About Those Aliens In Roswell

Yes, Virginia, the problem is the media–but not in the way most Americans assume.

Yes, the outlets we call “mainstream” could be doing a better job. The New York Times, especially, seems to have it in for Joe Biden. (My nephew’s husband recently wrote them to complain about their “horse-race” coverage and constant normalizing of Trump, and in response got a letter so smarmy he cancelled his subscription.) But the real problem isn’t the failure of actual news organizations to abandon an unfortunate “click-bait” approach–annoying as that is. The real problem is the widespread availability of faux “news”/propaganda sources that exist to facilitate the confirmation biases of voters.

I have previously shared a statement I routinely made to students in my Media and Public Policy classes: If you really want to believe that aliens landed in Roswell, New Mexico, I can find you five Internet sites with pictures of the aliens.

People living in our Internet Age inhabit an informational wild west, in which anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can claim to be a news site. People who desperately want to believe X need only do a brief google search to locate “reporters” who will assure them that X is, indeed, factual. Want to believe that the Covid vaccine causes Parkinson’s Disease? Think those “elitist” scientists are wrong about climate change? That Trump’s 92 indictments are fabricated elements of a witch hunt? Despite the great weight of evidence to the contrary, google will help you find “experts” who will confirm those counterfactual beliefs.

Most of us are aware of the prevalence of online propaganda, and a recent NBC report illuminated its effects on political preferences. It turns out–surprise!–people who follow very different news sources have very different political loyalties. (It also turns out that Trump voters are disproportionately people who know nothing about politics at all.)

Supporters of President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are sharply divided across all sorts of lines, including the sources they rely on to get their news, new data from the NBC News poll shows.

Biden is the clear choice of voters who consume newspapers and national network news, while Trump does best among voters who don’t follow political news at all….

The poll looked at various forms of traditional media (newspapers, national network news and cable news), as well as digital media (social media, digital websites and YouTube/Google). Among registered voters, 54% described themselves as primarily traditional news consumers, while 40% described themselves as primarily digital media consumers.

Biden holds an 11-point lead among traditional news consumers in a head-to-head presidential ballot test, with 52% support among that group to Trump’s 41%. But it’s basically a jump ball among digital media consumers, with Trump at 47% and Biden at 44%.

And Trump has a major lead among those who don’t follow political news — 53% back him, and 27% back Biden.

Researchers say that last category is comprised of voters who have decided who they are supporting and have simply “tuned out” information that might reflect poorly on their preferred candidate. If they encounter it at all, they dismiss it as “fake news.” As one scholar put it, “That’s why it’s hard to move this race based on actual news. They aren’t seeing it, and they don’t care.”

Third-party candidates also do well with this chunk of the electorate — a quarter of the 15% who say they don’t follow political news choose one of the other candidates in a five-way ballot test that includes Kennedy, Jill Stein and Cornel West. Third-party supporters also make up similar shares of those who say they get their news primarily from social media and from websites.

There is one bit of positive news in the NBC report: those of us who rely on traditional news sites–sites that follow professional journalism ethics and guidelines–are more likely to vote. According to the report, 19% of those who voted in the last presidential election but not in 2022 and 27% who voted in neither of the last two elections say they don’t follow political news.

The NBC report helps answer a persistent question: how can people support a man who [insert latest outrage here]. The answer is: they either don’t believe the outrage, because they rely on sources providing disinformation and propaganda–or they haven’t heard about them, because they ignore all political reporting.

Ben Franklin is said to have responded to a question about what sort of government the Founders had created by saying “A republic, if you can keep it.”

The question for our times is whether a country in which millions of voters know nothing about their government or politics will even vote, and if they do, whether they’ll vote to keep it.


The Propaganda Game

Among the questions triggered by America’s political chaos over the past few years, several have centered on the susceptibility of large numbers of people to conspiracy theories. Why do people go down the QAnon rabbit hole? Why do so many Republicans cling to the “Big Lie”  in the face of overwhelming debunking? What leads bigots to justify their assaults by belief in the “great replacement”?

There are probably multiple explanations for the acceptance of theories that displace rational observation so completely that they become world-views. Mental health issues explain some. Other folks are led into the swamp by deep-seated racism, and still others by long-simmering frustrations with their own lives.

A couple of years ago, I stumbled across a fascinating “take” on the issue, written by a game designer. It will probably not come as a shock to those who read this blog to learn that I am not a person who plays video games–or who knows much about them–and the article was eye-opening.

For one thing, it introduced me to a word I’d not previously encountered: Apophenia.

Apophenia is the tendency to perceive a connection or a meaningful pattern between unrelated or random things. The author came across it early in his career when he designed what he thought would be a very easy game.

