I did not enjoy this essay by Timothy Egan. With unusual candor, Egan says flat out that he thinks suppression of the (admittedly kooky) views of arch-conservatices is necessary for his side to win. He waves to some vague sense in which technology has changed politics and the idea that we’re somehow in a uniquely pernicious moment in American history as justification for using a variety of legal and technocratic solutions to make what are fundamentally social and political problems go away. As usual the normative questions people want to debate (should we make those problems go away) are potentially made irrelevant by the empirical question they don’t (can these tactics actually make those problems go away). Personally I find Egan’s take to be both wrong (incorrect on the merits) and bad (poorly written and argued). Let me take you on a journey.
I used to believe that the remedy for bad speech is more speech. Now that seems archaic.
The overall form of this essay is pretty standard: it’s an argument that digital technologies have changed/are changing/will change the world, so we must do whatever the author thinks we should do. “Before it was the same, but now it is different” is something essayists love to pepper in there because it’s almost tautologically true and because most readers will just sagely scratch their beards
over it instead of thinking too deep.
For example, we might think about the strange perpetual newness of the internet in this genre. Before you could trust in the benevolence of more speech, now you can’t because, what - the internet? Because truth can’t survive in the digital age or whatever? Do people not get that widespread adoption of the internet is 25 years old? I still hear this stuff all the time. “The internet will totally remake education, there won’t be physical schools anymore, pass the blunt.” What do you mean, will? When the internet finally gets here? The internet has been doing what, exactly, for the prior quarter century? Warming up? Why would the internet suddenly become a font for misinformation now, rather than in 2012, say? We had Facebook then. We had YouTube then. We had Breitbart then. We had 4Chan then. We had a bizarre reactionary political movement made up of guys who own snowblower dealerships spreading lies on the internet about birth certificates and the secular left agenda. Why would misinformation be anymore prevalent now compared to in 2012? Republicans were too honest back then? No one has a remotely plausible material explanation for why today would be different - because “misinformation” is sophistry, a way to avoid having to actually make an argument.
The real reasons so many people believe that this is an inflection point in history are a) as human beings we are sure Now is unique/special/important because we live Now and we believe we are important so Now must be important; b) claiming a crisis inspires people to adopt a cause without pondering whether it makes any sense, such as when trying to solve thorny political questions with shortcuts; and c) a lot of people desperately need to believe that Trump was a totally unique figure in human affairs, rather than a garden variety demagogue, to flatter themselves that they lived under authoritarianism. (When these people tell their stories of enduring Trump to their grandchildren they’re going to be insufferable.) Regardless, the notion that speech is more dangerous than it ever was is a fiction. Speech was always dangerous. What people want is for it to always be dangerous for their enemies and never dangerous to them. Life doesn’t work that way.
Now is not new. How’s that for a general aphorism for life: now is not new. And the continuing prevalence of “the internet will change everything” narratives, in 2021, is so odd. We had the internet in school when I was in junior high. The internet has already occurred.
Just as the founders never envisioned how the right of a well-regulated militia to own slow-loading muskets could apply to mass murderers with bullet-spewing military-style semiautomatic rifles, they could not have foreseen speech so twisted to malevolent intent as it is now.
You get that the guys you’re claiming couldn’t have imagined twisted and malevolent intent owned human slaves, right? If the establishment authority of the late 19th century felt that owning humans was cool, that would imply that establishment authority (the kind Egan wants to empower to restrict speech) does not always know what’s evil. Wouldn’t the founders have tried to silence those radical abolitionist freaks, had they adopted Egan’s tactics? That possibility, that the system that is produced by these calls for censorship will actually itself become a tool for repression and wrongdoing, is always waved away by proponents, because they are sure that they themselves are good and their good intentions are all that matter. But malevolent intent, such as that within people who banned royalty but practiced slavery, is a constant presence in any type of human affairs, doubly so in politics. This is not new. Absolutely none of this is new.
