A Different Kind Of Weapon

A story about the recent Santa Fe school shooting highlighted what worries me most of all about America’s future–not to mention humanity’s–and our ability to engage in fact-based, rational discussion and debate.

In the first hours after the Texas school shooting that left at least 10 dead Friday, online hoaxers moved quickly to spread a viral lie, creating fake Facebook accounts with the suspected shooter’s name and a doctored photo showing him wearing a “Hillary 2016” hat.

Several were swiftly flagged by users and deleted by the social network. But others rose rapidly in their place: Chris Sampson, a disinformation analyst for a counterterrorism think tank, saidhe could see new fakes as they were being created and filled out with false information, including images linking the suspect to the anti-fascist group Antifa.

The immediacy and reach of the disinformation about gun violence are nothing new, nor is this tactic limited to the gun debate–and that’s the problem.

Thanks to technology, we are marinating in propaganda and falsehood–weapons that are ultimately far more powerful than assault rifles.

There have always been efforts to mislead the gullible, to confirm the suspicions of cynics and the certainties of ideologues. No matter how diligently we try not to indulge in confirmation bias, most of us are susceptible to the “facts” that have been slanted in a direction we’re predisposed to accept. But we have never seen anything like the onslaught of utter fabrication that has been made possible by our new communication mediums, and the result is beginning to emerge: Americans are increasingly distrustful of all information.

We don’t know who or what to believe, so we suspend belief altogether.

When people occupy incommensurate realities, they can’t communicate with each other. The one thing Donald Trump does understand–and unfortunately, it is the only thing he appears to understand–is that lies and “alternate” facts undermine citizens’ ability to make decisions based in reality. Thus his attacks on the “fake” news media and his assertions of “achievements” that exist only in the precincts of his grandiose imagining.

The effectiveness of this technique of cultivating uncertainty was prominently displayed during the so-called “tobacco wars,” when flacks for the tobacco industry realized that a frontal attack on medical reports linking smoking to cancer were doomed, but that efforts to muddy the waters–to suggest that the “jury was still out”–could be very effective. If the attack was on the reliability of science, the public would discount it, but if the message was “scientists still aren’t sure,” people who wanted to be fair–and those who wanted to keep smoking– would withhold judgment.

That same tactic has been used–very effectively–by fossil fuel interests to undermine settled science on the reality and causes of climate change.

The problem is that people of good will–and, of course, those who are not so well-intentioned–no longer know what to believe. What is factual, and what is self-serving bullshit? And how do we tell the difference?

 Unless we can address this issue–unless we can reclaim the ability to determine what is fact and what is fiction, what is credible evidence and what is “disinformation”– humanity is in a world of hurt.

24 thoughts on “A Different Kind Of Weapon

  1. In the last few weeks, I have seen a willingness in the news business to call BULLSHIT when the President and his people are spreading bullshit. Long overdue. Even Fox started doing it. I find that cause for hope

  2. As long as Devos and the Kochs can force taxpayers to finance private schools that teach children what they want them to believe, both religiously and economically, I fear for the minds of our children and for our future. Those children are being indoctrinated rather than being taught how to think critically. They are being taught to be obedient.

  3. Before the advent of social media, there was a song that hit the charts big. The refrain: “Chain … chain … chain! Chain of fools”. Have I sufficiently dated myself? Funny thing about algorithms of social media. Once you get hooked by the most repugnant post, the robots connect you as a ‘player ‘ with a sh—load of friends and Ivan and Natasha along with Friends of Humpy Trumpy dish out even more artificial bullderm dung (lot’s of it at the rear gate of the circus if you want more). It’s all about algorithms and how many friends you have in your cache and whether or not you are an active player. I have a really big shovel if you would like to borrow.

  4. “Unless we can address this issue–unless we can reclaim the ability to determine WHAT IS FACT AND WHAT IS FICTION, what is credible evidence and what is “disinformation”– humanity is in a world of hurt.”

    That takes living in the PRESENT which this blog has great difficulty in doing. One half of us wants to go back to the PAST and a world that has been lost; the other half wants to go toward a FUTURE which can’t be reached. Meanwhile what we’re going to RECEIVE from all of this is what America is now engaged in: FUTURCIDE, defined as “hell on earth.”

    We’ve got 5 months left to make the DIFFICULT FUNDAMENTAL CHANGES in our MINDSETS before all will be lost.

  5. Nancy – “Those children are being indoctrinated rather than being taught how to think critically. They are being taught to be obedient.”

