The Era Of Disinformation

I know I’ve shared this story before, but it seems more relevant than ever. After publication of my first book (What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing at the ACLU?), I was interviewed on a South Carolina radio call-in show. It turned out to be the Rush Limbaugh station, so listeners weren’t exactly sympathetic.

A caller challenged the ACLU’s opposition to the then-rampant efforts to post the Ten Commandments on government buildings. He informed me that James Madison had said “We are giving the Bill of Rights to people who follow the Ten Commandments.” When I responded that Madison scholars had debunked that “quotation” (a fabrication that had been circulating in rightwing echo chambers), and that, by the way, it was contrary to everything we knew Madison had said, he yelled “Well, I choose to believe it!” and hung up.

That caller’s misinformation–and his ability to indulge his confirmation bias–have been amplified enormously by the propaganda mills that litter the Internet. The New York Times recently ran articles about one such outlet, and the details are enough to chill your bones.

It may not be a household name, but few publications have had the reach, and potentially the influence, in American politics as The Western Journal.

Even the right-wing publication’s audience of more than 36 million people, eclipsing many of the nation’s largest news organizations, doesn’t know much about the company, or who’s behind it.

Thirty-six million readers–prresumably, a lot like the caller who chose to believe what he wanted to believe.

The “good news”–sort of–is that the Silicon Valley is making an effort to lessen its reach.

The site has struggled to maintain its audience through Facebook’s and Google’s algorithmic changes aimed at reducing disinformation — actions the site’s leaders see as evidence of political bias.

This is the question for our “Information Age”–what is the difference between an effort to protect fact-based information and political bias ? And who should have the power to decide? As repulsive as this particular site appears to be, the line between legitimate information and “curated reality” is hard to define.

Here’s the lede for the Times investigative report on the site:

Each day, in an office outside Phoenix, a team of young writers and editors curates reality.

In the America presented on their news and opinion website, WesternJournal.com, tradition-minded patriots face ceaseless assault by anti-Christian bigots, diseased migrants and race hustlers concocting hate crimes. Danger and outrages loom. A Mexican politician threatens the “takeover”of several American states. Police officers are kicked out of an Arizona Starbucks. Kamala Harris, the Democratic presidential candidate, proposesa “$100 billion handout” for black families.

The report notes that the publication doesn’t bother with reporters. Nevertheless, it shapes the political beliefs of those 36 million readers– and in the last three years, its Facebook posts earned three-quarters of a billion shares, likes and comments, “almost as many as the combined tally of 10 leading American news organizations that together employ thousands of reporters and editors.”

The Western Journal rose on the forces that have remade — and warped — American politics, as activists, publishers and politicians harnessed social media’s power and reach to serve fine-tuned ideological content to an ever-agitated audience. Founded by the veteran conservative provocateur Floyd G. Brown, who began his career with the race-baiting “Willie Horton” ad during the 1988 presidential campaign, and run by his younger son, Patrick, The Western Journal uses misleading headlines and sensationalized stories to attract partisans, then profit from their anger.

But Silicon Valley’s efforts to crack down on clickbait and disinformation have pummeled traffic to The Western Journal and other partisan news sites. Some leading far-right figures have been kicked off social media platforms entirely, after violating rules against hate speech and incitement. Republican politicians and activists have alleged that the tech companies are unfairly censoring the right, threatening conservatives’ ability to sway public opinion and win elections.

In the U.S., only government can “censor” in violation of the First Amendment. But tech platforms have vast power to determine what Americans see, whether the exercise of that power is legally considered censorship or not, and they will increasingly determine what Americans see and read.

Most of my students get their news from social media. To say that the outcome (not to mention the sincerity) of Silicon Valley’s efforts to clean up cyberspace will determine what kind of world we inhabit isn’t hyperbole.

 

16 thoughts on “The Era Of Disinformation

  1. Yes. Disinformation for political purposes has been with us, I think, ever since the invention of democracy and news type media. In Texas, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, sponsored by the Koch brothers and a variety of corporation moguls, tried to influence the legislature and public opinion. In Texas, it worked.

    In my book, “Killing the Dream: America’s Flirtation With Third-World Status”, I recounted the state’s comptroller’s report that showed Texas at the bottom in ALL social services and ALL public spending. Texas led the league in pollution, teen pregnancies, school dropouts and uninsured poor people. The Texas education system ranked in the bottom five in national testing. You get the idea.

    Republicans simply do not care about the people they are supposed to govern. It’s in their platforms, for heaven’s sake, to defund EVERY public service, deny children critical thinking in public schools and foist their evangelical views of parenting on everyone. They make me sick.

  2. One of my Facebook friends regularly serves up doses of poppycock from right-winged sources. I had to bite my tongue the other day when she sent a message saying her FB page had been hacked and we should know she doesn’t post crazy stuff. I can hardly wait to see what her hacker sends.

  3. This “Era Of Disinformation” leads me to question the sudden appearance of Trump Primary opposition by Republican party members; primarily, is the party actually supporting the current three who will pose no threat to Trump’s reelection due to their histories? Can we consider “disinformation” the same as “a lie by omission” as we wait for the GOP to support or oppose any of the three questionable Trump opposition thus far? Former South Carolina Governor, Mark Sanford, who disappeared for six days in June 2009; reports feared he was lost while hiking the Appalachian Trail when he was in Argentina with his mistress during that time. Sanford so far appears to be the leading contender.

    During Trump’s ranting campaign speech last night in North Carolina to support the Republican candidate in the special run-off election, he slipped in the words “to support the Sovereignty of America” to rousing cheers. Do his followers understand what they cheered for? A Monarch reigns over his realm in a Sovereignty; a position Trump believes he already holds and they, knowingly or unknowingly, support.