Cyber-libertarianism, the ethos of the internet
Ah, cyber-libertarianism, the ethos of a free market of ideas that presides over every aspect of the digital age… through the totalizing dominance of the internet by monopsony capitalism. We can see this freewheeling libertine individualistic culture in the monetization of all human relationships by Facebook, the everseeing eye of Google, the frightening ubiquity of Amazon, the subtle social engineering of Apple, the trackers that follow you from place to place so that they can force ads for dick pills or Midol into your feed, depending, the automated censors of Reddit, the shrieking panopticism of Twitter, all the janitors and hall monitors of neoliberal technocracy. That’s the problem with online life: we’re too free! What we need is a locked-down internet. Imagine, an internet where everything you say is monitored, recorded and tracked, where you have to constantly log in to proprietary systems that use your information for shadowy purposes, where you are increasingly manipulated by algorithms and bots into saying just the right thing, where your choices are forever dictated by the whims of unaccountable powers. That would be crazy.
with roots in 18th-century debate about the free market of ideas, has failed us miserably.
When I think of the 18th-century Burkean parlor I definitely think of adolescent Vietnamese Facebook content moderators working 16-hour shifts to repetitively delete child porn in an endless Sisyphean nightmare so that your aunt can feel safe to enter “CONVERT GRAMS TO OUNCES” in the comments of a Bon Appetit video. I don’t know if Tim has ever made the acquaintance of the actual internet but he might consider investigating it before talking about Cyber Galt’s Gulch. The “cyber-libertarian” ethos of the early internet was a very brief flash of genuinely unregulated activity where the technical barriers to entry kept user numbers down sufficiently that capital didn’t bother to colonize the space. By the time everybody got on AOL any notion of an untamed internet had long since given way to the dominance of massive corporations. Jeff Bezos has a map of every cell in your body in his flash drive, but please, let’s talk about the dangers of the wild and untamed internet.
Well after the pandemic is over, the infodemic will rage on — so long as it pays to lie, distort and misinform.
Infodemic. Damn. You’ve done it again. Stunt on these hoes, king. That’s why they pay you the big bucks.
Just recently, we saw the malignancies of our premier freedoms on display in the mass shooting in Boulder, Colo. At the center of the horror was a deeply disturbed man with a gun created for war, with the capacity to kill large numbers of humans, quickly.
The “malignancies of our premier freedoms” is cute, but the problem with trimming off those malignancies is just the same as it was for the earliest cancer surgeons, never knowing when to stop cutting once you start. We could start with the “disturbed” part of this first. It’s become incredibly unpopular within the American left to attribute any acts of violence to mental illness, to the point where people argue against all sense and evidence that no acts of violence are the products of mental illness. (I guess it’s time to execute James Holmes!) They say this is to prevent stigma but as in everything else their real concern is being able to judge people in language unfettered by any constraints. So the shooter must have been lucid and rational, as otherwise he was something else than uncomplicatedly evil. Further any consideration that our mental health system needs fixing - any conception that these perpetual outbursts of horrific violence could be an opportunity to start better funding our tattered mental health infrastructure - becomes, somehow, disrespect to the dead, or to their races and genders.
So we’re left with the words and the gun. Those are our levers, our targets. Perhaps instead of starting with the (impermeable, virtual, digital, untrackable, untraceable, infinitely replicable) words, we start with the part that can’t be discreetly sent to the pockets of millions of people at once in a process so ubiquitous and subtle that none could notice it, the gun. If you think the equation is “misinformation + gun = murder,” which part would be easier to attack first? The part that can actually be physically intercepted at a border or port, or the part that can be exchanged now just by walking past someone? How about the gun? Let’s start with the gun. The gun that was, as you say, “created for war.” Unlike the average gun, which was conceived in the spirit of peace.
Within hours of the slaughter at the supermarket, a Facebook account with about 60,000 followers wrote that the shooting was fake — a so-called false flag, meant to cast blame on the wrong person.
That does suck. And in Weimar Germany a small revanchist movement that had none of the advantages of modern communications spread their propaganda and infiltrated the heights of society, steadily gaining recruits until it had the power to no longer need to move in secret. The converts were convinced of completely fanciful and eminently disprovable things and effortlessly guided to direct their anger over the immiseration and shame of Germany towards powerless groups. Their society fell for the biggest false flag of them all. They were radicalized without the internet pouring hate into their brands. And these were no podunks; pre-World War II 20th-century Germans believed that their society represented the apex of contemporary Western civilization. The German people got took nonetheless, despite the fact that the Nazis did not enjoy any of the affordances of today’s digital communications, the ones that Egan thinks make this a uniquely dangerous moment. Which suggests that perhaps the problem is not the internet and not even the speech but the fact that human beings can be corrupted by it. Before any misinformation started to flow, Germans hated Jews and wanted war. That was the problem. The particulars were just an expression of that problem. Problems of that size do not have easy solutions, if they have solutions at all.