    Instead, good teachers keep your children away from dogma, away from thought control, away from learning by rote.

  6. I have fallen so far that I find myself shaking my head and questioning almost everything I hear on television “news”. The local news is focused almost exclusively on the most recent tragedy – I assume to undermine confidence in our ability to deal with problems and to stoke fear in viewers, and, of course to sell stuff. While I am a regular viewer of the News Hour and listener of NPR, I sometimes find myself skeptical of what those programs broadcast or how they present it. Facts are dying and disappearing.

  7. And yesterday’s Indianapolis Star, including our sample copy of USA Today (both owned by Gannett, Inc.), had NOT ONE WORD OF NATIONAL OR INTERNATIONAL NEWS REGARDING TRUMP, CHINA, NORTH KOREA, THE RUSSIAN INVESTIGATION, OR THE ROSEANNE EXPLOSION. Which is worse, being buried under too much information, real or fake, or no news at all? The Star with it’s free sample of USA Today rarely has much but a Reader’s Digest version or a brief mention as a sideline in small paragraphs listed along the left side of the front page. Much of our printed media has been gobbled up by the “conservatives”; there is no longer any “free press” and the newscasts and Internet are following suit.

    “The problem is that people of good will–and, of course, those who are not so well-intentioned–no longer know what to believe. What is factual, and what is self-serving bullshit? And how do we tell the difference?”

    Trump has turned the media into a weapon or useless information in turn; he is AGAIN getting his way with this cries of “fake news” and “witch hunt”. He is turning the media against this country and we are in the cross hairs. They are aiding and abetting Trump as he turns the Constitution and Bill of Rights against us and we are paying him as our “elected leader” to accomplish this as is required by our intended protection as Americans.

  8. We have a pretty awful confluence of factors going on currently. Technology that allows internet trolls (thanks 4Chan and the shadier portions of Reddit) to create and disseminate “news” quickly and easily coupled with news organizations desperate to scoop each other and get that first click of advertising dollars that no one bothers to double check anything before sending it out to air. That’s before we even consider the wildly slanted news media who are happy to run with things that are obviously false.

    It’s been my long held belief that news needing to bring in the ratings is destroying useful information. It used to be Honey Boo-boo and other things previously reserved for Jerry Springer making their way into the news to drive clicks. Now, things are even worse somehow.

  9. This is the bullshit issue. The contributor who says “bullshit” the most often earns a big, fat, juicy kiss from President Trump.

    Not that anybody cares, but the plural of medium is media.

  10. It used to be easy to know the truth and now it’s harder. I don’t think that there’s less real news out there but way more advertising/misinformation/propaganda/fake news. Capitalism, in search of make more money regardless of the impact on others found a new mother load of profit and is acting predictably.

    We have to adapt to the reality that we have created. The good news is that most of us can. We may have to dig deeper but once we realize that our freedom is at stake we can. If that were not true we’d all by saluting Agent Orange and the sycophants.

    What’s important is to teach the children all of that. Try for the fine balance that’s appropriately skeptical without washing over to cynical. Critical thinking is what it’s called.

    We’ve got this. Democracy only requires a slight majority to be proficient at it.

    Of course we also shouldn’t give up on taking out the news trash by campaign finance reform. Our first goal of legitimate government should be to eliminate private support of political campaigns. The bar has now been set at floor level by a mixture of capitalism and autocracy so that what’s always been dysfunctional is now toxic.

    Let’s have a re-do in 5 months. A clean sweep. Rid Congress and the state houses of R’s who have proven to only understand make more money regardless of the impact on others and give others a chance. Some will be great. Perhaps our next President is among them. He/she is certainly not a Republican politician now.

  11. I don’t like how much it costs, but I grit my teeth and pay the price to support the Indianapolis Star. Their investigative reporters dig in and if change doesn’t always take place, sometimes it does.
    Today (page 9A) there’s a 2-column article about HeadCount and the organization’s effort to register high school students to vote. There’s a group we should foster! Thank you, Star, for bringing it to my attention.
    I subscribe to the digital NYT and Washington Post and two European newspapers. If you have ideas, tell us what else we can do to try and help the press and good reporting survive.

  12. I used to teach the scientific method for the simple reason that it is infallible – almost – in helping the individual to be a critical thinker. In 2012, the Texas GOP platform listed a line item that eliminated teaching critical thinking in class. You can look it up. That said, it should be pretty obvious to all that those devices that people have stuck in front of their faces their whole waking day are merely the instruments of hyper-connected isolation.

