This week, two of the top papers in the country have run op-eds about the widespread problem of misinformation and rumor-mongering in online conservative media, and how to begin solving it. In her Washington Post column headlined “Want to save the Republican Party? Drain the right-wing media swamp,” Catherine Rampell writes that there is only “one antidote” to “The sickness has taken over the Republican base”:
If Republicans truly want to save the Republican Party, they need to go to war with right-wing media. That is, they need to dismantle the media machine persuading their base to believe completely bonkers, bigoted garbage.
It is, after all, the right-wing radio, TV and Internet fever swamps that have gotten them into this mess, that have led to massive misinformation, disinformation and cynicism among Republican voters. And draining those fever swamps is the only way to get them out of it.
In her New York Times column “Your Facts or Mine?,” Emma Roller sounds a similar note:
A big part of the problem is not just Republicans’ willingness to say untrue things, but more of a willingness to let other people in their party say crazy and untrue things without pushing back. After Mr. Trump spread a racist lie about the first African-American president, that did not stop Mitt Romney from accepting his endorsement in his 2012 race. Conservative politicians and media personalities are stuck in a double bind now, where they are too afraid of comeuppance to tell their audience the truth.
Unfortunately, both of these columns echo a common misconception plaguing mainstream discussion of the fever swamps: the idea that there’s anything that can be done, in any meaningful sense, about these truth-spurning outlets. Like so much other coverage of the problem, both columns fail to grapple with the unfortunate truth, which is that the fever swamps aren’t going away, and it’s time to switch, global-warming style, from a prevention model to an adaptation model.
Take Rampell’s argument: Noting that “Republican politicians [have] aided and abetted” “years of race-baiting, conspiracy-theorizing, expert-delegitimizing right-wing media nonsense … [because] it seemed politically expedient at the time,” she writes that “unless the party establishment grapples with its own complicity in misinforming, misleading and frightening the masses, it’s doomed to field more Donald Trumps in the future.” But she doesn’t explain how said grappling, or “go[ing] to war with right-wing media,” will accomplish anything. Why would the large segment of the GOP base who rejected mainstream conservatism and mainstream conservative narratives during primary season suddenly change their minds back simply because Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio started lashing out at their favored media sources?
Roller’s column has the same issue. If it’s a “big part of the problem,” as she writes, that mainstream Republicans are “willing” to let other people say crazy things without pushing back, then a big part of the solution must be for them to be more assertive in speaking out against the crazies. But as anyone who has mucked through the fever swamps knows, the swamps feed on distrust of elites.
In other words: That clip of John McCain correcting the confused Obama-is-an-Arab voter in 2008 is nice, in a quaint sort of way, but eight years later all of the people who view McCain as a sellout globalist cuck have joined forces and taken over a sizable slice of the internet, creating a giant, self-perpetuating online-media machine — one fueled by bottomless reserves of paranoid outrage at the endless treasons McCain and his RINO compatriots are perpetuating on the American people.
It’s helpful to understand the decentralized, hyperkinetic internet economies that are producing most of the conspiratorial dreck. Last week, BuzzFeed offered us a discomfiting glimpse, publishing the results of an investigation into Facebook’s so-called “hyperpartisan” pages. BuzzFeed’s reporters, led by Craig Silverman, analyzed 1,000 posts from these pages — think conservative outlets with names like “Eagle Rising” — and compared the truthiness of these posts to what was shared by mainstream pages like CNN Politics. Silverman and his colleagues found a shocking amount of misinformation: “Our analysis of three hyperpartisan right-wing Facebook pages found that 38% of all posts were either a mixture of true and false or mostly false, compared to 19% of posts from three hyperpartisan left-wing pages that were either a mixture of true and false or mostly false,” the authors wrote. “The right-wing pages are among the forces — perhaps as potent as the cable news shows that have gotten far more attention — that helped fuel the rise of Donald Trump.” Mainstream pages, on the other hand, dealt almost entirely with empirically verifiable truth, but enjoyed significantly lower levels of user engagement than the hyperpartisan pages: “the least accurate pages generated some of the highest numbers of shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook — far more than the three large mainstream political news pages analyzed for comparison.”
If gonzo Facebook pages and Twitter personalities did help fuel Trump’s rise, that’s because they are constantly preying on a credulous set of readers’ deepest fears. To take one disturbing example highlighted by BuzzFeed, the outlet Freedom Daily, which has more than a million fans, recently posted a video under the headline “Two White Men Doused With Gasoline, Set On FIRE By Blacks – Media CENSORED.” On Facebook, the accompanying text connected the attack to Black Lives Matter. In reality, the video was a year old and was from an altercation between a black man and his co-worker (who wasn’t even white) that had nothing to do with BLM or with politics at all. At the time the incident occurred, it wasn’t censored, of course — it was picked up by local and some national news outlets.
Suffice it to say, when Freedom Daily sloppily repackaged this incident as racial violence perpetrated by BLM, it was shared 14,000 times. This is absolutely par for the course these days, whether the viral misinformation in question is an anti-ISIS rally in Dearborn spun as a pro-ISIS one; a paper-thin, double-anonymously sourced rumor about Clinton drone-striking Julian Assange; out-of-context snippets from WikiLeaks presented misleadingly; or any of a million other outrage-inducing untruths.
