On Media Manipulation

I feel like people used to have to go to great lengths to never be wrong. Maybe it was because I was young but I feel like most people used to understand that Batboy wasn’t real and that Hillary Clinton didn’t adopt an Alien baby. If you were crazy back in the day you might be a bit of a loner or have a few friends. Now you can believe whatever you want and instantly connect with possibly hundreds or even thousands of people who will validate your theories.

I can blame social media quite a bit for this but I think the majority of the blame falls on us. We’ve allowed ourselves to be enticed by soundbites and click-bait and have fallen into an extreme pattern of confirmation bias. As a generally liberal person, I would love to sit here and say that this is primarily an issue on the right but it really isn’t. The right are certainly a little more ballsy about flat out making stuff up but the left are just as interested in stirring the pot and spreading misinformation to suit their agenda. It might even be worse for the left because it’s much harder to spot in this case.

My journey on this actually started with some conversations with a Trump supporting co-worker. You’d think we wouldn’t agree on anything but, as it turns out, I’m not too bad at making my case and my coworker really didn’t have the extreme views I thought he would. We ended up finding a lot of common ground over smoke breaks but the one thing I was relentless on was the fact that he received the vast majority of his news from right wing media sites like Breitbard and Infowars. On the days that i dared to seek out his Facebook page, I’d see absurd memes like “HILLARY CLINTON BELIEVES ABORTION SHOULD BE LEGAL UP TO ONE DAY AFTER BIRTH” and a doctored video with a title like “ANGRY OBAMA KICKS IN DOOR AT SENATE HEARING.” So I’d do a quick google search and set the record straight but it just didn’t seem to matter to him. They were funny and he wasn’t too worried about it.

Anyway, maybe there will be more on that in another post. So, we’ve gone back and forth about the media a few times and sometimes he would confront me on things that I didn’t know much about with the exception of what I would see on social media and I would get frustrated. When you’re trying to talk politics these days, you almost have to be an expert on everything and everyone or you’ll completely lose any credibility. But social media has a fix for that because all day long you get these little tid bits of information that purport to tell you all that you need to know. Every time Trump makes a cabinet appointment, Twitter goes apeshit (ok, me too) even though most of us don’t have a clue who any of these people were prior to that day.

When Steve Bannon specifically came up in one of our conversations, I basically side stepped the subject but still saved face. I felt pretty confident that anybody responsible for anything over at Breitbart had to either be a horrible person or an opportunist with zero integrity (I still essentially believe this) and it wasn’t difficult for me to believe that the guy might be a white supremacist. Occam’s Razor, right? The guy is divisive and bad. End of story.

When I got home, though, it was really bugging me. I consider myself to be pragmatic almost to a fault and I do not like feeling uninformed. So, I made the decision to find out as much as I could about Steve Bannon to justify my outrage.

What I found instead was unsettling but also kind of life changing. Yes, Steve Bannon is a fucked up individual. He’s incredibly intelligent, very manipulative, and possibly very dangerous. He has an agenda and I don’t think he cares at all about who gets hurt in the process of implementing it. He’s truly a real life super-villain BUT I don’t think he’s a white supremacist.

Does he cater to them? Yes. But does he believe all of that crap? No, I don’t think so. I think he’s a smart guy who managed to bring a very large and (very) relatively diverse group of people who don’t normally like each other or trust the mainstream media together as one large voting bloc. In other words, he gave them common ground and then also found a way to filter information to them in way that gave him control over the narrative. Once that was taken care of, he went about the totally separate task of feeding information to the mainstream media (read: the left) that was eventually detrimental to his opposition and was likely the straw that broke the camel’s back and won this election for Donald Trump

It scared me that it was probably to his benefit that we were so quick to write him off as just some racist. It bothered me even more that, as much as I felt I was trying to stick with facts, I was able to led on by the same sort of deception I’d accused my co-worker of falling for.

I went to work immediately to remove any trace of biased media from my Facebook feed. I added Snopes and Politifact instead so that they would inevitably pop up and tell me the truth whenever one of my overtly political friends would share something. I set to work on a lengthy post begging people to do the same and I gave them links and pleaded with them to stop the madness but ultimately nobody cared. Maybe I had Facebook's algorithm against me or maybe the post was just too long but I think the problem is that people like to be right and maybe they even like to be a part of something that is bigger than themselves. I mean, I just got done saying the same thing in my last post so I get it.

Fake news is probably only part of the problem. I am literally about to make up a number out of thin air here but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if 80–90% of people don’t bother to actually read any of the articles that they share on social media. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people post angry tirades only to read the article and find they’ve only really been responding to the click bait title and not the content. If they’re even opening it up, I doubt they’re doing more than seeking out information that they can use to justify their opinions. Most of the memes that I see that are supposed to give you the reader’s digest version are just cherry picked or outright fake soundbites.

It’s really bad and incredibly disheartening to see the vitriol going back and forth because it just looks very manufactured from where I am now sitting. I see genuinely good and intelligent people spouting blatant misinformation with what seems like the right intentions and I worry that the propaganda is going to eventually swallow us whole. There is no reason we can’t find common ground if we WANT to find common ground but people on both sides of the aisle seem to really enjoy the adrenaline rush that comes with the arguing and outrage. Maybe more importantly, it seems like we’re all feeding off each other when things start trending and you’re suddenly surrounded by tens of thousands of people who are on your side.

Getting out of this is going to require many people to admit some very uncomfortable things to themselves and I don’t know that I see it happening. I DO think at some point that this bubble will have to burst because this level of hysteria is just not sustainable in a free society because we’re either going to need to get something done or concede.