So it goes.
Doesn’t it just!
Toxic misinformation, like AR-15-style weapons in the hands of men bent on murder, is just something we’re supposed to live with in a free society.
I mean, not for nothing but I don’t think we’re supposed to live with any people having AR-15-style weapons. We just choose to. Like we choose to live in a society where people would rather obstruct their opponent’s message than organically and painstakingly attract a sustainable movement of genuinely-converted supporters to enact an agenda that represents the denial of said opponent’s shitty message, because doing that’s hard and slow. That’s also a choice.
But there are three things we could do now to clean up the river of falsities poisoning our democracy.
First, teach your parents well. Facebook users over the age of 65 are far more likely to post articles from fake news sites than people under the age of 30, according to multiple studies.
Yeah and they’re also more likely to pay 75 cents for a large coffee, aren’t they? EXTRA EXTRA: SOCIOLOGIST TIMOTHY EGAN DISCOVERS THE SILENT GENERATION WORSE AT INTERNET THAN ZOOMERS. Tell me something I don’t know, Tim. Old people vote like they think every crank of that lever adds three years to their lives, so I agree, we gotta teach them parents well. Sadly most adults (including the 65+ set) find sentiments like “First, teach your parents well” to be immensely condescending. That’s the kind of sentence you use when you like the idea of senior citizens more than you like them as autonomous adults with free will, worthy of human discretion and human judgment. Personally I find that when I whisper to my 93 year old racist grandpappy “let me teach you well” he fucking does a little dance like Charlie’s grandfather when they found that golden ticket, turns off OAN and starts watching PBS Newshour.
Certainly, the “I don’t know it for a fact, I just know it’s true” sentiment, as the Bill Maher segment has it, is not limited to seniors. But too many older people lack the skills to detect a viral falsity.
Ah, the Bill Maher segment. That well-known reference to a group we all recognize! Not a day goes by when I don’t whisper knowingly to a friend, “I’m afraid he’s of the Bill Maher segment.” As relevant and timely as the Fatty Arbuckle contingent and the Rory Calhoun platoon. I think “Viral Falsity” is the name of the local hardcore band that played the El 'n' Gee that one time when I was 17 and I felt up a college girl on the patio and she gave me her pager number but I was too much of a pussy to call.
That’s where the kids come in. March 18 was “MisinfoDay” in many Washington State high schools. On that day, students were taught how to spot a lie — training they could share with their parents and grandparents.
It’s true: “MisinfoDay” is the kind of happening event that the kids really take to heart. Imagine coming home to your parents as a 16 year old and saying “no, Mom, Breitbart averages 3.5 Pinocchios per factcheck!”
Media literacy classes have been around for a while. No one should graduate from high school without being equipped with the tools to recognize bogus information.
They should probably learn how to change a tire too but I’m sure half of them couldn’t do that. No insult to our endearing teens but if classes designed to change their behavior worked Plan B sales would drop by a third. If by some miracle such classes make it into schools it won’t be for long. Conservative students have parents too and those parents will correctly recognize that this is a curriculum designed to squelch opinion popular among conservatives, as Egan explicitly states. And because conservatives largely dominate state-level politics, they control state Departments of Ed and can make these decisions. And in response they’ll intensify their own shitty creationist coloring book public school propaganda efforts and we’ll collapse deeper into this horrid fucking discursive hellscape where we all implicitly understand that every last political utterance is a grimy con designed only to help us exert utter dominance over our political foes because that’s all we have left, we, the pathetic detritus forced to wander the wastes of human political civilization as irradiated mutants.
It’s like elementary civics. By extension, we should encourage the informed young to pass this on to their misinformed elders.
OK again, have you met our misinformed elders? Do they strike you as particularly corrigible? What do you want our deputized children to do, bribe them with Denny’s coupons? Old people are racist as hell, man! They hate Black people like they love spending their disability check on Lotto. And you’re trying to pawn this task off to our precious youth? The kids are too busy these days! They’re all playing Digimon and doing YikYak. They don’t have time to teach Grandaunt Viv to antifa. Oh and the “informed youth” don’t know jack shit about Covid-19 so I don’t know why they’d be trusted to teach their elders about the John Birch Society.
Second, sue. What finally made the misinformation merchants on television and the web close the spigot on the Big Lie about the election were lawsuits seeking billions.