The insurgents who pulled off this massive transformation of the online media landscape did so by spurning the norms and conventions that all of the old players — yes, even Fox News — followed to at least some extent. They aggressively spurn fact-checking in favor of quick, breathless dissemination of emotionally loaded, factually deficient #content. This point is nicely captured in Andrew Marantz’s New Yorker profile of Mike Cernovich, a popular alt-right figure who has effectively mastered the art of building his brand by spreading false information. “People have always expressed extreme views online, but for many years there was no easy way for such opinions to spread,” writes Marantz. “The Internet was a vast landscape dotted with isolated viruses. The rise of social networks was like the advent of air travel: a virus can now conquer the world in a day. Instead of picking up a newspaper or visiting its home page, people scan their social-media accounts, where myriad information sources—the Daily Mail, links posted by Steph Curry, a distant relative’s Facebook rants—compete for their attention.”
Cernovich is by no means the most successful gonzo trafficker — he’s no Alex Jones — but he’s built a solid online following from his method, and is quite open about the fact that it involves getting his readers as riled up as possible. As Marantz reports in his piece, at one point Cernovich decided to spread online rumors about Clinton’s health not because he viewed it as a particularly important issue, but because he knew it had viral potential:
“There are a million things wrong with Hillary,” Cernovich told me. “She’s a documented liar. She’s massively corrupt. She wants to let in more so-called refugees, which makes her an existential threat to the West.” (He calls the Syrian refugee crisis a “media lie.”) “But I was looking at the conversation online—what was getting through to people and what wasn’t—and none of that was sticking. It’s too complex. I thought that the health stuff would be more visceral, more resonant from a persuasion standpoint, and so I pushed that.”
Cernovich — who told Marantz, “I use trolling tactics to build my brand” — was correct about the potential resonance of the health claims: His ailing-Hillary content, up to and including speculation about her having Parkinson’s, often went viral, sometimes even earning mentions among mainstream commentators. It’s a successful formula that entails aggressive disregard for fact-checking. Take Cernovich’s trip to Budapest. “Based on the media coverage of the [refugee] crisis, he’d expected to see squalor, amputees, wailing children” when he went there, reports Marantz. “Instead, he said, ‘there were able-bodied men playing soccer. Guys and girls flirting. It hit me—these people aren’t refugees. It’s a hoax.’ He shared photographs of the refugees on Facebook, writing, ‘There is no oppression. The media lied.’ The photos were shared nearly five thousand times—his first taste of viral fame.”
None of this would be shocking to anyone who read John Herrman’s essay on hyperpartisan Facebook pages, published in August in The New York Times Magazine. As Herrman explained, “This strange new class of media organization slots seamlessly into the [Facebook] news feed and is especially notable in what it asks, or doesn’t ask, of its readers. The point is not to get them to click on more stories or to engage further with a brand. The point is to get them to share the post that’s right in front of them. Everything else is secondary.”
While there are important differences between different types of conspiracy-mongering outlets, to a certain extent Alex Jones and Prison Planet and Patriot News and Eagle Rising all share a similar approach: They judge a story or a rumor’s worth by how likely it is to elicit an emotional reaction in readers — and therefore to go viral — rather than by its truth value. And they answer only to themselves and to their readers, not to any of the elites they spend so much time ridiculing and denouncing (Fox News, as awful as it has been, is constrained, in important ways, by its reliance on access to the GOP, by its status as part of a mainstream corporate behemoth, and so on). It works, often quite well, despite the breathless protestations of those old-school journalists who devote significant portions of their days to making sure their reporting is sturdy. “It makes journalists crazy, because they used to be in control,” Cernovich told Marantz. “They can’t control people anymore. Everyone has a voice now.” He’s right.
That’s why it’s frustrating to see columns in the Post and the Times arguing, in effect, that if only the Paul Ryans of the world would stand up and give more press conferences denouncing irresponsible rumors, those rumors would abate, at least a little. There is zero reason to think that. And there are no technological solutions forthcoming, either — none that would be palatable in light of long-established norms about power and free speech, at least. Breitbart and Jones and the other insurgents spread their content at lightning speed through Twitter and Facebook, and what’s to stop these outlets from only becoming more and more successful? Do we want to ask Twitter or Facebook to start determining which content is “true” enough to be allowed to spread, and to artificially rein in stories that don’t make the cut? Of course not. The biggest social-media platforms embrace liberal approaches to free speech for good reasons, and that means that, barring some major change, the insurgents will continue to be able to use them to spread dishonesty and paranoia. (Note that cases like Facebook’s Trending Topics section — which involve the site itself, rather than individual users, spreading a story far and wide — are a different matter; Trending Topics and similar features definitely need human editors or some other check on false rumors.)
So it’s time to shift out of the mind-set that there is anything that can be done about the fever swamps. In much the same way mainstream society now recognizes that the oceans will rise (well, people who don’t read Alex Jones do, at least) and that this has all sorts of ramifications for where we build, for future displacement and migration crises, and so on, it’s time to start considering what a political and media climate looks like in which some sizable chunk of the population permanently inhabits a different, impregnable information universe in which — unlike in the slower-paced recent past — they are constantly fed new false things to believe and share. As in, every hour, if not every minute.
At the moment, many liberal media and policy types are holding fast to the hope that some solution is forthcoming — some way to, at the very least, cause the swamps to retreat significantly. They are stubbornly wed to an idealistic view of the world in which FactCheck.org’s influence extends beyond, well, the sorts of people who check FactCheck.org.
But once media and policy elites do acknowledge reality, they can better focus their efforts on mitigation. It’s hard to predict exactly what these efforts will look like. Maybe it will involve different, more careful sorts of messaging, or simply not bothering with certain groups of people or certain outlets at all, or figuring out ways to cordon off the swamps so new people don’t wander into them and get lost forever. What is clear, though, is that there is no way to beat back the swamps, at least not at the moment, and we need to learn to somehow live with them and work around them.