    ” Unless we can address this issue–unless we can reclaim the ability to determine what is fact and what is fiction, what is credible evidence and what is “disinformation”– humanity is in a world of hurt.” No truer words. As long as Republicans want to destroy critical thinking, this world of hurt will destroy us all.

  13. One troubling aspect of this phenomenon is that “fake news” continues to become more and more sophisticated. The fakers Photoshopping a Hillary hat onto the latest school shooter are only the amateurish tip of the iceberg. Photos and even video can now be faked in a way that is almost impossible for any non-professional to tell from reality, thanks to Hollywood CGI techniques filtering down to the consumer level. At some point it will become nearly impossible to discern reality from computer-generated fakery without relying on either actual physical presence (impossible for most of the population) or simply trusting the reputation of the news purveyor (which has its own potential for abuse, not to mention the problem that most people will simply choose to trust whatever source confirms what they want to hear.)

    Check out what Barack Obama “said” in this video:
    https://www.cjr.org/tow_center/reporting-machine-reality-deepfakes-diakopoulos-journalism.php

  14. Yesterday, the topic was: Reflections On The Vote In Ireland.

    I found a link on the Erin Brockovitch Web Site: >>Women have made strides in almost all aspects of society, but discrimination is still alive in one of the last places anyone would expect: health care. When it comes to the availability of life-saving medical products and the safety of drugs and devices, men still have the upper hand. One of the greatest and most powerful health agencies in the world, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is a big part of the problem.

    https://www.drugwatch.com/featured/fda-let-women-down/ April 19, 2018.
    =========================================================
    Oddly, enough the drug Ambien, the sleeping pill was mentioned in this article. Ambien is in the news because Roseanne Barr has blamed it for her racist rant. Side effects include:
    Tell your doctor right away if any of these unlikely but serious side effects occur: memory loss, mental/mood/behavior changes (such as new/worsening depression, abnormal thoughts, thoughts of suicide, hallucinations, confusion, agitation, aggressive behavior, anxiety).

    Rarely, after taking this drug, people have gotten out of bed and driven vehicles while not fully awake (“sleep-driving”). People have also sleepwalked, prepared/eaten food, made phone calls, or had sex while not fully awake. Often, these people do not remember these events. This problem can be dangerous to you or to others. If you find out that you have done any of these activities after taking this medication, tell your doctor right away.
    ===================================================================
    Perhaps medical marijuana could have a relaxing effect to help you sleep, but then where would the profit be???

  15. Monotonous; I read the Ambien response to Roseanne’s accusation, “Racism is not a known side effect of Ambien.”

    I hope it is a direct quote but if it is fake news; it is funnier than Roseanne has been for days.

  16. And who will save the day here? I fear that the Trumpian solution may be to create a Ministry of Truth (1984) or a Ministry of Information, which was the basis of the 1984 institution. Since he has already perverted the missions of most of our agencies, why not create one whose mission is already perverse? A Ministry of Information would be the government response to the “lies” spread by journalists and the source of “reliable” information for citizens who are confused by all of the “facts” they hear. Kellyann Conway has given us the basis for such a ministry. It would be to disseminate “alternative facts”, currently the province of the White House Press Secretary.

  17. Yes, propaganda of today makes Goebbels look amateurish, but there is a certain equilibrium to this onslaught by social media and it’s this > Assume that all you hear is propaganda and let time take its course in determining its truth or falsity. We used to have a then adage that went “Don’t believe anything you hear and half you see.” I would add the half you see into non-belief pending how it later fits into the stream of truth, meanwhile arming myself with later information in re the topic under consideration which, of course, may itself be propaganda subject to similar testing. It takes a lot of effort these days to be well and truthfully informed, but still possible.

  18. The idea that “fake news” is some new phenomena would be missing the boat. Our own government has engaged in either fake news, fake facts, or hyper manipulation, all designed to achieve a certain “end product” or opinion on us proles.

    The USA knew our South Vietnamese puppet was losing the Vietnam War, a direct American military intervention became a necessity. How to sway public opinion?? The Gulf of Tonkin Incident in 1964 was blown totally out of proportion. Congress handed LBJ the blank check for a military mission. For those of us who lived through that era, we regularly heard via the Pentagon, etc., we were winning. The press back then did question and pointed out repeatedly, the credibility gap, between official reports vs the on the ground reality.