In that game,

the players had to explore a creepy basement looking for clues. The object they were looking for was barely hidden and the clue was easy. It was Scooby Doo easy. I definitely expected no trouble in this part of the game.

But there was a problem. As the players searched for the hidden object, they came across  random scraps of wood on the floor.

It was a problem because three of the pieces made the shape of a perfect arrow pointing right at a blank wall. It was uncanny. It had to be a clue. The investigators stopped and stared at the wall and were determined to figure out what the clue meant and they were not going one step further until they did. The whole game was derailed. Then, it got worse. Since there obviously was no clue there, the group decided the clue they were looking for was IN the wall. The collection of ordinary tools they found conveniently laying around seemed to reinforce their conclusion that this was the correct direction. The arrow was pointing to the clue and the tools were how they would get to it. How obvious could it be?

I stared in horror because it all fit so well. It was better and more obvious than the clue I had hidden. I could see it. It was all random chance but I could see the connections that had been made were all completely logical. I had a crude backup plan and I used it quickly before these well-meaning players started tearing apart the basement wall with crowbars looking for clues that did not exist.

These were normal people and their assumptions were normal and logical and completely wrong.

The author draws the obvious parallel: QAnon–and similar conspiracies– grow via what he calls the “wild misinterpretation of random data.” This is data presented in a suggestive fashion in circumstances that have been purposely designed to help the users come to the intended misunderstanding.

Maybe “guided apophenia” is a better phrase. Guided because the puppet masters are directly involved in hinting about the desired conclusions. They have pre-seeded the conclusions. They are constantly getting the player lost by pointing out unrelated random events and creating a meaning for them that fits the propaganda message Q is delivering.

I found the entire (long) essay fascinating, and if you have the time, I encourage you to click through and read it. One of his observations really hit on a significant–and under-appreciated– aspect of conspiracies that, like QAnon, involve large numbers of people. He explains that when you “figure it out yourself” you “experience the thrill of discovery, the excitement of the rabbit hole, the acceptance of a community that loves and respects you.”

Too many Americans today lack a community that accepts and respects them. The desire for community, for acceptance and a comforting solidarity, is an indelible part of the human psyche–it’s an aspect of human tribalism that is both individually supportive and socially divisive.

Comforting as these conspiracy communities can be, however, they are definitely not a game. They’re propaganda.

There is no doubt about the political nature of the propaganda either. From ancient tropes about Jews and Democrats eating babies (blood-libel re-booted) to anti-science hysteria, this is all the solid reliable stuff of authoritarianism. This is the internet’s re-purposing of hatred’s oldest hits.

Belonging comes from hating the same people…


Is The Internet A Common Carrier?

When we think of enterprises categorized as common carriers, we tend to think of those that transport–that “carry” passengers or goods for a fee, and that serve the general public. But the term applies to services other than transportation.

Pointing out that the Internet is a common carrier is critical to discussions of net neutrality, as Tom Wheeler–a former head of the FCC–has written in an article for the Brookings Institution.

As far back as England’s emergence from feudalism around 1500, there has been a common law concept that essential services have a “duty to deal.” The operator of the ferry across the river, for instance, could not favor one lord’s traffic over another’s; everyone had access, and everyone had to pay. When the telegraph was introduced in the United States 350 years later, the concept was applied to that new essential service. The Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860 provided, “messages received from any individual, company, or corporation, or from any telegraph lines connecting with this line at either of its termini, shall be impartially transmitted in the order of their reception.” When the telephone came along, the same concept was applied to it as a common carrier.

The Communications Act of 1934, under which the FCC operates today, established in Title II’s statutory language, “It shall be the duty of every common carrier engaged in interstate or foreign communication by wire or radio to furnish such communication service upon reasonable request therefor.” The Communications Act also established the concept that the actions of Title II carriers must be “just and reasonable.”

Wheeler says that today’s Internet Service Providers, or ISPs, want to be allowed to make their own rules– without any review as to whether those rules or their actions are “just and reasonable.”

The ongoing debate about net neutrality is usually focused on specific behaviors by ISPs–behaviors that privilege the delivery of messages that are financially beneficial to them, while slowing or even blocking those that aren’t.

As Wheeler reminds us, the term “net neutrality”– coined in 2003 by Columbia professor Tim Wu–should be understood as more expansive.

It was an innovative nomenclature that picked up on the ability of the ISPs to discriminate for their own economic advantage. Net neutrality became commonly described as whether the companies could create “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” for internet traffic. That such a problem was not hypothetical was demonstrated five years later when the Republican FCC fined Comcast for slowing the delivery of video content that could compete with cable channels.

