In recent years a plague of fake facts and information has descended on Americans like a maelstrom.
With each successive news cycle, with each national tragedy or major political gaffe or leaked trove of documents, the ability for Americans to perceive fact from fiction erodes like a cherished stretch of beach under pressure from rising seas.
Sane, rational, centrist voices are shouted down or ignored because they are too nuanced, too boring.
Minor details are misinterpreted or misunderstood, often deliberately, and then blown instantly out of proportion by those with an axe to grind and an angry following to satisfy.
Why is this happening?
For one thing, most people, Americans included, are gossip- and rumor-driven animals who feed on outrage and other strong emotions. By default, our brains are hardwired to take mental shortcuts and rely on pre-existing biases — the lazy cognitive process which Nobel-prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman (b. 1934) calls System 1.
What’s more, constant cultural warfare has become so crucial to our national economy and personal identity that, to remain relevant and therefore competitive, public intellectuals and politicians on both the left and right are constantly forced to double down on extreme viewpoints and agendas.
Aided and abetted by the rise of social media and the decline of elite gatekeepers who moderated the public discourse during the heyday of the Baby Boom generation, a perfect cultural storm of seething, swirling fact-less information and uninformed opinion has been unleashed like a supernatural vortex above our heads.
The ugliness and confusion of contemporary American discourse was put on display as never before in the wake of a February 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 high school children and teachers.
The right wing tried to make the entire post-Parkland national debate on gun control evaporate by seizing on a student’s claim that a CNN town hall — just one moment of the unfolding debate, really — was “scripted.” Most things on television are indeed scripted to a greater or lesser extent, but neither this fact nor the ambiguous nature of the claims themselves prevented many on the political right from dismissing the entire gun control debate as “fake news.”
Meanwhile, at least one person in political power — the District Secretary for Florida state representative Shawn Harrison — sent an email using his official state government account that referred to two of the traumatized survivors of the massacre as nothing more than “crisis actors,” professionals who were (as the ever-growing right-wing narrative often suggests) hired to fake a mass shooting in order to provide a justification for the government to confiscate people’s guns.
This is pretty crazy stuff.
And yet misrepresentations surrounding the gun-control debate after the Parkland massacre were not limited to the right wing.
For example, one “analysis” by the nonprofit organization Everytown for Gun Safety put forward the shocking statistic that there had been 18 school shootings in the first month and a half of 2018 alone. The results of this “analysis” were then widely publicized by mainstream media outlets including CNBC and Time Magazine.
I remember encountering this information myself when it was published online immediately after the Parkland shooting. The statistics were so shocking I sat up from where I had been lying down in bed, phone in hand, and exclaimed to my wife: “Did you know there have already been 18 school shootings this year in America?”
“That’s horrible,” she gasped, her eyebrows knitting in concern.
This data, which lacked a qualifying note that Everytown for Gun Safety defines a school shooting as “every time a firearm discharges a live round inside a school building or on a school campus or grounds,” entered people’s heads — including mine and probably my wife’s — at a vulnerable moment and became rock-solid evidence that an epidemic of gun violence was ripping through American schools. But according to a Washington Post article, only 5 of Everytown’s 18 school shootings listed for the first 45 days of 2018 happened during school hours and resulted in physical injury. As an example of how the statistics were manipulated, a drill-down into the data found that some of the shootings involved the guns of security guards accidentally going off without causing any injuries. One of the counted “school shootings” involved a 31-year-old man parking his car outside a Michigan elementary school that had been closed for seven months and then killing himself.
In other words, only 5 of the 18 shootings met the definition of what most people would consider a “school shooting” given the context in which the statistics were published.
And though plenty of people could argue convincingly that five school shootings in the first 45 days of the new year is still five too many, twisting data to bring someone closer to pushing the “panic” button is one of several techniques that various groups and organizations are using to enrage and manipulate the masses, inspiring them to act with urgency on particular issues in the extremely limited time available to them.
Although many people are aware of communications terms such as “talking points” and “spin,” most of them do not fully grasp the extent to which misleading messages on critical issues are developed, tested, disseminated, and amplified.
The overall hope is that a message favorable to a particular group or person is spread far and wide, entering people’s brains at a vulnerable moment and becoming a fact or opinion that they can then repeat to others.
This is not conspiracy theory or wacky Illuminati-type stuff — it’s the invisible machinery behind the multi-billion-dollar industry that is our public discourse.
Take, for example, Breitbart News, the so-called “killing machine” of former White House advisor Steve Bannon.
Under Bannon’s leadership, Breitbart News deemphasized actual news reporting and focused on using biased language, opinion, and imaginary straw-men to create stories and controversies that didn’t exist but that tapped into the outrage of their readers — who ultimately became a political force that helped carry President Trump to the White House.
What Bannon and his editors discovered was this: that they could use the public comments section that follows each news article as a sort of petri dish to identify, cultivate, and refine messages and ideas that would resonate with the right and beguile the left. These messages were then incorporated into future articles to help create a separate and immersive reality, a shared paranoid fantasy, that ripped away what shreds of good judgment and fair thinking remained among the publication’s right-wing readership.
Even more frightening than what Breitbart News has done, however, is the evidence that certain groups and individuals are actively working to invent facts and disseminate them into the mainstream to serve as ammunition in the information wars.
After the Parkland shooting, a Washington Post article analyzed messages on the anonymous online message board 8chan and found that, within 45 minutes of the shooting, an intensive discussion had begun among board membership to “use details gleaned from news reports and other sources to push false information” about the Parkland massacre and begin “crafting false explanations about the massacre, including that actors were posting as students, in hopes of blunting what they correctly guessed would be a revived interest in gun control.”
Although significantly more devious and distorted than the Everytown for Gun Safety messaging, the instinct here was the same — find Americans at a vulnerable moment, refine a message for maximum impact, and get as many people as possible to repeat that message in order to shift public discourse in a favorable direction.
Is there ongoing coordination and collaboration between secret groups, such as the one that formed on 8chan in response to Parkland, and biased media outlets that supposedly report the news, such as Breitbart News?
Like money launderers who seek to hide the origin of their tainted money, the propagators of tainted news keep their tracks very well hidden in order to create a sort of plausible deniability about the source of misinformation, which sometimes originates — not in the outside world — but in the newsroom itself.
It’s heart-wrenching to see the fabric of our country ripped apart like this, with people who would otherwise have plenty in common retreating into ever-more-separate realities while the information storm grows stronger, more ruinous, above our heads.
** I totally made this up. Bonnie and Clyde died together in a hail of bullets fired into their car, so logically any last words that Bonnie might have said to Clyde were never recorded.