The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming … again! In the 1966 movie, they came by submarine. Today, they are coming through cyberspace to, um, start World War III? Or maybe, to get us to elect a president crazy enough to “put America first” and “rebuild the military” and “make America great again?” Wait, that won’t exactly help their cause. Maybe they want us to elect someone crazy enough to think he can try to make America great again, which will drive his opponents so crazy that they will burn the country down just to stop him? Yeah, that could be the plan. In any case, whatever those Ruskies are up to can’t be good. In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, it is foreign “election interference,” otherwise known as “why the Democrats lost the 2016 presidential election and who they can blame it on if they lose again in 2020.”
What exactly does “election interference” mean and should we be worried about it? Are foreign agents conspiring to get their hands on our ballots and change our votes, or simply trying to influence our opinions so we vote for the wrong guy or gal? If it is just about influence, they have plenty of competition from the mainstream media, alternate news sources, political parties, special interest groups, candidates for office, and anyone with an opinion on social media. Why would anyone think that foreign actors are any better at political influence than good old home-grown partisanship? The evidence seems to show that they are not.
What we now call political disinformation used to be called propaganda, especially during war. While propaganda often includes false information, it doesn’t have to. And it usually comes from a foreign source, but again, it doesn’t have to. There’s nothing inherently foreign about the rise and spread of disinformation. We’ve been doing it to ourselves for as long as there have been journalists and politicians. Remember the term “yellow journalism” first coined in the 1890s, and how it helped to incite the Spanish-American War? No? Well, it used to be covered in high school American history classes, but I would not be surprised if it is no longer part of the curriculum.
Disinformation has just become easier with so many new social media apps accessible to all 24×7 on a billion mobile devices. It only takes a meme or image or short video or a sentence to feed an uncritical mind the equivalent of sugar injected directly into the bloodstream. Is it someone else’s fault if we believe everything that is pushed to our screens? Are we so gullible that everything we see needs to be moderated by someone appointed to check its validity? Are the appointed ones even objective and do they even help? Is disinformation itself the problem or could it be our own lack of critical thinking skills?
A 2017 Yale study found that labeling Facebook content with “disputed” tags made participants only 3.7 percent more likely to judge headlines as false. According to one of the study authors, “All of these effects are tiny. Even to the extent it’s doing anything, it’s a small effect.” That doesn’t sound like much bang for the buck. The sheer volume of information that floods Facebook makes it impossible for the fact checkers to address every story. Therefore, when there are flags on some, but not all, false stories, people could be more likely to believe any story that was not flagged. And when stories are flagged as “false” but the quoted source of “truth” is disputed by other reputable sources, the entire system becomes suspect. The existence of uncertainty, where facts are either not known with certainty or precision, are in dispute, or are taken out of context, makes fact checking often untenable.
We don’t even know if people believe the stories they read and repost, or if they even read them before hitting the share button! Some comments clearly show that some people have no idea what they just shared. I have to admit to a feeling of evil pleasure in repeating a story that you know isn’t true, but makes you laugh or makes your opponent look bad. Even when you know that everybody else knows it isn’t real. It is our own political polarization that makes us easy targets for malign actors. Fear, hate and distrust can always be exploited by online trolls, by the mainstream “yellow” media, and even by our own malicious nature. Maybe we are the real exploiters, who like to push polarizing lies because it is fun! Almost as fun as a violent protests, burning and breaking things, looting a store for free stuff, or posting viral videos of others having a literal riot! Did you like the show America’s Funniest Home Videos? Even though you know a lot of them were staged? It’s like being back in high school. I bet people would love a show called America’s Meanest Political Trash Talk.
In any case, isn’t disinformation just free speech, whether foreign or domestic? Facebook has come under intense criticism by some who claim it is not doing enough to stop alleged misinformation (free speech), and by others for giving in to the demands of those who would suppress free speech (alleged misinformation). The compromise is an army of fact checkers who can dispute alleged misinformation (free speech) without actually banning free speech (alleged misinformation). Sounds like a reasonable attempt to show your critics that you are “doing something” even if it is a waste of time that cannot possibly keep up with the free speech of billions of people on the planet, most of whom seem to have something to say or just like to repeat what somebody else said.
It is not illegal for a citizen of a foreign country to express a political opinion in public forum in this country, or to do so anonymously or under a false name or to pay a US citizen who espouses similar views. I could do that any day of the week. Wait a minute, I think I’m expressing an anonymous political opinion right now! And you don’t even know if I’m a US citizen or if someone paid me to post! If I made you think, am I engaged in election interference? I hope so, comrade.
At least the growing fact-checker industry provides badly-needed employment, especially for out-of-work journalists. Because who wants to pay for information when there is so much getting tweeted out there for free? But who would have predicted the emergence of another job category that produces nothing and fails to solve the problem for which it was intended, which may not even be a problem? Facebook will not release any data to show whether fact checkers are even effective in identifying or slowing the spread of disinformation.
It is any wonder that US worker productivity has slowed to a crawl over the past decade? When people aren’t wasting time on social media, fact checkers are wasting time making sure we aren’t wasting our time in vain (that is, on a quest for the truth). The faceless new industry of fact checkers spends every day scrutinizing a never-ending stream of social media posts looking for the same never-ending stream of questionable factoids. It reminds me of the episode on the I Love Lucy Show with the chocolates racing down the conveyor belt faster than Lucy can wrap them. It would be funny if it wasn’t true.
I was always told there is no cure for stupid, but Facebook is under the gun to give it a try. Of course, Forrest Gump’s momma also told him “stupid is as stupid does.” They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. OK, enough platitudes. I think you get the idea.