Sue who? Larry Fuckface, the Toledo-area dentist who really got that “Nancy Pelosi Killed Jeffery Epstein with Her Bare Hands” email chain going? Isn’t the whole problem with the alt-right that they’re so decentralized and removed from establishment channels that it’s hard to find targets worth hitting? You can’t whack every mole, it’s the oldest lesson about the internet. I don’t mind lawsuits against Fox News one bit but you can’t solve this on the liar’s side, you can only solve it on the lied-to side. The problem isn’t that there are liars; there will always be liars. The problem is that people believe them. You will never stop the flow of haters, but you can produce a populace wise and caring enough to reject them. If as a species we can’t solve that essential problem then we’ll never fix any of it. It has to start with the believers, not with the belief.
[Let’s skip some boring shit.]
Finally, we need to dis-incentivize social media giants from spreading misinformation. This means striking at the algorithms that drive traffic — the lines of code that push people down rabbit holes of unreality.
The lines of code that push people down rabbit holes of unreality, you say. You know you can just write that Black Mirror spec script. You don’t have to pretend it’s an NYT column.
The Capitol Hill riot on Jan. 6 might not have happened without the platforms that spread false information, while fattening the fortunes of social media giants.
Are people just not aware that a little cadre of pre-internet far-right lunatics blew up a huge federal building and killed a lot of people? Radicalization happened before the modern internet and will endure through any regulations to come. Nor, of course, are most great crimes related to misinformation at all. One of the worst mass shootings in human history was motivated by anger over an inscrutable real estate squabble. (For the record the shooter’s rifle was purchased from an ad in a physical newspaper.) There is a compelling notion that there is something like a steady state of human violence and that the violence simply mutates to find justifications, such as political radicalization. The real culprit in Columbine was not dial-up speed internet access or heavy metal but the seemingly innate psychopathy of the killers. People were radicalized into violence before the internet; people commit violence without a radical political agenda or any agenda at all; people plot horrible crimes without the input of any larger groups whatsoever, driven only by the mysterious hand of human evil. All of the lessons about terrorism we should have learned in the post-9/11 period apply perfectly well to right-wing terrorism, including the lesson that you can build a resilient society but not a safe one.
At the least, lawmakers could more effectively use this leverage to force social media giants to redo their recommendation algorithms, making bogus information less likely to spread. When YouTube took such a step, promotion of conspiracy theories decreased significantly, according to researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, who published their findings in March 2020.
There are desert birds that transport individual drops of water in their chest feathers for their chicks, but they don’t pass that moisture on nearly as lovingly as the far right spreads its propaganda to the gullible. I’m sorry to say. This is legitimately frightening but our fear can’t change the fact that the transmission of information is very, very hard to monitor or obstruct. (ISIS kept a print magazine going for years.) Sure, redo Facebook’s algorithms. There’s no world where that doesn’t privilege liberal content above conservative, but OK. I’m cool with it. But understand as you do that this is all another expression of culture war, garden variety, not a unprecedented attack on the forces of misinformation. You’ll ban their videos in the name of safety, but the real impetus is that the Capitol riot creeps were very deliberately and obviously Not Like Us, to the horrified liberals who watched them. Our endless culture war was literalized on January 6th and people have been investing that ugly and pathetic civil disturbance with mythical power. Meanwhile people who do vastly more damage, including specifically to people of color and other marginalized groups, talk and dress and act in ways approved by college educated liberals and so escape all scrutiny.
For example, a group of energy industry executives and their enablers in media and politics engaged in a decades-long conspiracy to mislead the world about the danger and imminence of climate change. Only unlike the Capitol rioters they operated with both power and impunity, virtually unremarked upon while spreading deliberate misinformation in perfect compliance with the law. Somehow they remain unchallenged by this type of liberal censoriousness. These masters of the universe are slowly heating the planet to levels certain to bring catastrophic consequences to human quality of life, but they don’t say nasty words on Twitter so they’re never targeted. They exert vast and malign influence over this country and yet Egan doesn’t even think to censor them. And they will reign as powerful old white men forever while liberals spend the rest of their lives screaming about a radical fringe of chubby losers with chinstrap beards.
Republicans may resist most of the above.
