Jeremy Paxman, who once served as Newsnight’s answer to the pit-bull terrier, famously outlined his philosophy in interviewing prominent politicians thus: “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” This was unduly prescriptive: not all of Paxman’s interviewees were outright liars; they were merely practitioners of the art of being “economical with the truth”, but it served as a useful heuristic for a busy interviewer.
Maybe the time has come to apply the same heuristic to Facebook’s public statements…
I’ve been thinking and lecturing recently on disinformation and about what we might do about it. One of my heroines, danah boyd, gave a very thoughtful talk about it recently — starting with the (liberal) proposition that ideas like greater ‘media literacy’ might help. (She doesn’t think it will, and neither do I.) But I was particularly struck by one passage in her talk:
In 2012, it was hard not to avoid the names Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, but that didn’t mean that most people understood the storyline. In South Carolina, a white teenager who wasn’t interested in the news felt like he needed to know what the fuss was all about. He decided to go to Wikipedia to understand more. He was left with the impression that Zimmerman was clearly in the right and disgusted that everyone was defending Martin. While reading up on this case, he ran across the term “black on white crime” on Wikipedia and decided to throw that term into Google where he encountered a deeply racist website inviting him to wake up to a reality that he had never considered. He took that red pill and dove deep into a worldview whose theory of power positioned white people as victims. Over a matter of years, he began to embrace those views, to be radicalized towards extreme thinking. On June 17, 2015, he sat down for an hour with a group of African-American church-goers in Charleston South Carolina before opening fire on them, killing 9 and injuring 1. His goal was simple: he wanted to start a race war.
It’s easy to say that this domestic terrorist was insane or irrational, but he began his exploration trying to critically interrogate the media coverage of a story he didn’t understand. That led him to online fora filled with people who have spent decades working to indoctrinate people into a deeply troubling, racist worldview. They draw on countless amounts of “evidence,” engage in deeply persuasive discursive practices, and have the mechanisms to challenge countless assumptions. The difference between what is deemed missionary work, education, and radicalization depends a lot on your worldview. And your understanding of power.
Great talk — worth watching in full. And she helpfully includes the transcript below it for those who are cash-rich but time-poor!