I blame Facebook. I blame Twitter. I blame the internet.
On Facebook, a news article saying Hillary Clinton murdered fifty people looks exactly the same as a news article saying unemployment is down to 4.9%. It looks exactly the same as a post advertising belly-fat pills.
I blame cheap graphic design and easy publishing.
I blame WordPress. Tumblr, Snapchat, YouTube and Instagram.
These are places where you can say anything you want, and no one will stop you. No one will flag your post as utter bullshit, even if it is, obviously, utter bullshit.
These channels have automated computer monitoring algorithms that will block copyrighted material but have no concept of common sense. They’ll publish anything that doesn’t explicitly violate the law.
Before, you could guage the quality of information indirectly, by using its packaging as an indicator. If an online news article looked like a 1997 GeoCities page, then you could be pretty sure it was garbage. If a piece of news came from an outlet you had never heard of, or it was surrounded by ads for penis enlargements, then you could probably ignore it.
Not anymore. Now, even the craziest ideas come packaged neatly, with attractive fonts and slick layouts. And they come to us via channels – Facebook, Twitter, and others – that treat all information equally; every item in your feed looks the same, counts the same, has the same packaging. How can you tell what’s credible?
Worse: what keeps you from selecting information that reinforces what you want to believe?
This election shows, among other things, that the devastation of the old media establishment is complete. Anyone can be a publisher now, and that means everyone can choose to be informed by whatever ‘news’ outlet best suits their preconceptions – and prey on their worst fears – about the world.
In 2004 I started blogging. It was a new world, and us early bloggers knew it. Everyone had a megaphone, so anyone could get heard. And there seemed to be a lot of promise. The democratization of news. Citizen media. Fact-checking the gatekeepers. We believed a more informed populace would result, one in which we’d see real coverage of local issues big media couldn’t be bothered with. New perspectives on the old conversations.
Remember Rathergate? Jason Blair? We rooted for these takedowns of the long-suspected biases and misdeeds of the established press, because we thought it would make us better.
But in this election – and, horrifyingly, probably in every election going forward – the complete breakdown in the line between ‘real’ news and fake news has led to a catastrophe.
We used to bemoan the gatekeepers, the editors and news anchors in their corner offices, deciding what did and didn’t make the front page. And we were right. But we were wrong, too.
Because now, instead of the gatekeepers, we have the con artists, the liars, the snake-oilers, flim-flams, and hucksters at our gates. People without qualifications or conviction, without qualms or boundaries.
So yeah, I blame Facebook. I blame them for doing nothing, for pretending they don’t have a responsibility – as perhaps the largest news distribution channel in the world – to ensure our news isn’t laced with toxic lies and propaganda. It has coddled the rise of every form of extremism currently tearing our world apart.
I blame them for pretending their only job, as arbiter of most of the information the world consumes, is to make sure I don’t see boobs in my news feed.
And ultimately, I blame us. For taking the immense potential the Internet presented us, more than twenty years ago, and handing it over to our basest elements. For not finding a way of preserving, if not the old gatekeepers, at least some level of gatekeeping – of sanity – in the system.
I believe in freedom of speech. But I also believe in speaking out against indecency, insanity, and lies. Not only speaking out, but actively trying to limit the spread of vitriolic ideas. Facebook is not obligated to distribute everything we post. Twitter is not a first amendment right.
Of course, the lies and hate will always find a way of reaching those who want to hear them. But we don’t have to make it so easy. Let the con men build their own megaphone, find their own soap box.
But of course, the internet is built for us, by us. Is us. And we have turned over the soap box for precisely that reason: so it can tell us what we want to hear.