But as Wheeler argues, limiting the conversation to blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization is misleading. The real issue pending before the FCC is “whether those that run the most powerful and pervasive platform in the history of the planet will be accountable for behaving in a “just and reasonable” manner.”

It is the conduct of the ISPs that is in question here. Because telephone companies were Title II common carriers, their behavior had to be just and reasonable. Those companies prospered under such responsibilities; as they have morphed into wired and wireless ISPs, there is no reasonable argument why they, as well as their new competitors from the cable companies, should not continue to have public interest obligations.

Don’t be misled by the all-too-convenient framing that net neutrality is all about blocking and throttling. The real issue is why such an important pathway on which so many Americans rely should be without a public interest requirement and appropriate oversight.

The public interest and the common good are two concepts that have lost considerable ground over the past few decades–and nowhere is the absence of those considerations more harmful than in the Wild West that is the current Internet. We can trace a majority of the political and social problems we face to the fragmented and un-policed  nature of the global information environment we inhabit. It’s ironic–and incredibly worrisome– that a platform invented to facilitate communication has morphed into a primary source of misinformation, conspiracy theories and algorithmic sorting.

The Communications Act of 1934–still in effect–established the  duty of “every common carrier engaged in interstate or foreign communication by wire or radio” to serve all comers “upon reasonable request.” The Act also established the rule cited by Wheeler, obliging such common carriers to act in ways that are “just and reasonable.”

According to Wheeler, the ISPs  want to continue to make their own rules without any review as to whether their actions pass the “just and reasonable” test.

Given the disproportionate impact on society of social media and internet platforms, imposing some oversight would seem to be “just and reasonable.”


Flooding The Zone

Times are tough for us Free Speech defenders ….

It’s bad enough that so few Americans understand either the protections or the limitations of the First Amendment’s Free Speech provisions. Fewer still can distinguish between hate speech and hate crimes. And even lawyers dedicated to the protection of our constitutional right to publicly opine and debate recognize the existence of grey zones.

When the Internet first became ubiquitous, I celebrated this new mechanism for expression. I saw it as a welcome new development in the “marketplace of ideas.”  What I didn’t see was its potential for the spread of deliberate propaganda.

Color me disabused.

Steve Bannon coined the phrase that explains what we are seeing: “flooding the zone with shit.” Rather than inventing a story to counter explanations with which one disagrees, the new approach–facilitated by bots and AI– simply produces immense amounts of conflicting and phony “information” which is then uploaded to social media and other sites.  The goal is no longer to make people believe “story A” rather than “story B.” The goal is to create a population that no longer knows what to believe.

It’s a tactic that has infected American politics and made governing close to impossible–but it is not a tactic confined to the U.S. It’s global.

Heather Cox Richardson has summed up the resulting threat:

A report published last week by the European Commission, the body that governs the European Union, says that when X, the company formerly known as Twitter, got rid of its safety standards, Russian disinformation on the site took off. Lies about Russia’s war against Ukraine spread to at least 165 million people in the E.U. and allied countries like the U.S., and garnered at least 16 billion views. The study found that Instagram, Telegram, and Facebook, all owned by Meta, also spread pro-Kremlin propaganda that uses hate speech and boosts extremists.

The report concluded that “the Kremlin’s ongoing disinformation campaign not only forms an integral part of Russia’s military agenda, but also causes risks to public security, fundamental rights and electoral processes” in the E.U. The report’s conclusions also apply to the U.S., where the far right is working to undermine U.S. support for Ukraine by claiming—falsely—that U.S. aid to Ukraine means the Biden administration is neglecting emergencies at home, like the fires last month in Maui.

Russian operatives famously flooded social media with disinformation to influence the 2016 U.S. election, and by 2022 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) warned that China had gotten into the act. Today, analyst Clint Watts of Microsoft reported that in the last year, China has honed its ability to generate artificial images that appear to be U.S. voters, using them to stoke “controversy along racial, economic, and ideological lines.” It uses social media accounts to post divisive, AI-created images that attack political figures and iconic U.S. symbols.

Once upon a time, America could depend upon two large oceans to protect us from threats from abroad. Those days are long gone, and our contemporary isolationists–who refuse to understand, for example, how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could affect us–utterly fail to recognize that opposing our new global reality  doesn’t make it go away.

The internet makes it possible to deliver disinformation on a scale never previously available–or imagined. And it poses a very real problem for those of us who defend freedom of speech, because most of the proposed “remedies” I’ve seen would make things worse.

This nation’s Founders weren’t naive; they understood that ideas are powerful, and that  bad ideas can do real harm. They opted for freedom of speech–defined in our system as freedom from government censorship– because they also recognized that allowing government to decide which ideas could be exchanged would be much more harmful.