    “In the U.S., only government can “censor” in violation of the First Amendment. But tech platforms have vast power to determine what Americans see, whether the exercise of that power is legally considered censorship or not, and they will increasingly determine what Americans see and read.”

    When will this government; primarily the sitting Republican Senators upholding McConnell’s lack of censorship of Trump actions, rants and Tweets as required by his/their Oath to Uphold the Constitution of the United States of America, censor Trump or McConnell, et al? The current administration has been allowed to bastardize freedom of speech as written in the 1st Amendment; creating the “Era Of Disinformation” we are forced to accept.

  4. As Vernon put it, we have had disinformation since the founding of the country. Yellow journalism remains a staple for those with evil motives as the technological advances we enjoy have only expanded the reach of that type of journalism. Combating it by demanding sources be named and the producer of such news put his real name on the report remains our only weapon in this ongoing battle we all are responsible to wage.

  5. As soon as I read your statement that the caller to the radio show refused to believe the truth and “chose” to instead believe confirmation of his bias it brought my thoughts back to people in the church I grew up in.

    Far too many of them are simple-minded people just like that caller. To this day they are the ones who are quick to believe BS that confirms their biases and dig their feet in when someone presents them with the actual factual truth. They will not be swayed by facts that go against their biases.

  6. Once again, a prime reason for teaching “truth literacy” and critical thinking in public schools per (I know y’all are tired of this) “Teaching As a Subversive Activity” by Postman and Weingartner. This is the root cause…

  7. I think you can call it “willful ignorance.” Something that people really know is not truthful but choose to believe anyway because it falls in line with their own personal ideals. Willful ignorance and those who court the willfully ignorant are a perfect match. Most churches paddle willful ignorance, especially when the preacher completely goes off the rails from what Scripture states, but the congregation eats it up anyway, even if they’ve been shown the contrary is true.

    Willful ignorance denies climate change, willful ignorance denies self-destructive habits such as smoking, gluttonous behavior (excessive drinking) and pill popping. The willfully ignorant use that feigned ignorance to hate their neighbors, and put themselves on a martyrs pedestal. When they find something that promotes that willful ignorance, whether it be a news outlet, Church, Politician, social media, or the Western Journal, they feel vindicated and authorized even if, in the back of their mind they know there is a lot of untruth and what they are consuming.

    Willful ignorance has many incarnations, willful cheating, knowing it’s wrong but doing it anyway, willfully demonizing their neighbors, willfully causing harm to women and children, willful hate. All of these things are practiced in their places of worship, not every single one, but there are enough out there for people to choose what fits their own personal wants, needs and desires.

    Deuteronomy 10:17, 18 and 19 which is summarized by noting that God does not take bribes, but God executes the justice for the fatherless child and the widow, and that God loves the foreign resident because the Jews were foreign residents in the land of Egypt. And that is why there are supposed to be love for those downtrodden, to help them as they themselves were helped. And that those who abuse these downtrodden will be judged and dealt with accordingly.

    You definitely don’t hear that on their news outlets and their social media pages. In 2nd Timothy 4: verse 3, it states, “there will be a period of time when they will not put up with the wholesome teaching, but according to their own desires, they will surround themselves with teachers to have their ears tickled.”

    So, when they edit Scripture to allow them to act inappropriately, then not only are they willfully ignorant, they are hypocritical in their rantings, and by Scripture itself, they are told they will be judged and found guilty of their activity. Most really do know this who attend these echo chambers for right wing lunacy, but they really don’t believe it. They just use it as an authorization to continue on the path that they feel is desirable for them and ingrained in their being.

  8. In the spirit of “…keeping my enemies closer”, I signed up for the Western Journal email ”news” letter some months ago. Comparing their slant as applied to authentic news coming from credible sources such as NYTimes, Washington Post, BBC, Christian Science Monitor, and TV network news has become an educational pastime of mine.

    Some items I can dismiss immediately. Others take some digging and consideration to “get” what are the deeper, darker motives behind WJ’s take on daily happenings. “Top Govt Official Just Utterly Debunked Dems on Dorian Narrative”, “Beto Uses Texas Massacre for his own gain”, are just a couple of recent examples of WJ headlines.

    So, keep in mind, when disinformation stats are repeated, sometimes they are not accurate. They may well have millions of followers. However, as of this writing today, only 35,999,999 are drinking the WJ Kool Aid. Maybe less.

  9. Confirmation bias is a statement of a condition of the human mind. We all have egos so suffer from it. However we all can lessen the dysfunction of it by use of the most fundamental tool of science and criminal law: rely on evidence foremost.

    That leads to “what is evidence” which scientists recognize as measured reality under conditions that reduce the variables to a minimum. They accomplish that by the scientific method process which begins with a hypothesis, a question as narrow and specific as possible that will be definitely proved true or false by measurements of reality from a carefully controlled experiment.

    None of that is news to most people but confirmation bias is so much easier as a means to believe.

    That leads to the question, is the problem being considered one of what to believe or what to fundamentally understand?

    For too many people in too many situations it’s what beliefs best cement my relationships within my tribe.

  10. Trump by all objective measures is the most corrupt least competent US President ever. Therefore the biggest enemy of Republicans are objective measures.

  11. Trump by all objective measures is the most corrupt least competent US President ever. Therefore the biggest enemy of Republicans are objective measures.

  12. Now the President of the United States manufactures disinformation almost daily. Just ask those hurricane ‘victims’ in Alabama.

  13. Trump fired Bolton as National Security Adviser…he must have leaked the truth once too often. Didn’t get the “Disinformation Only” Tweet?

  14. JoAnn, I would not look for the Truth in John Bolton. Bolton is a rabid NEO-CON. Good riddance to bad Rubbish. Still, you would need the EPA (what maybe left of it) to go into the White House to eliminate all the Toxic Waste.

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