The Disinformation Age

Posted: September 26, 2017 in Political Wrangling
Tags: , , , , , , ,

When I think about the state of global politics, I often imagine how it’s going to be viewed in the future.  My reflex is to think in terms of high school history textbooks, but that phrase evokes a specific type of educational setup that already feels anachronistic – that of overpriced, physical volumes written specifically for teaching teenagers a set curriculum, rather than because they represent good historical summaries in their own right. I think about our penchant for breaking the past down into neatly labelled epochs, and wonder how long it will take for some sharp-tongued future historian to look at the self-professed Information Age, as we once optimistically termed it, examine its trajectory through the first two decades of the new millennium, and conclude that it should be more fittingly known as the Disinformation Age.

With that in mind, here’s my hot take on what a sample chapter from such a historical summary might look like:

Chapter 9: Perprofial Media, Propaganda and Power

Perprofial, adj: something which is simultaneously personal, professional and political. 

When Twitter, the first widespread micro-blogging platform, was launched in 2006, no one could have predicted that, barely eleven years later, this new perprofial medium would have irrevocably changed the political landscape. Earlier social media sites, such as Facebook, were foremost a digital extension of existing personal networks, with aspirational connections an afterthought; traditional blogging, by contrast, began as a form of mass broadcast diarising which steadily – though not without hiccups – osmosed the digital remnants of print-era journalism. But from the outset, Twitter was a platform whose users could both listen and be listened to, a sea of Janus-headed audience-performers whose fame might as easily precede that particular medium as be enabled by it, unless it was both or neither. The draw of enabling the unknown, the upcoming, the newly-minted and the long-established to all rub shoulders at the same party – or at least, to shout around each other from the variegated levels of an infinite, Escheresque ballroom – was considered just that: a draw, instead of – as it more properly was – a Brownian mob-theory engine running in 24/7 real time without anything like a Chinese wall, a fact-checker or a control group to filter the variables.

The true point at which Twitter stopped being a social media outlet and became a Trojan horse at the gates of the Fifth Estate is now a Sorites paradox. We might not be able to pinpoint the exact time and date of the transition, but such coordinates are vastly less important than the fact that the switch itself happened. What we can identify, however, is the moment when the extrajudicial nature of the power wielded by perprofial platforms became clear at a global level.

Though Donald Trump’s provocative online statements long preceded his tenure as president, and while they had consistently drawn commentary from all corners, the point at which his tweets were publicly categorised as a declaration of war by North Korean authorities was a definite Rubicon crossing. As Twitter could – and did – ban users for issuing threats of violence in violation of its Terms of Service, it was argued, then why should it allow a world leader to openly threaten war? If the “draw” of the platform was truly a democratising of the powerful and the powerless, then surely powerful figures should be held to the same standards as everyone else – or even, potentially, to more rigorous ones, given the far greater scope of the consequences afforded them by their fame.

But first, some context. At a time of resurgent global fascism and with educational institutions increasingly hampered by the anti-intellectual siege begun some sixty years earlier, when the theory of “creationism” was first pitched as a scientific alternative in American public schools, the zeitgeist was saturated with the steady repositioning of expertise as toxic to democracy. Early experiments in perprofial media, then called “reality television,” had steadily acclimated the public to the idea that personal narratives, no matter how uninformed, could be a professional undertaking – provided, of course, that they fit within an accepted sociopolitical framework, such as radical weight loss or the quest for fame. At the same time, the rise of the internet as a lawless space where anyone could create and promote their own content, regardless of its quality, created an explosion of self-serving informational feedback loops which, both intentionally and by accident, preyed on the uncritical fact-absorption of generations taught to accept that anything written down in an approved book – of which the screen was seemingly just a faster, more convenient extension – was necessarily true.

The commensurate decline of print-based journalism was the final nail in the coffin. To combat the sharp loss of revenue necessitated by a jump from an industry financed by a cornered market, lavish advertising revenue and a locked-in pay-per-issue model to the still-nebulous vagaries of digital journalism, where paid professional content existent on the same apparent footing as free amateur blogging, corners were cut. Specialists and sub-editors were let go, journalists were alternately asked or forced to become jacks of all trades, and content was recycled across multiple outlets. All of these changes were drastic enough to be noticeable even to the uninitiated; even so, the situation might still have been salvageable if not for the fact that, in looking to compete in this new environment, the bulk of traditional outlets made the mistake of assuming that the many digital amateurs of the blogsphere were, in aggregate, equivalent to their old nemesis, the tabloid press.

