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Who Is The Disinformation Beat Actually For?

An effigy of Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, dressed as a January 6, 2021, insurrectionist is placed near the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on March 25, 2021. - Protester set up effigies of Big Tech CEO's as the US Congress holds hearings March 25 about the spread of disinformation and misinformation on their platforms. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

It’s easy to tell who has and hasn’t had a screaming match with a small child. This isn’t a boast, but it is a formative experience: At some point while you are shouting what is logical adult reasoning at a child who refuses to accept it—either because they are successfully trying to irritate you or because they are genuinely incapable of grasping it due to a lack of brain development—you have an out-of-body experience and realize, to an outside observer, the line between child and adult has blurred. The longer it goes on, it starts to become unclear which of you two is the one having trouble accepting reality.

Disinformation is real. The public discourse over it, however, has reached the arguing-with-a-child point. The people who report on it and the people who are accused of it are starting to look similarly silly, or at least similarly unwilling to embrace the reality of the situation. Specifically, it is very hard for members of the fourth estate to accept that their objective efforts to declare truth are drops in the ocean of human behavior.

The disinformation beat is layered, and it bears dissecting. Aside from the stuff that has been driving ratings since 2016 in the disinformation industry—QAnon, Russia, COVID, January 6, various suited weirdos in the Trumposphere—there is a fairly diverse group of disinformation reporters. There are those who report on the sources of disinformation, probably the most valuable of the reporting: they uncover funding sources or linkages between the mainstream political world and the billionaires who whip up the frenzies. There are those who report on disinformation itself and what is being spread, which has some utility when used as a weathervane of the culture war but can be fantastical. And then there is the bottom rung: the people who report on the people who are susceptible to conspiracy theories: manic hee-haw gawking at the dumbest people on the planet interspersed with sky-is-falling panic over the fabric of reality. 

Worst of all, perhaps, are the intellectual reporter-critics who spend their time asserting that propaganda and disinformation might not even work. It’s unavoidably true that disinformation, an active political tactic for several thousand years, has no solution that is not paradoxical in nature, with the operative paradox being who gets to determine what is or isn’t real for the rest of us. A Harvard dork wrote about it last year, but as is typically the case with guys who haven’t had jobs aside from going to school and writing down what they think, it missed the forest for the trees. Specifically, by talking about disinformation solely through the lens of “big business,” writer Joe Bernstein captured the heart of the problem but stopped a little short by limiting his focus to the consumer research industry. This ignores how broader society works mathematically, which is essentially a big Rube Goldberg machine of quantitative algorithms (developed by the same people who are supposedly selling snake oil, according to the author) that do pretty accurately foretell what consumers do, say, and buy. It’s really easy to sell someone something. Look around your house at all the bullshit you have and don’t need and ask yourself if people really struggle to predict what you want.

Bernstein has the same cognitive bias most of us have: Nobody thinks this stuff works on them. So, for the intellectual class especially, this means operating on an assumption that one is a mere passive observer or, worse, academic of the cultural zeitgeist. But the disinformation discussion is not one of truth but one of credibility. There is a large chorus of institutional voices who are screaming about the disinformation situation, employed at places like NBC, CNN, the Washington Post, the New York Times. Even Fox News is able to get in on the action–because fact is material but interpretation and meaning are not, and “fake news” has no coherent definition—much to the chagrin of the liberals who started the DEMOCRACY DIES IN DARKNESS crusade. (The paper behind that slogan once fucked up so badly it had to give back a Pulitzer when it was discovered it had run a made-up story that demonized impoverished black people. The apology that editor Bob Woodward issued at the time did very little to assuage anyone, saying, “It is a brilliant story—fake and fraud that it is. It would be absurd for me or any other editor to review the authenticity or accuracy of stories that are nominated for prizes.”)

Inherent in this anecdote (and the many like it at other papers of record) is the part that nobody likes discussing, for obvious reasons: Our institutions don’t have credibility among the people they’re trying to convince. The knee-jerk reaction is to assume this means the InfoWars-type goobers, and those are the loudest, but there’s a sizable contingent of knowledgeable and relatively mainstream political voices who believe that even a cursory knowledge of American history is enough to be skeptical about everything. These aren’t the Alex Joneses of the world, but people like Noam Chomsky, who has argued for many years—in books, interviews, essays, and the types of things you do when you are an elderly man who spends all his time trying to be a rudder in a hurricane—that a process of self-selection among people who deeply believe in the mission of the American state all but guarantees that institutions like our national news media will forever be flawed. 

Times and needs change, but the institutions stay the same. This has a downright stupefying effect on processing public discourse and media literacy, as former counterculture stalwarts like Rolling Stone become little more than liberal cheerleader magazines while the readership, if not savvy, keeps thinking it’s getting the same “no holds barred” magazine that their dad talked about. A fact check from Newsweek in 2022 means exponentially less than a fact check from Newsweek when being Newsweek meant anything. This long tail of history also impacts the credibility of reporters who try to position themselves as an authority or moral voice of an industry while working at a still-respected paper like, say, The New York Times, which has manufactured public buy-in for atrocities that stretch back to the last World War. You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to be skeptical about what institutions are telling you; you just need to have read, like, three books. 

