The Internet's Brave New World Has Become a Disinformation Dystopia

Lies, conspiracy theories, and general bullshit. That's what so much of the internet traffics in now. And if we can't agree on what the truth is anymore, we're doomed.
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Chez Pazienza
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Lies, conspiracy theories, and general bullshit. That's what so much of the internet traffics in now. And if we can't agree on what the truth is anymore, we're doomed.

In February of 2008, I lost my job as a senior producer at CNN. Well, it's not like I lost it, as if it were a set of car keys that had somehow slid behind the cushions on the couch; I was unceremoniously fired because my bosses found out that for the previous two years I'd been spending my spare time writing opinion pieces and general nonsense for a personal blog called Deus Ex Malcontent. Now at the time, CNN had no official policy governing blogging or social media, given that the network was predictably slow to notice the looming shadow of the technological and cultural wave poised to wash over it. There was a single line in the employee handbook that warned about the need for upper management's permission before doing outside work, and any idiot -- even one as profoundly gifted in the idiotic arts as myself -- could've assumed that publicly violating the perception of objectivity is a no-no. But at some point I made the decision that risking a job I wasn't much enjoying anymore was worth it to pursue something I found myself genuinely passionate about. 

So when I got busted, I didn't fight it. 

I'm not so entirely dense that I didn't take the opportunity to rocket my little blog to mini-fame for a couple of months by doing interviews with The New York Times, The Observer, SiriusXM, The Columbia Journalism Review and really anyone willing to talk to me about what at that time was a novelty: a journalist for a major news outlet fired for blogging. I didn't blame CNN for firing me; it was their prerogative. But what I did find interesting, and worth using my untimely demise as a jumping off point to discuss, was how little CNN understood new media and what it was going to soon mean for traditional media outlets. Put simply, the internet and the democratization of the press that it represented had the potential to upend the hegemony of CNN and operations like it. They'd sat comfortably atop the mountain as both rulers and gatekeepers for years, but a new era was emerging in which it no longer cost a small fortune to be heard in a booming voice by the world. Anyone with a computer and access to the internet could, theoretically, be seen by as many people as CNN.

It was a brave new world, one with limitless possibilities for the dissemination of information. The little guys had the power to overthrow the big guys in a major way. And I was proud to be one of the creative underclass folks, on however small a scale, singing the praises of this revolution and helping to lead the charge in terms of the new culture of new media. I believed the internet and social media would change the informational landscape for the better. A diverse new array of thoughts and ideas. A new kind of journalism that would bring new voices into the mix. A new opportunity to make the world a smarter place. It all seemed so bright. More and more, though, I'm realizing that this was nothing more than wishful thinking -- because providing worldwide connectivity and media democratization, it turns out, also gave stupid and crazy people as loud a voice as the relatively intelligent and responsible people who had controlled the flow of information for years previously. 

Last week, President Obama confronted what I think may be one of the overwhelming crises of our time. While speaking in Pittsburgh, he decried the current media landscape. "We are going to have to rebuild within this wild, wild-west-of-information flow some sort of curating function that people agree to," Obama said. "There has to be, I think, some sort of way in which we can sort through information that passes some basic truthiness tests and those that we have to discard, because they just don't have any basis in anything that's actually happening in the world." Obama's comments came as a response to Donald Trump's almost entirely fact-free presidential campaign, one based on internet conspiracy theory and mindless right-wing outrage rather than actual logic and reason. Granted, Trump is his own nonstop geyser of utter horseshit, a human ouroboran loop feeding nonsense directly into the internet conspiracy machine from which he also draws some of his best, most baseless crap. But Trump's audience was ready-made to believe anything, no matter how ridiculous, because it already lived inside a hermetically sealed bubble that only news confirming its biases could penetrate.

