In any wilderness is beauty and fruitfulness and vicious predators and wandering madmen and disease and flooding and fires and regeneration…
by John Shirley
First, let’s quickly review the scale of the thing: In excess of a billion people are active on Facebook. Every month a hundred million use Instagram. There are three hundred twenty eight million plus monthly users of Twitter. More than half the world’s population is online in some way. Eighty percent of Americans go online. For years now, public school classes have given homework requiring online activity to complete it (indifferent to the fact that some of the poor don’t have steady access to a browser.)
There are more than a billion websites.
That’s not a system, it’s a series of randomly interlocked systems; it’s not a grand network of self expression. Envisioned in cyberspace, it may look like an endless stochastic city, like a megalopolis of data. But it’s really a kind of wilderness. In any wilderness is beauty and fruitfulness and vicious predators and wandering madmen and disease and flooding and fires and regeneration… Chaos is beautiful, chaos is necessary, chaos also destroys if it’s not modulated.
The American experiment in democracy is compromised by Citizens United, lobbyists, the Koch Brothers, congressionally-connected Big Oil interests, gerrymandering, voter suppression, the recent congressional blockading of the Supreme Court, and the electoral college — yet our representative democracy still manages to sputter along. Every so often the creaking, smoke-streaming car of this democracy sputters to a halt, and people get out and push to get it started again. People like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Al Franken, Barack Obama, Maxine Waters, even a rare few decent Republicans — all fallible people, not omniscient gods. When the car stalls they push the thing a bit and jump back in. They hope to get to the repair shop. If we want to extend this admittedly creaky metaphor just a little more, the oil that keeps the engine running is media, news coverage, literacy, access to facts.
That particular lubricant for democracy is burning up, leaking away — the news media was always imperfect, biased, but on the whole fairly sound. But now it’s hugely overshadowed. We can’t see for the glare of information, false or irrelevant. In March, Huffington Post and other reputable sources reported, “1,000 Paid Russian Trolls Spread Fake News On Hillary Clinton, Senate Intelligence Heads Told… A former FBI agent testified that President Donald Trump helped spread fake news by embracing the stories against his opponents.”
It’s well established that, last year, Russia used thousands of operatives and bots to spread disinformation about Hillary Clinton and her campaign, often targeting Sanders-supporting social media pages, to drive a wedge that couldn’t be overcome if Clinton got the nomination. It seems to have worked.
splatters disinfo on supposed “voter fraud”; convinces astounding numbers of people that Michelle Obama is secretly male (the numbers of youtube videos for that one is mindbending);
We don’t need the Russians, however, to fuck up our democracy. We have “astroturfing” websites working for coal and oil companies to cover up the cause of climate change. right-wing, alt-right, “Sovereign Citizen” cranks, and outright neo-nazis slandered Barack Obama over and over again, during his administration — and even now. The same motley crew spreads lies and grotesque exaggerations about black-on-white violence; deliberately misinterprets Black Lives Matter; splatters disinfo on supposed “voter fraud”; convinces astounding numbers of people that Michelle Obama is secretly male (the numbers of youtube videos for that one is mindbending); claims that a shadow government is planning to take away their guns and herd them into a concentration camp; argues that the Constitution itself is Unconstitutional; and so on. Voices once marginalized by their obvious paranoia and crankery to a tiny squeak at the sidelines — the John Birch Society, for example — have been given gigantic megaphones that boom out over the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. Alex Jones and friends have surprising numbers of people still claiming, even now, that the Clintons and friends were running a child sex ring out of a pizza shop in DC. The alt-reich marchers in Charlottesville are motivated by waves of fake stories spread by internet sources including some elaborate youtube videos. There are an amazing number of flagrantly pro-Nazi videos and “channels” on youtube.
Per the BBC News August 13: “As a predominantly online movement, the alt-right does not officially have membership, therefore exact numbers are hard to come by… The presence of this ‘amorphous’ movement is online and its popularity is said to be increasing nationwide.” The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is currently tracking more than 1,600 extremist groups in the country.
From The Atlantic, a few days ago: “Today, each of us is freer than ever to custom-make reality, to believe whatever and pretend to be whoever we wish. Which makes all the lines between actual and fictional blur and disappear more easily. Truth in general becomes flexible, personal, subjective. And we like this new ultra-freedom, insist on it, even as we fear and loathe the ways so many of our wrongheaded fellow Americans use it.” It is a dilemma. The good of free, gloriously uncontrolled expression, turned by our passivity to a bad.