Scandal-sheets are a tradition as old as print journalism, with plenty of historical overlap between the one and the other. At some time or another, even the most reputable papers had all resorted to sensationalism – or at least, to real journalism layered with editorial steering – in an effort to wrest their readerships back from the tabloids, but always on the understanding that their legacy, their trustworthiness as institutions, was established enough to take the moral hit. But when this same tactic was tried again in digital environs, the effect was vastly different. Still struggling with web layouts and paywalls, most traditional papers were demonstrably harder and less intuitive to navigate than upstart blogs, and with not much more to boast in the way of originality (since they’d sacked so many writers) or technical accuracy (since they’d sacked so many editors), the decision to switch to tabloid, clickbait content – often by hiring from the same pool of amateur bloggers they were ultimately competing with, leveraging their decaying reputations as compensation for no or meagre pay in a job market newly seething with desperate, unemployed writers – backfired badly. Rather than reclaimed readerships, the effect was to cement the idea that the only real difference between professional news and amateur opinion wasn’t facts, or training, or integrity, but a simple matter of where you preferred to shop.

The internet had become an information marketplace – quite literally, in the case of Russia bulk-purchasing ads on Facebook in the lead-up to the 2016 US presidential election. In Britain, the success of the Leave vote in the Brexit referendum was attributed in part to voters having “had enough of experts” – the implication being that, contrary to the famous assertion of Isaac Asimov, many people really did think their ignorance was just as good as someone else’s knowledge. Though Asimov was speaking specifically of American anti-intellectualism and a false perception of democracy in the 1980s, his fears were just as applicable some forty years later, and arguably moreso, given the rise of perprofial media.

In the months prior to his careless declaration of war, then-president Trump made a point of lambasting what he called the “fake news media”, which label eventually came to encompass every and any publication, whether traditional or digital, which dared to criticise him; even his former ally, Fox News, was not exempt. In the immediate, messy aftermath of the collapse of print journalism, this claim rang just nebulously true enough to many that, with so many trusted papers having perjured themselves with tabloid tactics, Trump was able to situate himself as the One True Authority his followers could trust.

It’s important to note, however, that not just any politician, no matter how sociopathic or self-serving, could have pulled off the same trick. The ace in Trump’s sleeve was his pre-existing status as a king in the perprofial arena of reality television, which had already helped to re-contextualise democracy – or the baseline concept of a democratic institution, rather – as something in which expertise was only to be trusted if supported by success, where “success” meant “celebrity”. Under this doctrine, those who preached expertise, but whom the listener had never heard of, were considered suspect: true success meant fame, and if you weren’t famous for what you knew, then you must not really be knowledgeable. By the same token, celebrities who claimed expertise in fields beyond those for which they were famous were also criticised: it was fine to play football or act, for instance, but as neither skill was seen to have anything to do with politics, the act of speaking “out of turn” on such topics was dismissed as mere self-aggrandising. Actual facts had nothing to do with the matter, because “actual facts” as a concept was rendered temporarily liminal by the struggle between amateur and professional media.

With such “logic” to support him, Trump couldn’t lose. What did his lack of political qualifications matter? He’d still succeeded at getting into politics, which meant he must have learned by doing, which meant in turn that his fame, unlike that of other celebrities, made him an inviolate authority on political matters. Despite how fiercely he was opposed and resisted, his repeated, defensive cries of “fake news!” rang just true enough to sow doubt among those who might otherwise have opposed him.

And so to Twitter, and a declaration of war. By historical assumption, Trump as president ought to have been the most powerful man in the world, but by investing so much of that power in a perprofial platform – one to whose rules of conduct he was personally bound, without any exemption or extenuation on account of his office – he had, quite unthinkingly, agreed to let an international corporation place extrajudicial sanctions, not only on the office of the presidency, but through Trump as an individual and his investiture as the head of state, on a declaration of war.

In the next chapter: racism, dogwhistles and spinning the Final Solution.

*

History is, of course, what we make of it. Right now, I just wish we weren’t making quite so much.

 

   

 

 

 

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Comments
  1. I don’t think it’s celebrity exactly — I doubt someone from The Bachelor or Survivor would have had the same impact. It’s celebrity coupled with wealth and supposed business experience in a culture where wealth is held up as a sign of achievement (and for some, God’s favor) and “government should be run like a business” has been drummed into people’s brains since the 1980s.

  2. Sia says:

    As horrifying as the content (and truth of it) is, I would pay a ridiculous amount of money for this book.

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