Welcome to the post-truth era, part IV #AfterTheAgeofReason
A mass shift away from reason is a trademark of the post-truth era. Large numbers of Americans have belief systems for which there are no rational justifications. Powerful forces have worked steadfastly at creating an alternate reality via radicalizing disinformation and extreme rhetoric. Events are interpreted differently in the parallel conservative media apparatus. Fringe beliefs have been normalized, conspiracy theories are flourishing, and a state of confusion and disorientation are prevalent among large swaths of society. Public discourse has been poisoned as a kind of collateral damage. The tragedy of Charlottesville illustrates the post-truth era perfectly. The aftermath is a haunting example of the terrifying misunderstanding of reality and history present in our society. Make no mistake - there is an existential war for the truth underway. Truth itself is under siege.
The tragic events of Charlottesville represent the post-truth era. Years of misinformation pumped through Breitbart and the parallel alt-right media apparatus has radicalized people, predominantly white men, into believing they are under attack - their rights threatened, their identities robbed by way of multiculturalism. Hyperfocusing on the worst of the worst, while simultaneously producing slick, real-seeming misinformation allows for the distortion of reality and promulgation of a narrative among a growing and already sizable segment of our nation.
Unlike 8 years ago, advanced data analytics, smartphones, and microtargeting allow for sophisticated forces to feed a steady stream of propaganda and disinformation to citizens based on age, ethnicity, location, sex, political beliefs, online habits, interests, hobbies, etc. Paranoid fear-mongering spread through the internet and viewed by smartphones is a tool of an information war aimed at minds across the United States.
The aftermath of the events in Charlottesville illustrate the problem: Americans are unable to agree on what transpired, and who is to blame. Complex counter-narratives justifying the actions of the nazi and far-right "protestors" - employing false equivalency and whataboutism - have been pumped through parallel right-wing media. Public discourse has been infected and poisoned as a result. A common refrain is: 'both sides were just as bad', or something similar. The message was also echoed by trump, whose political campaign coincided with the debut of such devious tools in manipulating public opinion. Simply put, our citizens cannot agree on even basic facts revolving around what would normally be easily and universally condemned: white supremacists and nazis. Objective reality has has been hijacked by event-warping narratives.
It's not only that conspiracy theories have flourished - it's that we can't even establish an agreed-upon set of facts for events which have been filmed from every conceivable angle. A haze of confusion and disorientation is present. The same tools which allowed the alt-right and Kremlin to spread misinformation during the Presidential campaign are being used to misshape public opinion. While some people can indeed understand the difference between right and wrong in the aforementioned situation, many others cannot. While we all agree the rally occurred, different interpretations of the actions ensue. None of this is random. People - many of whom trapped in an ideological online echo chamber - formulate their understanding of a situation through the media they consume online, predominantly through their smartphones. It's safe to say the confusion and disagreement will be exacerbated in the future.
In fact, every major news story is a vehicle through which disinformation is spread. This is one of the most troublesome elements of the post-truth era. In the aftermath of the Las Vegas massacre, disinformation appeared almost instantly and was spread through YouTube and social media . It was and has been and still is being viewed by millions, if not more. The intention of alt-right disinformation is to push far-right narratives while simultaneously slandering the left and Democrats. This disinformation is powerful and influential. It shapes people's worldview and manipulates public opinion.
Fake News flourished in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. When natural disaster coverage floods the airwaves and receives massive coverage, an opportunity emerges to distort reality through real-seeming disinformation. Hyper-conservative websites fabricated news stories claiming Black Lives Matters had blocked highways and thus impeded rescue workers in the Houston metro area. These aren't silly conspiracy theories ala chemtrails, but rather an influence campaign aimed at subconsciously controlling the minds of the public. To make matters worse, this disinformation is used to sow division and exacerbate animosity between ethnic and political groups. This is the new normal: a flurry of fake news stories interspersed among real coverage of serious events which subvert the concept of truth and leave people unsure of what to believe. Gradually, the way we see the world is shaped by malignant forces. Mass manipulation of public opinion is a vulnerability of Democratic societies, and nearly any event can be used as a transport through which false narratives are reinforced.
Social issues are ripe vessels for fake news. When black NFL athletes started kneeling to raise awareness for injustice and inequality experienced by minorities in American society, propagandists leaped into the action. Fake images of Michael Bennett burning an American flag were disseminated through Twitter and social media, fooling people and generating outrage and vitriol. Combining black men and the left with flag-burning, these memes warp the minds of those who view them. Long after the image had been debunked, it was still in circulation online. It has continued to foment hatred to this moment.