We cannot continue with a society where lies have as much currency as facts. It’s like a gigantic extreme-weather flood, carrying wilderness settlements away, sweeping buildings and cars and people before it…
Fictional news spread on sufficiently realistic-looking yet utterly scurrilous “news sites” — with hundreds of thousands of shares before anyone sharing realizes it’s false — can install the far-right into power; can see that the alt-right nationalists keep that power for good. Alternate facts, fabricated “news”; sheer disinformation on a vast scale, promulgated by a mindless, kneejerk use of Twitter and other social media… it’s overwhelming to people. We cannot reasonably expect them to research all this, to separate it all out. Most of them haven’t worked in media and haven’t got the skills to engage in needed research. Additionally, we’ve noticed Trump, and conspiracy theorists and birthers and “sovereign citizens” and climate-change deniers and alt-right types using the term “fake news”. So the consumers of right-wing, or conspiracy-fixated false news will assume our facts are not their facts; our identification of fake news is instantly to be regarded as suspect, since it contradicts their comfortably xenophobic views of the world.
There are websites that offer to sort out real from unreal news, but you have to know about them, then be willing to give them a shot, and most people won’t trouble themselves. They are going to passively take in what’s given them through social media and click-bait links.
Suggesting some kind of intelligent, widely-based moderation of the internet, where we have systems to weed out most disinformation, click-bait news, is subject to the criticism that such a moderation might be based on purely subjective standards. But is science subjective? Are verifiable facts subjective? Is overwhelming probability subjective?
Worried about threats to Net Neutrality? You should be. Gigantic corporations, and their corporatist cronies will use all this disinformation — even they don’t take Alex Jones seriously — as a cover, a smokescreen, to “edit” the internet their way. Let them decide all this, and they’ll control access and information opportunistically, with only self-interest in mind.
Yet those of us who want a free media don’t want lunatics shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, either; don’t want shady operatives controlling the electorate.
It should be remembered that many disinformation sites exist purely to service greed. They’re about clicks, views, which they translate into cash via advertising, subscribers, and selling paraphernalia and videos and so on. Sometimes they’re simply paid by political and espionage operatives to spread disinformation. Some of the sites known to have been making up stories about Hillary Clinton were paid to do it by people they knew nothing about except that they wired real money through PayPal. Some of the writers were located, confronted, and admitted as much. But hey, first amendment — right? Not in this case. These people are not working to express themselves. They’re purely in the business of lying for money.
Some will react in sheer revulsion to the suggestion of specialized filters, expert systems say, for filtering the real from the fake, because they assume it risks a loss of net neutrality — but they probably don’t object to blocking, say, child porn, or websites for pedophiles. There are limits to everyone’s tolerance. Is the promulgation of identifiable Big Lies something we should tolerate? I don’t think it is. We could allow full-on net neutrality within certain fairly generous strictures.
But who can we trust to construct reasonable strictures? Comcast? Viacom? Congress? Certainly not.
Two alternative means of filtering the internet come to mind. One would a system whereby a consensus is reached on a daily basis — sort of like Wikipedia, but more universal, more active — arising from internet users as a whole. They’ll have points, call them reality points, they can attach to their votes as to sources excluded. This method could be enforced via negotiation with major independent browsers, to start with. When it’s shown to work, it would grow enough to attract other browsers and systems.
Another could be concerted attacks by volunteers on disinformation sources. Hacking and related methods would be employed. It would be something like Anonymous, but much larger, and would be undergirded by a new study of internet connectivity and access.
Something has to be done and maybe these rather spare thoughts will at least spark a discussion on some acceptable means of protecting the internet from these viciously corrosive surges of disinformation.
(How to Spot Fake News from Factcheck.org)
John Shirley was interviewed for the first issue of MONDO 2000 and immediately became a friend and contributor.
He’s written novels, short stories, TV scripts, screenplays, lyrics, poetry, songs, and various forms of nonfiction. More than forty of his novels have been published. Many of his 200 or so short stories have been compiled in eight short-story collections. He has also written one historical novel—a western about Wyatt Earp, Wyatt in Wichita, and one non-fiction book, Gurdjieff: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas. As a musician, Shirley has fronted his own bands and written lyrics for Blue Öyster Cult and others.