What is reality? Is it how things actually are, or is it how we perceive them to be? Who is reality? How is reality? These are all great questions, and we’ll get to them, but first let’s blog about something really stupid.
Yesterday, Donald Trump, president of the United States, got into it with Jim Acosta, CNN’s White House correspondent. Dismissed by the president, Acosta kept talking, and an intern tried to take his microphone away. He warded her attempt off, and continued prodding Trump. Later in the day, Acosta had his White House press credentials revoked.
The official stated reason for this was that the White House would not tolerate Acosta “placing his hands on a young woman just trying to do her job as a White House intern.” Anyone with eyes, watching the exchange as recorded by any of the various news organizations recording the whole ordeal, would note that the White House’s characterization of what happened is … a stretch.
Still, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stood by the decision, even going so far as to freeboot a video that emphasized the lone point of physical contact between Acosta and the intern. That video was edited by Paul Joseph Watson, a prominent personality on InfoWars, the conspiracy-theorist outlet whose main beat is the government’s alleged poisoning of the water supply in order to make frogs gay. (Seriously.)
Shortly after Watson’s edit went live, academic Jonathan Albright asserted that Watson had “made very subtle edits that incrementally speeds [sic] up the exact set of frames as his arm comes down to make the force appear greater than it was.” Watson disputes this claim.
Is the video a deliberate fake or is it simply overemphasizing an action that really took place? Is the White House justified in its anger? Is the press corps? What has ensued is a lengthy, never-ending conversation over what’s real and what isn’t and why that might be and who is misleading who in regards to what. A thousand “Actually”s crying out at once.
This whole thing is … exasperating and futile. It is November 2018. We’ve been doing this whole [waves hands in the air] thing for three years now. Poring over videos frame by frame to demonstrate subtle manipulations and the White House’s manufacturing of yet another outrage is not going to make anyone in power feel any sentiment even remotely resembling shame or embarrassment. The fact-checkers and digital forensics analysts are not going to save us. The people yelling at the president on Twitter are not going to save us. Partisanship helps people see what they want to see more vividly than even the most convincing digital manipulations.
The information economy has now accelerated to the point of uselessness. There are too many users and signals and posts, and too many people and bots muddying the waters; the idea of reaching a consensus feels antiquated. In the vast ocean of the internet, you’ll never reach land — the best you can do is try to keep your head above the water.
So why do this? Here is my theory: because we are 100 percent sure we are going to die.
If journalism is the first draft of history, then what happens on social media is the opening paragraph you delete and rewrite a dozen times. The battle over facts and objectivity and What Really Happened is now not an attempt to win the day, the week, or the month; it is an attempt to win the historical record.
All of this effort now represents each of us working in parallel not to shame the president into changing his ways, but to assemble a broad corpus of data about this point in human history. That way, in 15,000 years, when the aliens arrive to plunder the ruins of our civilization and fish our hard drives out of the nuclear rubble, they will be able to view our follies in hindsight and get a good sense of which side in this dispute is to blame.
I have a guess as to who it is but, then again, I’m sure you do, too. Everyone is fairly certain that they will be proven right in the long run. Not now, but eventually.