Independent sources of truth are under assault. The trump administration has launched a full-scale war against "the media", a near daily barrage of insults and attacks aimed at our free press, a cornerstone of our democracy. They've worked with Fox News to propagate conspiracy theories in order to obfuscate collusion between trump and Russia, literally pumping out fake news at the behest of the POTUS. They've even sent out forged documents to journalists in hopes of them publishing inaccurate stories - a technique they use to discredit entire networks. Experts, academics, and intellectuals are labelled as "the elite", part of a globalist conspiracy funded by billionaire liberals. Nobody can definitively say what happened, it's all fake news. These institutions, once arbiters of truth and regulators of democracy, have been discredited in the minds of many. According to a recent poll, 46% of Americans believe the media 'make up' false stories about trump. With little to no evidence to support this claim, this is a belief without basis in fact which has gained acceptance among a large portion of American citizens. A void has emerged: without the traditional systems in place to shine a light of the truth, how are we to discern between what is real and what is fake?
Furthermore, Americans are more divided than ever. Over the last 10 years, 'the left' and 'the right' have become bitterly polarized. Tribalism is more present than ever. I attribute this rapid shift to disinformation and misinformation spread through the internet and viewed through smartphones, which didn't exist more than 10 years ago. The more advanced our technology has become, the more divided we are. Algorithms ensure one dwells in an ideological echo chamber, viewing information that confirms our biases, separated from dissenting points of view, reinforced by fake news. Technology isn't intrinsically negative, but it is being used by actors with bad intentions. Things are changing so rapidly we don't understand what is happening to us.
Propelled by the internet and modern technology, real-seeming content passes for the truth. Many of those who pledge allegiance to trump have been fed a constant stream of conspiracies, disinformation, and propaganda through the parallel alt-right media apparatus. Fox News alone has promulgated unabashedly conservative and biased views for the better part of 20 years. Websites like Breitbart and The Gateway Pundit have delivered an unrelenting stream of disinformation and misinformation and half-true murkiness for years. Conservative talk radio giants like Rush Limbaugh deliver paranoid, angry rantings to their throngs of listeners. White people are being robbed of their identity through multiculturalism, Immigrants are murderers and rapists, blacks are rioting, Muslims are terrorists, Mexicans won't stop having babies.
When the parallel alt-right media network (for lack of a better term) mobilize, they are potent. Anonymous posters on 4chan and Reddit concoct conspiracies and untrue narratives, disinformation is pushed on Twitter using bots and trolls, hashtags start trending, alt-right media personalities like Mike Cernovich and Jack Prosobiec post the conspiracy to hundreds of thousands of followers, alt-right websites like Breitbart publish articles, memes are blasted through social media, until eventually someone at Fox News or a mainstream conservative news outlet report on it. The Seth Rich conspiracy is an example of this phenomenon. From the nebulous corners of the internet to the mainstream, the machinations of the parallel alt-right media network are not to be underestimated.
There is abundant evidence indicating conservatives and the alt-right receive their news and information through a relatively small group of conservative and fringe right-wing outlets, members of the parallel right-wing media structure. These websites, twitter accounts, radio stations, and so-called news outlets don't report events neutrally. Rather, they warp events to fit a narrative. The narrative is pushed relentlessly and supported with misinformation. The line between journalist and pundit is nearly non-existant; Fox News' primetime lineup, for instance, consists solely of pundits - with no mention of the difference to the viewer.
It's all about the clicks, online at least. Fake news gets more clicks than real news. Sensationalized news stories are viewed more than thoughtful, articulate pieces. The more clicks, the more ads. The more ads, the more money. That part is very simple. More junk news than real news was shared on Twitter during the 2016 Presidential campaign. The Russians spent over $100,000 to buy and spread dezinformatsiya on Facebook during that same time. They created thousands of fake accounts and impersonated real people and real organizations in doing so. Twitter has no mechanism to report fake news, and Facebook's version is ineffective. It seems as if there is no way to stop the spread of fake news online.
The philosophy of the alt-right, which has infiltrated public discourse and is reinforced by the parallel right-wing media network, can best be described as a 'crude equipage' of relativism: a belief that nobody really knows anything for certain, where things are true because they feel true, or because they stoke emotions, or worse yet - where things are "true" because one's worldview has been formed through years of radical online content which seems real, but is actually inaccurate or only half-true. This crude interpretation of relativism contends most everything is false but anything is possible, there are no experts, a secret cabal of globalists actively work to subvert what is really happening. Right or wrong, good or evil, true or false, moral or immoral, rational or irrational, it's all relative.
