Should Facebook Censor the News?

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In the era of information wars knowledge of the past is perhaps the only way we can remain anchored to reality. Such collective memory shouldn’t only consist of an accurate record of the facts, but would also include a sense of the history of knowledge and inforwar itself.

When not seen from the point of false omniscience we call the present, history has always been the unwieldy struggle of rival forces, shifting alliances, and enemies that cannot be clearly distinguished along purely ideological or religious lines. There is not, nor has there ever been, a direction to history, it being as Churchill lamented “one damned thing after another”. It’s perhaps the fact that we’ve been forced to re-learn this that makes the present so damned painful. Many of those who thought we were headed towards a brighter future instead find themselves slipping back into nightfall.

At least part of the reason for our shock over the 2016 election wasn’t just the outcome but the fact that it happened when it did at all. Stable, even sclerotic, societies such as ours don’t usually play Russian roulette with their future whatever the imagined benefits that might come if the chamber is found empty. Almost from the start of the 21st century we had experienced shocks none of which gave rise to even minor reforms let alone the kind of political earthquake Trump’s election represents.

As a reminder, since 2000’s we’ve gone through a presidential election whose outcome was decided not by the voters but by the US Supreme Court, the bursting of the 90’s tech bubble, the 9-11 attacks, the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession, two failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with nearly a decade of lackluster economic growth despite unprecedented measures being taken by the world’s major central banks. And yet it is now when none of these crises are as acute as they been in the past that their consequent political upheaval has occurred.

What I think such questions regarding timing miss is the fact that not only has the breakdown in trust between elites (especially in the media and the academy) and a large portion of the American (indeed Western) citizenry been occurring across these different crises, but that this erosion has been running in parallel with a transformation of the communications landscape that has upended the ability of elites to as Noam Chomsky characterized it “manufacture consent”.

Since the Second World War, and only starting to unwind the 1980’s ,there was only a marginal difference between Republicans and Democrats (it was Nixon, after all, whom we have to thank for the EPA and Jimmy Carter who started what we now think of as Reagan’s arms buildup). American elites were in overall agreement over the fundamental questions regarding society and possessed means the likes of which had never been seen before to ensure the rest of society also held these assumptions as sacrosanct.

This was perhaps an odd situation give that liberal elites in Western democracies were able to reach such mutual agreement and gain such a degree of public acquiescence absent the types of control over information and speech that had been present both historically and which was so pronounced in the Communist societies that were their penultimate rival. It was the shape of this occluded form of control which political theorists such as Herbert Marcuse among others tried to uncover.

None of these others is more important for my purposes than Noam Chomsky and his book Manufacturing Consent first published in 1981. Ever like the owl of Minerva this revelatory book appeared on the very eve when the conditions it depicted were about to be transformed into something radically different.

In that work Chomsky argues that five features of the 20th century media landscape resulted in a world in which the media, rather than challenge elites, instead helped to consolidate elite control over the public. These five features were:

1) Size and concentrated ownership of media outlets

2) Advertising as the main source of revenue

3) Media reliance on government and corporate “experts”

4) “Flak” individuals experienced when they stepped outside of elite norms.

5) Anti-communism as an inviolable national religion.

By 2016 all of the elements Chomsky had described in Manufacturing Consent had been either been radically transformed or were no longer in existence.

The internet had permitted the rise of alternative or even conspiratorial media of which Breitbart and Infowars were just two prominent right wing examples. While advertising remained a primary source of revenue the cost of producing and distributing media (minus the kinds of editorial constraints of mainstream media) effectively shrank to zero with advertising’s role having shifted to content distributors such as FaceBook that refused to bear any editorial responsibilities.

2016 was also the year of the revolt against experts. The consequence, no doubt, of their repeated failures from the non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to the financial collapse that had not been foreseen by the phony experts and pseudo-scientists into whose hands we had placed our future- we call them economists.