Rational, well-meaning individuals who work at these institutions can throw up their hands when voters reject even objectively correct facts, but it won’t change the fact that the public gradually loses trust as institutions fail them. That can be especially difficult to process for those whose claim to credibility rests upon the approval of those institutions they’ve already determined to be credible.

The most overwrought reporters on Earth—the ones who stare at the internet all day and convince themselves it’s similar to having bullets whizz by their helmet in Normandy—report breathlessly on each individual development amongst the only other group of people on Earth that can match their ontological fervor: conspiracy theorists. And they do so in ways that not only further confuse a convoluted discourse, but lend credibility to the very people whose influence they claim to want to reduce. This inherently turns them into the very people they mock, analyzing the angles of hands for white power symbols or chasing their tails on QAnon drops for a delighted crowd of barking seals. There is no question of the importance of tracking the activity of and reporting on potentially dangerous people in some of the far-right groups that have organized around these causes. But at what point are you just a person making fun of eccentrics and the mentally ill on Facebook? This isn’t exactly a call for sympathy much as it is a reminder that the day is limited and at some point you’re thrusting into the spotlight a pile of confusing shit that you’re meant to be reducing. Disinformation reporters at major outlets primarily have jobs because their bosses and readers are too old or too normal to get on 8Chan.

It’s in this sense that Bernstein nailed his critique last year, which is that there’s big business in convincing you that our institutions are the ones that know best, particularly when that horse left the barn and hopped a plane to Rio long ago. But there’s also big business in reach and viewership, and Jan. 6 gets eyes on the seats. It puts the modern crusader journalist in a predicament, forced to participate in the discourse on someone else’s terms and lacking influence because the stuff that sells doesn’t matter a fucking lick, even if it is a comforting idea that you could blame racist mass murders on toothaches.

The disinformation, unfortunately, is often coming from inside the house. The Dunning-Kruger effect has become something of an internet meme over the years as a joke about the ignorant: a psychological principle that basically states that people can’t process that they are not as sharp as the folks around them. The meme version that goes around most often makes this about ourselves: Isn’t it funny that none of us can know whether or not we are as smart as we think we are? But if you remove yourself from the equation, the Dunning-Kruger effect isn’t actually that unique of an observation. It basically says that people are liars, and accurately describes electioneering: If people are dumb, they say they aren’t, and if you aren’t smarter than they are, you probably won’t realize it. One of the central tensions of American politics is that once the votes are tallied, voter agency is over. So every election cycle is a gamble, voters betting on one of two people who are not just selling you on a vision but on their likelihood to have the—energy, wherewithal, gumption, whatever—to actually do the stuff they promised. Modern electoral politics is thus mostly a battle of legalese and media coaching, with some viral social media strategy sprinkled in ever since Donald Trump turned Twitter into a never-ending staging area for breathless non-expertise.

And so we get the logical nadir of the anti-disinformation campaign: The Department of goddamned Homeland Security establishing its own truth commission. Those with object permanence remember just how rightfully distrusted DHS was as the War on Terror continued to drag on, and even if you write that off as necessary evils of the era there’s still the fact that the entire job of the DHS is not exactly to tell the public the whole truth. “Today, terrorism is purple, so keep your eye on the airports” made for thrilling television but didn’t add much to our understanding of how the world was changing. But combating disinformation sounds good, so well-meaning liberals were wholly unprepared for DHS's Disinformation Governance Board to be laughed out of the room by both the left and the right.

The day after the the first January 6 hearing, one of the leading mainstream disinformation reporters tweeted that, according to his cursory look at the forums, extremists were largely disinterested in the outcome of the hearings, and instead were focused on all the gains they had made in making life hell for transgender people. From the reporter’s point of view, this was framed as evidence that people still just don’t take Jan. 6 seriously enough, and that “fealty to Donald Trump isn’t the primary goal of extremists anymore,” analysis that implies that this reporter fundamentally misunderstands his own beat. That reporter would write up the coordinated threats to queer Americans, but at the heart of the disinfo beat is the same liberal instinct that loses elections: an inherent belief that they can set the terms on which the public processes the world around them. Liberalism in the United States involves a never-ending triaging of the things that have broken in the past while reassuring an increasingly nervous population that the things breaking now will be fixed once proper diagnostics are assembled for the last big fuck-up. Meanwhile, the people fucking things up have moved on to the next thing. If this sounds like a diagnosis and condemnation of the Democratic party in our lifetimes, well, that’s no accident. The disinformation beat is running back a strategy that has proven ineffective in practice, and is wondering why it’s not working.

Disinformation is nothing more than dissonance between what is observable and what is perceived. Unfortunately, what is perceived occurs at the individual level based on an incalculable number of neurological inputs—everything from memories to experience to biases to myths that fit within an accepted framework—and that includes whether or not the person hearing it is prone to trust you. One can accept that reality, or one can spend their time trying to impress teacher by expressing eloquent, rational exasperation at a group of people who have never believed anything. The reporters have identified the right problem: The hordes of angry Oakley customers threatening the safety of our most vulnerable populations are being manipulated by very wealthy and powerful people with access to platforms with unprecedented reach. So, then, what are we doing spending our time on message boards?

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