I still agree with the Founders’ decision, but even if I didn’t, current communication technology has largely made government control impossible. (I still recall a conversation I had with two students at a Chinese university that had invited me to speak. I asked them about China’s control of the Internet and they laughed, telling me that any “tech savvy” person could evade state controls–and that many did. And that was some 18 years ago.)

At this poiint, we have to depend upon those who manage social media platforms to monitor what their users post, which is why egomaniacs like Elon Musk–who champions a “free speech” he clearly doesn’t understand–are so dangerous.

Ultimately, we will have to depend upon the ability of the public to separate the wheat from the chaff–and the ability to do that requires a level of civic literacy that has thus far eluded us….


The Truthers Of The GOP

In your search for truth, you can find pretty much anything on the Internet. (As I used to tell my Media and Policy students, if you wonder whether aliens really landed in Roswell, I can find you five internet sites with pictures of the aliens…)

Every so often, a commenter will angrily dispute something I’ve written here by citing to “proof”– an internet site. Now, it is entirely possible for yours truly to make mistakes, but I do take pains to research and confirm the accuracy of data posted here, and when I’ve clicked on links supplied by the naysayers, I generally wind up with rather obvious propaganda.

Which brings me to Paul Krugman’s recent column addressing the issue of intentional misinformation–aka lying.

What Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style in American politics is no longer a fringe phenomenon: Bizarre conspiracy theories are now mainstream on the American right. And one manifestation of this paranoia is the persistent dismissal of positive economic data as fake when a Democrat occupies the White House.

During the Obama years there was a large faction of “inflation truthers,” who insisted that deficit spending and monetary expansion must surely be causing runaway inflation, and that if official numbers failed to match that prediction it was only because the government was cooking the books.

Krugman says we have fewer inflation truthers now;  instead, we are seeing  the emergence of what he dubs “recession truthers” — a significant faction that seems frustrated by the Biden economy’s refusal, at least so far, to enter “the recession they have repeatedly predicted or insisted is already underway.”

The new group is dominated by tech bros, billionaires who imagine themselves focused on the future rather than the golden past, more likely to be crypto cultists than gold bugs…Indeed, the most prominent recession truther right now is none other than Elon Musk.

Krugman explains how we can know that these particular truthers are wrong. He points out that  America’s statistical agencies are highly professional– staffed and led by civil servants who care a lot about their reputations for integrity. As he says, we can be “pretty sure that if political appointees were cooking the books we’d be hearing about it from multiple whistle-blowers.”

Beyond that, while official data is still the best way to track the U.S. economy — no private organization can currently match the resources and expertise of the Bureau of Labor Statistics or the Bureau of Economic Analysis — there are, in fact, many independent sources of evidence on the economic state of the nation. And they all more or less confirm what the official data says.

He proceeds to identify several.

What’s true of economic data is also true of crime statistics–despite the GOP’s Trumpian distaste for the DOJ and FBI, federal statistics on crime remain trustworthy.

The Internet has fostered the rise of an “alternate reality” that provides MAGA folks with “data” more to their liking. The Internet is a wonderful resource, but there is no denying that it has enabled what pundits delicately call “misinformation.” Promulgating that misinformation–i.e., baldfaced lying– is the primary strategy employed by today’s GOP.

And now, a rogue judge in Louisiana has just made it more difficult to address the problem. As NPR reported:

The government’s ability to fight disinformation online has suffered a legal setback that experts say will have a chilling effect on communications between federal agencies and social media companies.

A Tuesday ruling by a federal district judge in Louisiana could have far-reaching consequences for the government’s ability to work with Facebook and other social media giants to address false and misleading claims about COVID, vaccines, voting, and other issues that could undermine public health and erode confidence in election results.

District Court Judge Terry Doughty, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, issued a preliminary injunction on Tuesday that bars several federal departments and agencies from various interactions with social media companies.

The judge endorsed QAnon conspiracy theories and argued that conservative views are being censored. (Actually, critics insist that social media sites aren’t  doing enough to police disinformation and false claims.)  A complete explanation of the truly bizarre ruling–which has been appealed–is at the link.

Judge Doughty is one of the loony-tune, reliably rightwing judges put on the bench by Trump. He calls the federal government the “Ministry of Truth,” he’s blocked vaccine mandates for health care workers, and he overturned the ban on new leases for oil and gas drilling. 

As one pundit wrote, random district judges “decanted out of Federalist Society cloning tanks” are seizing control of giant chunks of federal policy, based on lawsuits filed by totally deranged activists.

No wonder people don’t know who or what to believe.