when the world desperately needs an adult
As Mark Twain once remarked, truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities while truth isn’t. It seems that every day we check on the news, we’re reminded of this by the surreal spectacle of almost constant scandals and “revelations” that has been playing out in the media, and used and abused by commentators from the peanut gallery, myself very much included. Just when you thought there might be a break from another set of Trump revelations, we’ve been hit with a raw intelligence doc from an MI6 agent which was supposed to be getting fact checked, but was instead leaked by Buzzfeed in all its unconfirmed glory, detailing rumors of golden showers in a posh Moscow hotel, and what Michael Bluth would have called light to medium treason. And as much fun as it may be to use these rumors to provoke meltdowns from the famously, and depressingly, childishly thin-skinned president-elect, the fact of the matter is that like all raw intel, these reports are known to contain a mix of fact and fiction, because that’s pretty much exactly what they’re designed to do in the first place.
When gathering intelligence, analysts collect everything from every source they can find. Unsubstantiated rumors are a feature, not a bug, because the analyst knows that some of his or her sources are going to try to inflate how important they are by sending along information they make up, combining more or less well known facts with little touches of creative fiction, passing the end result off as a fact they learned firsthand. Sources like that are who informed Seymour Hersh’s conspiracy theory about bin Laden’s death. But taking the calculated risk of dealing with frauds, the analyst may just get a legitimate bite, a wild rumor that turns out to be true after extensive checks, and changes the game. And this is exactly what the published document is, a probing collection of hearsay meant to be properly vetted by analysts up the chain, so quoting it as fact is not the wisest choice. However, some of those rumors have been confirmed so crying “fake news” every time they’re going to be mentioned in the future is just as misguided and self-serving.
Normally, this is when the story would be over, except the internet just had to barge in in the form of 4Chan’s /pol/ board, which you might recognize as the most likely birthplace of Pizzagate. According to an anonymous post circulating on Twitter from the site Jew World Order — because of course it just has to be something anti-Semitic — the same board made up damning Trump fanfiction and passed it off to a party hack, who then passed it on to the MI6 analyst. Just to recap, the same place which started the rumor that Hillary’s top campaign strategists are molesting kids in a DC pizzeria based on an anonymous post which catalogued obviously made up pedophile code words, is now praising itself for inventing the Trump golden shower tale in a convoluted scheme to embarrass the media despite the obvious lack of any corroborating evidence that might support this claim. The mind boggles and if you don’t know who to trust, well that’s the point. We quite literally can’t trust anyone about anything, like spy movies warn us.
So in a way, we’ve now become our own intel analysts, having to scour all sorts of rumors, half-truths, and outright propaganda alongside otherwise credible information, then make up our minds about what’s going on. We blame technology for this, and it’s true that social media and news are not things that go well together. In his farewell address, President Obama said that we should be talking to each other in real life more than we should be arguing with each other on the web. But the fact of the matter is that the algorithms that populate your newsfeed really don’t care about the stories you share or choose to believe. Yes, the technology gave us tools to enclose ourselves in an echo chamber if we so chose, but it left that choice to us. It may be tempting to say that without all these new tools it would’ve never happened, but the truth of the matter is that people chose to do this. They made a conscious choice to silence voices from the other side and the last thing we should do is absolve them from these choices.
Think about this. Conservative media told people not to trust anyone but them, that they were the only objective arbiters of truth and everyone else was lying, and those viewers did not respond with “hmm, why are we told about a conspiracy by their commercial rivals to disinform us for a sinister purpose every hour on the hour?” but with repetition of this dogma in just about every debate where they don’t like the source of the data they don’t want to admit is true. And seeing the success of injecting conspiracy into their news, lefty outlets raging against corporate media feeding them lies followed. Those who cry in fear that Trump’s obsession with labeling any unflattering coverage of him “fake news” is part of some evil campaign to establish himself as the one source of truth as per the dictator’s handbook seem to have forgotten that blaming the messenger with inconvenient facts has been a key staple of the conservative media for the last 16 years, as is painting multi-billion dollar media empires as endangered underdogs who speak truth to power against a political conspiracy to silence them.
Social media didn’t invent this schism in the quality and content of news, it simply followed existing trends and accelerated the fragmentation of what used to be much larger, more cohesive, and self-supporting organizations, able to sustain themselves with genuine journalism and deep investigative reporting. Instead of seeing anything wrong with this turn of events, far too many of us embraced the arrival of news we wanted to hear and decided to only trust the news that confirms out agendas, even if this news comes not from journalists out in the field, but bloggers ripping off and fabricating all sorts of clickbait for a quick buck on a professional-looking site. And this is the result of this behavior. Grown, supposedly reasonable people who bicker like angry children in 140 character rants and zingers, while the adults are told to shut up and go away. Whatever happens after last year’s election, we all lost bigly and until we realize that, we can’t fix what we’ve wrought.