Obama's point is both clear and direct. We've reached a point in which we no longer approach political debate with opinions gleaned from the same basic pool of facts, for the simple reason that we no longer believe the same facts. That, of course, goes against the very nature of what facts are: they represent inarguable truth and they're the yardstick by which we measure reality. There was a time that a political argument meant a battle of opinions, and there was never a thing wrong with that. But now, thanks to niche media catering to and influencing the beliefs of various niche groups, it's entirely possible for those who argue to bring their own unique "facts" to the table. And that's a recipe for disaster, since there's no way two people can ever come to an agreement or even a compromise when their partisanship is bolstered by information they together refuse to concede is the equal truth. If we can't accept the same reality, we can't argue in good faith with the hope of coming to some satisfactory conclusion. And that means we can never come together as a nation.

What's worse is that there's now an entire cottage industry that's sprung up around purposely denying reality in favor of garbage. Reality, to these people -- the Alex Joneses and the ironically named "Truthfeeds" of the world -- is the polar opposite of the often carefully vetted material coming from the mainstream outlets. The mainstream outlets -- the very journalistic operations the new media revolution was meant to upend -- are, in the eyes of Alex Jones, lying to the world. To these lunatics and opportunists, if you're a gullible sheep you trust The New York Times, but, oddly, if you're smart and your eyes are really open, you trust a bunch of idiot kids making YouTube videos that claim 9/11 was an inside job or posting . It's so backward it's dizzying. But one thing is certain: It's the realization of the dream of a democratized media that's allowed this bullshit to flood our cultural bloodstream. Because if you choose to, you can ignore news gathered responsibly and with an eye on getting it right in favor of inundating yourself with misinformation and even disinformation. When that's all you live and breathe, imagine what it does to your ability to reason. Now imagine the effect on our discourse that millions of people believing this stuff has. Imagine having to convince these people of reality -- these people who think only fools believe "the mainstream media."

The question then becomes, with so much misinformation out there, who do you trust? That's where the irony comes in for me personally, because just a few years ago I would've told you -- and did -- that the new media wave was providing powerful, high-quality options for good information and that it was wise to potentially hold them in the same regard as the "mainstream media." To some extent this is true. The internet has certainly provided some fine outlets and voices a well-deserved forum for news and opinion. (I can't complain too loudly about social media, given that it's allowed me to continue having a writing career since my dismissal from CNN.) But the thing to keep in mind is that no matter how easy it is to slam the establishment press, at the very least you can read and watch it knowing that in large part it takes seriously its responsibility to reporting that's based on empirical evidence. Sure, the mainstream media gets it wrong on occasion, but when it does, it reacts with horror and shame and endeavors to make it right. Because that's its sole job: to get it right. 

Bill Maher also took a harsh swipe at the state of our brave dumb world of new media during an interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria recently. "It's funny, the internet was supposed to make us smarter but it just served as a seal for knowledge to get in," he said. "It's not Republican and Democrat or conservative and liberal. It's reality versus alternative reality. This reality of their their own choosing. And to make it even worse, they don't care about lying. Lying, bold-faced, caught on tape lying is no longer a deal breaker at all. They don't care. They know, they don't know, it doesn't matter to them." Maher was talking about Trump and his tendency to outright lie when the truth would contradict the narrative he wants to present, and the Trump zealots who believe him. I'm not sure the problem is that these people don't care about lying; the problem I think is more that it's imperative that they believe their own side and dismiss their enemies and now there are new media outlets more than happy to launder Trump's lies until they appear to be the truth. Again, Trump digests the crap that comes out of Alex Jones's mouth, then excretes it back out to be lapped up again by Trump's own followers, who then turn to people like Alex Jones to "prove" Trump is telling the truth. It's a human centipede of nonsense and anti-intellectualism. 

The question is whether anything can be done about it. My guess is no. How do you dial back something like this? You can't force the genie back into the bottle. The damage is done and more damage is still to come when you consider how vital it is to democracy and the discourse that everyone at least agree on what the truth is so that opinions can extend out from there. When we live in a world where the people who believe that Sandy Hook was a hoax and thousands of Muslims in New Jersey really did openly cheer 9/11 can have the same worldwide circulation as the reputable outlets they decry, we're in deep trouble. People tend to believe what they want to believe -- and now there exists propaganda to cater to any belief. And that propaganda can no longer be dismissed by fact, because no one can agree on the facts anymore. 

Our supposed brave new media world has turned out to be, maybe not surprisingly, a dystopia.