It was also a year in which standard norms regarding political discourse collapsed, and the national religion of anti-communism was such an ancient memory that a former KGB operative could hack the American election in favor of the Republican candidate and very few within the GOP would be upset about it.

In some ways at least this merely returns us to the pre-cold war era before the kinds of media/elite alliance Chomsky describes in Manufacturing Consent had taken hold. We’ve been moving in that direction for quite some time now with the rise of openly partisan cable news in the 1980’s and 90’s.

In order to get our bearing we might have to look back even further to the period of Yellow Journalism when figures like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer battled for readership using the tools of sensationalism and scandal. Indeed, it was Pulitzer’s shame over his abuse of the truth during this period that convinced him to foster professionalism and standards of evidence through instruments such as the Columbia School of Journalism.

Yet we may have to look even further back. For one of the historical conditions that made the manufacturing of consent possible was the fact that in the late 1800’s information production itself had become industrialized. Those who had access to capital could produce such a flood of material that the effect was to drown out anyone who merely had access to the older, much smaller, means of publishing and distribution.

This centralization continued through post-print form of media. Radio was really only democratizing on a local level, which is why up until the 1950’s culture could still emerge from regional diversity- just ask Wolfman Jack.  National, not to mention international, broadcasts required access to limited in number (and therefore expensive) telephone lines. Television production and distribution was even more capital intensive. And then the internet changed everything. We’re now back to something that resembles the pre-industrial type media world with both its possibility for a truly public form of speech and its lack of any editorial bearing or control.

And yet, though media and speech have become decentralized and slipped completely outside the bonds of control in another they are more susceptible to censorship and oversight via centralized mediators than ever. A concerted effort by Google, Twitter, and especially Facebook, could in reality asphyxiate the platforms of the Alt-right should they so choose. The question is, even if it was politically possible at the moment, should we want them to?

My guess, from where we stand today, is that launching on such a course would not only ultimately fail but would come back to haunt us. Preventing the ugliest of sentiments from being spoken openly does not prevent people from having them, and perhaps it’s the opposite. After all, politics in countries with much stricter hate speech laws than the US have not merely gone down the same dark path as ourselves, but one that is perhaps even darker. The kinds of censorship in the name of social stability and elite interest Facebook is flirting with to secure its foothold in China should give us pause. For not only is this the opposite of the technologically enabled democratic future many of us long for, which would entail real democratic control over such editorial decisions and transparency regarding how those decisions were made, we can never be sure such a weapon used against frankly despicable enemies won’t someday be used by the very same elites to define the despicable- as us.

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The Fake-News Head Fake

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It will be a long time into the future before we will know just what this election ultimately meant. What is perhaps more clear, even if we avoid donning the rose colored glasses of hindsight, is that the seeds that sprouted in 2016 were a long time- a- growing. They might even have been anticipated as far back as the culture wars that exploded onto the scene in the late 1960’s. More on that in a moment.

What would have certainly shocked someone brought here in a time machine from, say, 1981, was the role, even if less a prominent a role than some have suggested, that the Russians played in getting the Republican candidate elected president. We might never know if this bromance between Trump and Putin had to do with the former’s financial ties with figures in the Kremlin as the far from radical Francis Fukuyama recently suggested,  if it was a dog-whistle for white supremacists Trump has disgustingly courted over the course of the election, or if it was merely a reflection of Trump’s stance of being soft on Russia compared to the much more hawkish views of Putin’s nemesis Hillary Clinton.

Yet it’s probably just as likely that Putin and his cronies were as surprised by the election outcome as most of the rest of us. That the Kremlin had no expectation of influencing the election in Trump’s favor so much as to give the United States pay back for our interference in Russian politics and elections in their backyard, most notably Ukraine.

In some sense,though, the election of 2016 wasn’t so much influenced by what the Russians did, as the entire political technology and theory that not only won Trump the election, but might end up be the best way of understanding the political universe that will emerge from his victory. This political technology was one of the many ill fated consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was here, in the former USSR, so behind the West in everything else, that truly post-modern, 21st century form of politics was created.

