We’ve just survived another April Fools’ Day, when people question what they see online and on TV.
Once a year isn’t enough. Skepticism ought to be Point A for everyone, always. Having a president who lies constantly is a serious problem; worse is the fact that his supporters don’t care. But even after Trump’s hopefully brief time in office, his and his party’s threatening legacy will remain: our crisis of gullibility.
It’s plausible the Republic will survive Trump and his weak-kneed, bought-off Congress; especially if this year’s election reflects an awakening to the danger we face. In question, however, is long-term sustainability with a significant portion of the electorate increasingly unable, unwilling or uninterested in separating truth from fiction. Not by accident, the answer begins to sound like “no.”
Born in the brain of Steve Bannon, bankrolled by the right-wing billionaire Mercer family, Cambridge Analytica is the final horseman of the information apocalypse, joining Fox “news,” right-wing radio screamers, and Russian troll farms. Trumpets are sounding, to ears that are deaf.
Cambridge Analytica, as everyone but Fox viewers knows by now, is an offshoot of the shady SCL group, a British outfit engaged by various autocrats and militaries around the world to produce psychological warfare against enemies and to bend elections. Having started technologically early in the game, their methods were variably effective. By the time Bannon saw the potential of mining social media, though, things had changed dramatically.
C.A. set up a shell corporation in Delaware, continuing to work overseas, digging up information on tens of millions of people via Facebook loopholes, computing their hot-buttons and vulnerabilities, and targeting them with massive amounts of specifically-curated disinformation. Their management is on record gloating that it didn’t matter whether their offal was true; just that it was believed. Sexual blackmail was a tool, too. It’s worth knowing they were hired in the U.S. only by right-wing players, including Trump’s campaign and his newly-announced, Fox-featured national security adviser. “Crooked Hillary” was their invention. Made people forget who the real crook was, didn’t it?
The effectiveness of such efforts is undeniable: bogus stories spread like oil-slicks, about Obama, the Clintons, their foundations; belief by the befuddled that Trump has never lied, has fulfilled each of his campaign promises; that he turned around a wrecked economy; that millions voted illegally for Hillary Clinton. The legality of Cambridge Analytica’s methods is in dispute, as is its impact on the election. (A just-published study suggested fake news influenced enough voting behavior to have changed the outcome [Ohio State University: tinyurl.com/2fakenews].) To be determined is the connection, if any, between Bannon’s baby and Russia; it’s noteworthy, meanwhile, that Russia seems to have had the same targeting information and tools as C.A., and that C.A. has offices in Russia.
There’s a psychological phenomenon known as “the backfire effect”: the tendency of some people, when shown data disproving a preferred belief, to believe it even more strongly. Though not confined to a single demographic, studies show prominence among self-identified conservatives, a convenient fact for exploitation by “truth doesn’t matter” political purveyors. (Liberals’ information-processing deficits seem mostly to revolve around “alternative” medicine, anti-vaccination, and anti-GMO nonsense. Bad enough; but at least it doesn’t elect autocrats, kakistocrats and theocrats.)
When I respond to false memes by providing a reputable source and indisputable facts, liberal senders acknowledge and rescind it, embarrassed. Unfailingly, Trumpists reject the source as fake, out of hand, never addressing the information provided. That’s an ominous difference. Given enough people behaving this way, democracy fails.
The counter to the gullibility crisis is to maintain skepticism, to retain and protect the means for separating truth from falsehood. Everywhere — in the White House, Congress, on the air, online — we see coordinated efforts against doing so.
Surpassing Russia and right-wing media, Trump has become the alpha purveyor of fake news. (Recent example: his attack on Amazon was lies piled on falsehoods. [tinyurl.com/trump2bezos]) His definition, though, is news he doesn’t like, and he’s made that the touchstone for his acolytes. The notion that CNN, NBC, The New York Times and Washington Post are fakery while Fox and Sinclair are sooth is laughable. And deeply dangerous.
Recognizing their disadvantage on the issues, Trump-likes have, for years, created in their base a penchant for fake news and a disdain for accurate reporting. Democracy’s last line of defense is education.
Enter Betsy Devos.
Email Sid Schwab at firstname.lastname@example.org.