Would Democrats gladly nod along as conservatives instituted policies expressly designed to exclude their ideas? Look, once you sign up for dominance politics, you don’t get to complain that the other side wants to dominate you too. It’s like when an antifa guy gets beat up at a protest and sputters about how it’s unfair; once you deliberately get into a street fight you don’t have any standing to complain when you lose. Maybe Egan’s team will win this particular slap fight. Or maybe they’ll lose, and Republicans will be the ones deciding what counts as misinformation. I’m not saying that liberal media has as many distortions and lies as conservative media; they don’t. I’m saying that once it’s a question of who can wrestle control of censorship power, it doesn’t matter. Then the only question that remains is who has the power to actually censor. I am not confident that will be “the good guys.”
Lies help them stay in power, and a misinformed public is good for their legislative agenda. They’re currently pushing a wave of voter suppression laws to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.
The category “problems that don’t exist” includes the so-called border crisis the Biden administration is prosecuting so zealously, but never mind. Voter suppression is here and it is terrible. And if this were a universe where justice reigned, merely saying it was wrong would fix the problem. But it isn’t and it doesn’t. So, what are we gonna do about it? Like I said before: Republicans can pass these racist laws because they have ruthlessly pursued power in state politics. The Democrats could also pursue this power, and if they were as savvy about messaging and framing as the GOP, they could get it. But you actually have to do that part, Tim. You have to do the part where you keep your head down amidst frustrations while you slowly and laboriously chip away at the institutional power the Republicans have meticulously accumulated for decades. That’s how you beat them. Not by stripping them of their access to Tik Tok.
I still believe the truth may set us free.
OK, cool, very cool….
But it has little chance of surviving amid the babble of orchestrated mendacity.
… are you fucking with me? C’mon. “The Babble of Orchestrated Mendacity” is a Pink Floyd album. What are you up to, Timothy Egan? What’s your game? Why do you talk like the Riddler? This is fanfic prose. I don’t get it.
What is Timothy Egan’s real problem? It’s not speech; it’s not misinformation; it’s not fake news; it’s not even the conspiratorial right, really. Timothy Egan’s problem is simple and it will not be solved in his lifetime: the American conservative movement is large, popular, well-funded, adept at mass communication, and better at politics than its liberal counterpart. That’s Egan’s problem. It’s also my problem. The mainstream conservative movement, while in many precincts disdainful of the QAnon contingent, has always worked to embolden and empower its far-right fringe, on the understanding that the extremes define the center and that if the GOP moves the center right while the Democrats chase that new center the overall drift of the country will be towards conservatism.
Unfortunately the better side in our two-awful-choices democracy has become a finishing school for a feckless and inside-dealing elite, a post-collegiate mutual admiration society for those with the credentials and money to make the consequences of politics a distant concern. So now when conservatives say “fuck your bad knee, brown people are coming” the liberal response is not “how about some healthcare?” but “let’s talk microaggressions!” And this messaging preference is defended through the notion that putting health care above microaggressions is somehow to sideline the interests of people of color, despite the fact that most people of color would also prioritize health care themselves. The basic problem, Tim, is people like you - and me. Many people, most of them not remotely far-right, find college educated liberals viscerally unpleasant. Sure, QAnon is fucking nuts, biblically so. But if we’re mad about QAnon, why don’t we ask ourselves “why is a batshit cry-for-help conspiracy fantasy so appealing to people right now? What are they reacting against?”
I often wish I was of Egan’s type, a “one weird trick” liberal. That is, possessed of the strident belief that, with just the right adjustments, the world can be made comprehensible, can become nice. But I’m not of that type. I know that the nice world is never coming and I know that the far right is an inevitable consequence of human nature. Once you recognize that you no longer treat every expression of this inevitable far-right impulse like a constitutional crisis but rather look at it dispassionately as a problem to be confronted without breaking our system. You do confront that problem with force, but you do so as the vastly stronger and more organized party should, not flailing wildly like the United States first responding to Al Qaeda. The idea that the pathetic fringe that the Capitol rioters represent ever held anything like meaningful material power was always a fantasy. Meanwhile guys in red suspenders in the Financial District cause immense human suffering with their arbitrary decisions every day and nobody gives a shit. You can fix this asymmetry in attention only do if you realize that possession of the truth, like possession of the moral high ground, is useless. Only power is power. If liberals would learn that, they might get serious about taking some and really solving the real problems. But they’d rather write op/eds for the New York Times.
Image of RJD and Geezer Butler by Shadowgate used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license