    Fast forward to Bush the Younger and Gulf War 2 and all the hype concerning WMD’s. By this point the press had been neutered. The Neo-Cons flooded the airwaves, with dire predictions. Anyone who opposed the war had their patriotism questioned – think here the band Dixie Chicks, that was vilified for opposing the impending war.

    Now almost anyone can with some photo-shopping software create a false image, post it on the internet and see it spread.

    The Trumpet (Agent Orange) like the scam artist he is understands:
    “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” Abraham Lincoln

    That “some of the people all of the time”, that he can fool is his base.

  19. JoAnne >> Sanofi, who makes Ambien, tweeted a response Wednesday morning: “While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”

    Dr. Rachel Salas, associate professor of Neurology in the Sleep Medicine Division at Johns Hopkins Medicine, said “people could text or tweet while on Ambien and not remember.” She advises people to avoid sleeping near their phone or electronics while taking sleep medication.

    Side effects of Ambien include:
    Abnormal thinking and changes in behavior: “Some of these changes may be characterized by decreased inhibition, similar to effects produced by alcohol,” according to its FDA-approved labeling.

    Hallucinations: “Visual and auditory hallucinations have been reported as well as behavioral changes such as bizarre behavior, agitation and depersonalization.” Confusion, disorientation and aggression are also listed side effects, the label states.

    https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2018/05/30/roseanne-barr-blames-ambien-zolpidem-drug-real-side-effects/654683002/
    ===========================================================
    So the drug maker has managed to divert the discussion of the known side effects to racism.

  20. The New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times spend a lot of money on a lot of people whose job it is to make sure their employers don’t get sued for printing disinformation. In the process, they often consult multiple sources on the same story. Fox News spends zero dollars to verify the faux facts they make up out of whole cloth. That seems to be a successful business model. While not perfect, I find the previously mentioned four sources reasonably reliable, and far more trustworthy than the creative writers who work for Fox News and pretend to be competitors.

    Diogenes confronted the same problem, but he didn’t have to deal with social media where flim-flam artists tend to back up the most sensational or contentious interpretation of any story. One way I distinguish truth is to instinctively distrust any version of a news item that backs up all the prejudices I bring to the story.

    Having said all that, I find myself to be highly suspicious of any story that casts Donald Trump in a favorable light, and thoroughly accepting of all stories supporting my belief that he is a profoundly disgusting human being. If, for example, he is able to denuclearize North Korea and thereby win a Nobel Peace Prize, I will continue to distrust his motives, his tactics, his methods, his understanding, and every aspect of how he pulled it off , including how long it will last. I refuse even to believe that he aspires to bring peace to the Asia Pacific region if no benefit redounds to the Trump family. It is not aberrant to suspect that a pathologically lying narcissist has hidden motives.

  21. Perhaps The Trumpet (Aka Agent Orange) is new branch of political humans. A new name for this branch could be Homo-Swampus:

    Case in point – The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. protects the current and future pensions of 1.5 million people. In theory, the agency steps in to help when economic downturns put working people’s earned benefits at risk.

    Donald Trump’s pick to lead a key agency that protects pensions has no relevant experience and no background in the field.

    Gordon Hartogensis only has one qualification: He is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s brother-in-law.

    Gordon Hartogensis is utterly unqualified to step in at such an important moment. The White House resorted to touting his ‘business experience’ from running his family’s trust fund and a few years working senior positions at technology companies. His major qualification is that he is married to the sister of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who is married to Mitch McConnell.

    The White House’s announcement about the nomination of the Connecticut resident does not mention his family relationship with Chao or McConnell, the senior Republican senator from Kentucky. Nor does it mention his current job or his past employers by name.
    https://www.cnbc.com/2018/05/15/trump-nominates-mitch-mcconnell-in-law-gordon-hartogensis-for-job.html

  22. Well, sometimes even we don’t have an answer about the way to go, which way to act, or how to react.

    THERE IS A SOLUTION TO THIS DILEMMA!

    IF THE QUESTION POSES A POSITIVEANSWER, then, “DO TO OTHERS AS YOU WOULD HAVE OTHERS DO TO YOU.” NOT EASY? SOME ACTIONS ARE NOT.

    SOMETIMES THE PROBLEM REQUIRES A NEGATIVE ANSWER BECAUSE OF AN IMPASSE;SO “FIRST DO NO HARM.” AND LOOK FOR A WAY AROUND.

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