This politics as infowar was born when Western style, television- centric, political campaigning was adopted by a social order in a state of  utter collapse. That is, when what is the worst of American politics was embraced by the disillusioned, perhaps nihilistic, former apparatchiks of the fallen Soviet Union absent the kinds of constraints of traditions and institutions that has, up until this moment at least, informed American politics.

The title of Peter Pomerantsev’ excellent book on this era Nothing is True and Everything is Possible says it all. Pomerantsev gives us an searing view into a society where all norms have collapsed. As a television producer he is most informative when it comes to revealing how the Kremlin has used the power of mass media to cling to power in the face of this collapse. It did so not (as in the era of totalitarianism) by uniting the people around an all embracing ideology, but by mastering the art of distracting and confusing the public in such a way as to shield those in power from political accountability and control by the people they rule.

The figure who is credited with pioneering this new form of politics is the Russian businessmen and “political technologist” (his term) Vladislav Surkov who has found himself in, then out, then in again, of Putin’s inner circle. Architect of the brilliant  “infowar” aspects of the Russian annexation of Crimea, Surkov is also a novelist writing under pseudonyms such as Natan Dubovitsky.

In Everything is true and nothing is possible Pomerantsev discusses Without Sky a revealing short- story Surkov published on the eve the invasion of Crimea that gives us insight into his world view. It is a tale of the first “non-linear war”, the philosophy behind which Pomerantsev describes this way:

There is no holy war in Sarkov’ vision, none of the cabaret, meant to tease and confuse the West. But there is a darkling version of globalization in which instead of everyone rising together, interconnection means multiple competitions between corporations and movements and city-states. Where old alliances, NATO and the EU and the “West” are all worn out, and the Kremlin can play the new, fluctuating lines of loyalty and interest, oil and money splitting the Europe from America pitting one Western company against another and against their governments so no one knows whose interest is what and where they’re headed. (231)

Of course, Surkov did not invent such an idea of nonlinear politics and war whole cloth, but according to Pomerantsev:

… inherited… tsarists practices of co-opting anti-government forces (anarchists in the 19th century, neo-Nazis and religious fanatics now), all fused with the latest thinking in television advertising and black PR. (64)

What Surkov and his ilk managed to do was birth a new form of authoritarianism that was adapted to 21st century conditions, which:

…instead of simply oppressing opposition, as has been the case with twentieth century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd. One moment Surkov would fund civic forums and human rights NGOS, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGOS of being tools of the West. (65)

This phenomenon on the American scene has been labeled post-truth politics/media an appellation that captures something, but at the same time misses what is even more important. When Trump recently tweeted that individuals who burn the American flag should be imprisoned or stripped of citizenship the statement itself was neither true or false, but rather, (conscious or not) was a form of infowar the consequence of which was to separate even further a nationalist public and an elite media, to bait liberals into flag burning and thus “revealing” themselves as people who hate and therefore, in the eyes of arch-nationalists, hope for the destruction of the country. Every moment we were caught up in this artificial drama was one not spent in paying attention to what Trump is actually doing such as appointing the same sorts of Wall Street insiders he attacked during his campaign to major positions within his administration.

Better algorithmic filters for fake news deployed by FaceBook or any of the other major players in tech wouldn’t solve the problem that arises when one significant portion of the a country’s population thinks its founding document permits imprisonment, or worse, over burning the national symbol while another thinks that very same document protects such an act. We are in a crisis of values and meaning as much as we are in a crisis of truth, which doesn’t mean that this crisis bears no relationship with current communications technologies and their political economy or that this crisis isn’t being gamed by those with their own agendas- quite the opposite. Perhaps even more importantly, the more essential question of the day seems to be less about truth and falsehood than the increasingly fierce competition over whose ideas will be heard at all through the flood of information and misinformation under which all of us are drowning.  But more on all those points another time…