Morals, values, even the truth itself is relative, they contend. This deception is achieved using logical fallacies such as false equivalency - that both sides are equally as "bad" - and whataboutism - What about the other guys?! Many people are saying they've done horrible things too! Quite simply, they refuse to engage at a fact-based level. Rational justifications for the core tenants of their worldview are few and far between. Arguments aren't based in reason or logic, but feeling and emotion. For every assertion, a deflection. None of this rhetoric was prevalent in US discourse before trump, as its usage in modern geopolitics traces to the USSR and Russia.
The contemporary flat-earth phenomenon not only provides a perfect example of the post-truth era, but also disproves the crude equipage of relativism so prominent in today's public discourse. While there have long been tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracy theorists embracing flat-earthism, the issue has returned with more veracity and believers than ever. With so much information available online, how can one believe things which are so demonstrably false?
The answer may be simpler than we think: technology has advanced to the point where things on the internet just seem real, even if they're not. Special effects and editing combined with social media platforms delivered through smartphones fool people. When you're scrolling through your twitter feed, there's no filter for the true and the false. The fact that flat-earthers are attracting non-negligible amounts of followers illustrates the shift away from reason-based belief systems across our society.
The earth, of course, is not flat. Both sides aren't right here. One side is right, one side is wrong. There's no relativity in discussing certain issues. And while morals, for example, aren't always absolute, there is such a thing as the truth. Sometimes an issue is black and white. Sometimes there clearly is a difference between right and wrong. The false equivalency of Charlottesville is an example; both sides weren't at fault, and both sides weren't just as bad. And no, there weren't "very fine people on both sides". The POTUS and thus millions of Americans seem to believe the presence of ANTIFA members as a small portion of the counter-protestors partially justify the actions of white supremacists on that violent and fateful day.
Any rational thought process should arrive at a certain conclusion concerning what transpired: a violently-demonstrating group whose ideology is based in the inferiority and termination of other ethnic groups should be met with resistance, not only in the public realm, but also the virtual. The Constitution guarantees freedom and equality for all citizens. It's beyond debatable that only one side was to blame. Yet, plenty have fallen victim to narratives of false equivalency. It's not just that Americans can't agree who were the good guys and bad guys in that situation, it's the terrifying justifications for inexcusable actions and ideologies. We arrived at this point in part because of the disinformation being pushed across the internet.
Furthermore, large numbers of people no longer have the cognitive tools to decipher sleek and sophisticated misinformation. Our educational system no longer cultivates critical thinking and philosophy, it prepares us to pass standardized tests. It's not the journey of discovery and knowledge which is emphasized, it's memorizing information to regurgitate in order to fill a bubble. Without clear thinking, logic, and reason, one can fall prey sophisticated misinformation. These are powerful tools.
At a more fundamental level, language is being stripped of its meaning and power. Memes are rising to replace them. It may sound like a joke, but it's not. The alt-right communicate primarily through memes - images with a handful of words scrawled across the top and bottom - a form of new age, modern-day hieroglyphics. Rather than using words to convey meaning and create a rational, logical argument, memes are used as tools to produce feelings. In the post-truth era, words themselves are being diluted of their power. Without the tools to articulate oneself, the individual is neutralized and freedom hangs in the balance.
The best metaphor to illustrate how words lose power is that of a dull knife. In the beginning, a new knife is sharp and can penetrate. But if one hit it repeatedly against a boulder for hours it would lose its sharpness and be rendered obsolete. It wouldn't be able to fulfill its instrumental purpose, cutting. And like a dull knife, words stripped of their power wouldn't be able to fulfill their instrumental purpose, transmitting meaning through symbol and oral cadence. The alt-right narrative isn't based in reason, it's based in feeling and emotion, so it makes sense they communicate through memes, rather than words. It's another indication of the mass shift away from reason and toward fantasy-based belief systems.
Many may doubt the impact of disinformation and propaganda. You may be tempted to think: it's just a few articles online, or a few silly memes. How much damage could it do? One may scoff at the notion our worldview is subconsciously altered and formed through online content. And it may hard to believe we are the targets of an information war, a psyops campaign aimed at manipulating public opinion and ultimately affecting real-life behavior. The world is changing very fast thanks to technology, but one thing is certain: disinformation accessed through social media and viewed via smartphone is incredibly powerful.
