thing on their minds.

Facebook’s (shirked) editorial responsibilities – contd.

The story continues. This from today’s Guardian:

The scrutiny over Facebook’s treatment of editorial content has been intensifying for months, reflecting the site’s unrivaled power and influence in distributing news alongside everything else its users share on the site.

Fake or misleading news spreads like wildfire on Facebook because of confirmation bias, a quirk in human psychology that makes us more likely to accept information that conforms to our existing world views. The conspiracy theories are also amplified by a network of highly partisan media outlets with questionable editorial policies, including a website called the Denver Guardian peddling stories about Clinton murdering people and a cluster of pro-Trump sites founded by teenagers in Veles, Macedonia, motivated only by the advertising dollars they can accrue if enough people click on their links.

The Pew Research Center found that 62% of Americans get all or some of their news from social media, of which Facebook accounts for the lion’s share. Yet an analysis by BuzzFeed found that 38% of posts shared on Facebook by three rightwing politics sites included “false or misleading information”, while three large leftwing pages did so 19% of the time.

LATER This from Buzzfeed:

“If someone is right-wing, and all their friends are right-wing, and that is the news they share on Facebook, then that is the bubble they have created for themselves and that is their right,” said the longtime Facebook engineer. “But to highlight fake news articles in the [news] feed, to promote them so they get millions of shares by people who think they are real, that’s not something we should allow to happen. Facebook is getting played by people using us to spread their bullshit.”

Spot on. That’s the key to it.