Fascism And The Historical Irony Of Facebook’s “Fake News” Problem

Events like the Trips Festival helped drive a countercultural dream of escaping party-style politics through technology. If they just built the right geodesic domes, took the right LSD, and surrounded themselves with the right music and light shows, lots of folks believed they could establish a new and better society. This society would be based on a shared mindset, a shared consciousness that technology would help create.

This idea of shared consciousness became a conceptual foundation of the Internet as it emerged into public view. Stewart Brand and the people who were building communes in the 1960s reimagined computers as technologies of liberation. They turned the dreams of the commune movement — which by then had failed — into fantasies that the Internet could be an “electronic frontier.” The computer would now be a “personal” technology — that is, a tool like LSD for the transformation of consciousness. And the net would link these technology-enabled minds together in “virtual community.”

The counterculture’s utopian vision of technology still lingers in the air when, say, Ev Williams founds Twitter, or even when Mark Zuckerberg declares his desire to connect everyone on the planet through Facebook.

Q: But most people weren’t experiencing these exhibitions or psychedelic festivals. They were watching ABC, CBS and NBC.

Turner: By 1968, the psychedelic experiences I’m taking about were widespread. The rock concert was available. Thousands of Americans had gotten to experience it. They were quite universal by the 1970s and 1980s.

One questions we might have is why multi-media didn’t replace one-to-many media, the way the Committee for National Morale hoped it would. If multi-media was such a democratizing force, why is mass media still here?

One of the things we see with Trump and the Twitter-sphere is that when new technologies come on the scene, they don’t replace old technologies. They layer onto older technologies.

Twitter and its liberating potential is already mass mediated. It’s already commercial. When Donald tweets, he isn’t just tweeting to a general populace. He’s generating stories for CBS and NBC, and for that matter, Facebook. He’s generating stories that create an entire media sphere on their own. That is the source of his power. He is using the old fascist charisma, but he’s doing it in a media environment in which the social and the commercial, the individual and the mass, are already completely entwined.

Q: What could or should be done about fake news?

I think “fake news’ is a really important phenomenon. It’s rumor, and one of the things social media do best is accelerate rumors. Social media radically disable fact checking. They make it easy for people to make up stories that can travel at the speed of light. Social media also show that the original idea that the Internet could be a neutral dissemination medium for news was just a fantasy.

I’m not at all sure how firms should manage the new situation, let alone how the state should intervene. “Fake news” is only part of the problem. The real problem is actually more of a structural problem. Media firms in lots of different subsets need to make money on advertising. When you are dependent on advertising, controversy is good. Truth ceases to matter. It doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not. What matters is that it gets a lot of attention.

The structural incentives for commercial firms are to leave lots of leeway around the truth of stories because they generate ads. And this means that in many ways, “fake” is becoming our new “real.”

I don’t know how we rehabilitate science and fact. Some large subset of our population believes that climate change is a hoax. For them, the fake is completely real.

When you look the mid-20th century, you see Germany leaving facts behind too. Citizens cease to debate the German economy, and instead put their faith in a charismatic leader. In the US now there is a large population that can’t understand what’s happening to them politically, economically or culturally. Today, people can’t understand why abortion is legal. They can’t understand why gay marriage is legal. They can’t understand where the factories have gone.

It’s the turn from fact that makes fascism possible. If they turn away from reasoning altogether, they can turn toward feeling like part of a body following a charismatic leader.

That said, we have as a country been in terrible places before. PBS has been broadcasting clips from the 1960s, showing riots, people screaming epithets, and bigots, who at the time, had radically misplaced beliefs that African Americans were somehow less than us. At some deep level, I believe what Martin Luther King Jr. said: “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Q: What advice would you have to founders and people building products?

Turner: I don’t envy engineers or executives at tech firms. They’ve been put in the position of being legislators for our public debates. America’s architecture for such debates — Congress, the courts, the executive branch, and to some degree, the press — was built in the 18th century. But the conditions of public discourse have changed, and the speed at which those conditions are changing has accelerated too.

This makes engineers reluctant, but necessary, brokers of public discourse.

They should first exercise restraint, which they’ve done. They’ve allowed lots of ideas to come through.

But secondly, there’s a tough question in front of them right now: At what point do you stop exercising that restraint? Is there a time when something is so pernicious to the social good that it should be barred from being spoken on my platform? Germany outlaws anti-Semitic hate speech, for instance. Should Facebook?

So, if you start thinking down that line, if someone threatened murder, you’d probably take that off the platform. If someone threatened assault, you’d take that off.

But if a presidential candidate threatens to imprison an entire religious minority, if that candidate tells completely false stories that then circulates through these platform, should you remove them? And if so, how? I don’t know. But the German example would be good to look at.

In any case, we can’t pretend that engineers are not legislators of public discourse anymore.

Q: One thing that is interesting to me is how discourse around racism has been coded — on both the right and the left — for my entire life. On the right, you have the legacy of the Southern strategy developed by George Wallace, and then on the left, you have euphemisms for addressing the effects of institutional discrimination through talking about the value of diversity. This year, all of the norms and rules for discussing race have been blown apart and the discourse now is so explicit. What do you make of that and how social media has impacted that?

Turner: I was born in 1961. The explicit racism that you would hear about while I was growing up was about enforcing white domination. White power was widely assumed to be a normal thing in that period; the challenge for racists was to keep it that way.

One of the things I see now is that even with white racism bubbling up, there’s a new context. Today whiteness is just a race like any other. There’s a sense that whiteness is not the hegemonic norm. Rather, its dominance is something that has to be recovered. In that, we can catch a glimpse of a emerging American society that is genuinely multiracial.

Q: Any other thoughts?

Turner: If we want to make comparisons of today to 20th century fascism, I’d think about Mussolini and not Hitler.

The thing we forget about Mussolini is that he was a bumbling figure. A needy bumbler with the same need for showmanship that Trump has. Hitler, in contrast, was a full-on ideologue.

Trump is an opportunist, so it’s hard to know where he will go. Even if he were merely a kleptocrat, he might end up empowering others later who are ideologues through deeply undermining American law, norms and democracy.

If Donald Trump is a fascist, he’s a fascist for this time and this country, because the source of his power is his ability to manage and grab attention. He’s constantly seeking it. It’s a weird kind of charisma, and in that seeking, he draws us together, no matter how much we might disagree with his ideas.

Source : https://medium.com/initialized-capital/fascism-and-the-historical-irony-of-facebooks-fake-news-problem-d744b05045fd

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