Russian propagandists spent over $100,000 microtargeting voters through Facebook during the 2016 campaign, blasting them with disinformation focusing mainly on issues such as immigration and minorities. Constantly stoking fear and nativism, these articles were viewed by between 10-100 million people, depending on who you ask. Juxtaposed next to other content, these images and shocking headlines affect us every time we see one; little by little we formulate our viewpoints on our society, culture, and politics. In the case of the 2016 election, it helped tip the balance to Donald trump, a woefully unfit man.
Do you not remember the articles you saw on Facebook and Twitter during the 2016 election? Were there not myriad examples of disinformation and propaganda flowing freely through our Facebook feeds, shared and viewed thousands of times? Do we not receive the majority of our news through social media these days? The fact is we check our social media as a reflex, our devices constantly clutched in our grip, always consuming. Facebook stores our data and sells it to the highest bidder, which allows personalized propaganda to be delivered to each and every one of us at any time. A window into the unfettered virtual world, our smartphones are an incredible tool which can also be hijacked to exploit our minds.
The merger of humans and technology is progressing. We spend more and more time gazing into the screen, mesmerized by the bright lights and vivid colors, swiping our fingers over the glossy screen as we grasp the sleek contours of the device. The younger generations have had smartphones since childhood, growing up in the virtual world. The majority of the information we consume is online. Breaking news is exciting. The worse, the better. And the potential to deceive the masses using real-seeming disinformation and misinformation is stronger than ever. Is it not difficult to tell what is real and what is fake?
Why would the military conduct psyops on enemy combatants if it weren't effective? Why are leaflets dropping from the sky so compelling our enemies would drop their weapons and defect? Is it not true businesses spend millions advertising to us, bombarding us with images and content aimed at altering our behavior the next time we're in the store? If words and images weren't influential, would private companies spend money in marketing? Why would propaganda be any less efficient?
Memes are the primary vehicle through which disinformation is spread. A unit of information, memes typically combine symbols, images, slogans, and short sentences to convey visceral messages to the target audience. A large portion of the disinformation spread online is transmitted via meme. These images are shared tens of thousands of times, seen by millions, and linger for months online. Entropy is very slow in meme world, and false images often remain in circulation well after being debunked. The primary purpose of the meme is not to make a logical argument, but to trigger emotions such as fear and hatred, to generate an emotional response. Incredibly effective, memes not only played a crucial role in the election of trump, but continue to be used as weapons to manipulate public opinion.
You may very well be laughing at the previous assertion. The notion that memes are being used to attack us seems outlandish, but isn't. Take a trip to alt-right online territory and witness for yourself the extent of their memetics. Not only have these memes converted millions to the alt-right, it actively attempts to demoralize and demotivate liberals. Symbols and slogans are very powerful, and memes push a narrative, or kind of story. This story ties together politics, history, culture, and globalized modernity in an attempt to gain followers. Not only does it work, it warps public opinion and alters real-life behaviors.
The post-truth era isn't just conspiracies, it's an attack on your mind. It's that feeling of dread upon seeing another trump tweet covered in the news. It's the complex counter-narratives being employed to explain the world. It's a haze of disorientation and confusion, where nobody knows for sure what is real, where nobody can say for certain what is true, and nobody can agree. It's the mental fatigue of having to deal with another delusional conspiracy theory, propped up by the parallel right-wing media apparatus and believed by millions. It's a war of attrition against your concept of truth and reality. It's an attempt to confound you with an avalanche of fake information.
If you never left your neck of the woods, how would you form your opinions of the outside world? Without firsthand experience of foreign places, how would you know what to think? Plenty of people have never left their region, home state, or sometimes even hometown. The only time they leave home is when they travel virtually, through the annals of the internet, flying by the seat of their pants through a craven new world of digital content. They're targeted; information bombs are constantly being dropped on them, with memes flying like bullets across the battlefield of the mind.
The only defense is to arm oneself with the truth, for the truth is absolute and the foundation of liberty. We must be unrelenting in our quest for what is real, and we must be vocal in spreading that which is not fabricated. Technology can facilitate a global awakening of sorts when enough people realize the truth. Individuals are empowered like never before to connect and unite for just causes. Fighting for the truth and objective reality is an exhausting burden, but I have faith truth will overcome.