Tuesday, December 13, 2016

"Fake News", Censorship, Darwin and Democracy

Censorship is not helpful to democracy--rather, it is the death of democracy.
The mainstream media is awash with hyper-active headlines about "fake news." How can we make sense of this sudden obsession?
Perhaps we can start by separating "news" from "analysis" from "commentary." "News" is "he said this, she did that, this happened." Analysis tries to make sense of trends that are apparent in the news longer-term--for example, why did Trump win? Is the economy actually healthy or not? "Commentary" is opinion that establishes a point of view and defends it while attacking other POVs.
All three of these news flows are constantly being spun /manipulated to support specific agendas and narratives. Now we are being told some of these news flows are false/ misleading and their intent is to disrupt democracy.
I would counter that censorship is not helpful to democracy--rather, it is the death of democracy. It's all too obvious in the MSM hysteria over "fake news" that the narrative being pushed is: any criticism of Hillary or questions about her health, foundation, etc., were BY DEFINITION Russian propaganda.
Never mind that few if any voters changed their mind as a result of the "Russian hacking" (the Podesta emails); voters were already so polarized that the content of the the emails did not influence their decision, which was based on deeper foundations than "news."
The fear of those who want to preserve democracy is that under the excuse of "eliminating Russian propaganda" the status quo will restrict everyone who is inconveniently challenging the status quo narratives with data-based analysis.
One of the underlying issues in the "fake news" narrative is: the Internet is a new medium. It enables seamless surfing over an endless range of topics and images, it enriches those who design click-bait headlines that grab our attention, it enables access to "forbidden" material such as pornography, and it enables participation in content creation: posting text and photos on Facebook, Twitter, etc., adding comments to others' posts, and establishing feeds, websites and blogs.
Media philosopher Marshall McCluhan proposed asking four questions of any new medium--with "medium" meaning the type of media: film, TV, print, comics, etc.
What does the medium enhance?
What does the medium make obsolete?
What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
What does the medium flip into when pushed to extremes?
If we ask these questions of the World Wide Web/Internet, how do we answer?
What does the medium enhance? One possible answer is attention deficit disorder, as the web enables and even encourages a prosess of surfing that deranges our attention and our ability to think critically about the flood of content we're leapfrogging.
But a second potential answer is that the web enhances accessing the truly vast array of human knowledge and a taggering trove of information.
What does the medium make obsolete? One answer is "the conventional centralized corporate media" which curates, edits and massages the news flow to support specific narratives.
Another possible answer is "deep learning" as the temptation to jump to the next lilly pad overwhlems the discipline and focus needed to master difficult and nuanced material.
What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier? One answer might be "decentralized content creation and opinion." As the new mediums of newspapers, radio and TV expanded into every nook and cranny of the nation/world, the creation, curation, editing and massaging of content and opinion became intensely centralized.
This centralization led to a homogenization of content: no matter which of the three networks you were watching as the Vietnam war raged, the "news", content and opinion were basically the same.
Centralization of "news" and opinion enabled the central state to push a narrative that made its vested interests appear as inevitable elites rather than total fabrications that were dependent on the consent of the governed--a consent that was manufactured, in Noam Chomsky's phrase, to support the status quo narratives and thus the status quo's wealth and power.
But there was a problem with this centralization of content/opinion creation and curation: it no longer explained the events or trends that were visible in the "news."
If the federal government and the mainstream media were correct that we were "winning the war in Vietnam" and there was "light at the end of the tunnel," how could we explain what looked like a quagmire?
When the only medium available to dissenters and those challenging the status quo narratives was print (mimeographs, web offset printers, etc.) and physical gatherings (meetings, demostrations, lectures, etc.) then the central state could limit or disrupt dissenting narratives fairly easily.
This was the impetus behind the CIA's CHAOS surveillance/disruption program and the FBI's COINTELPRO programs to infiltrate and disrupt dissenting groups.
Limiting dissent in the age of decentralized content creation and curation is far more problematic. The Chinese central state supposedly pays hundreds of thousands of people to maintain its Great Firewall, but despite this gargantuan expenditure of treasure and effort, non-approved ideas are still leaking into China via the web/Internet.
200 years ago people printed pamphlets and spoke to small gatherings on street corners. That decentralized chaos was replaced by homogenized, centralized "news" and content curation.
Now the web has enabled millions of pamphlets and small gatherings, and the Powers That Be rightly feel their ability to control the "news" and narratives to support the rulign elites is irrevocably eroding--and hence their panicked demands to be given the power to eradicate "fake news," i.e. the baby of dissent will conveniently be tossed out with the dirty bathwater of click-bait and "foreign propoaganda."
What does the medium flip into when pushed to extremes? That is the question of the moment. Does the Internet flip into centralized censorship a la China's Great Firewall, where only ruling-elite approved "news" is distributed as "truth," or does the Internet descend further into a Wild West where anything goes, and the worst impulses of the human Id run amok.
This chaos has been described as a "failed state," and this choice of words is quite interesting. For it suggests that the Internet should be an orderly, centrally managed "digitally state" much like the central states that govern physical nations.
Perhaps what has failed here is the narrative that everything fails and falls apart if it isn't centrally managed and curated, a narrative that inevitably leads to censorship under the guise of "protecting you, the easily confused sheep, from these nasty wolves."
Censorship then enables another, much more well-organized and centralized pack of wolves (the ruling elites) to prey on the obedient sheep at their leasure, without fear of any disruptive dissenting narratives.
What the ruling political elites and their mainstream media shills fear is a wide-open, chaotic and very Darwinian competition of concepts and ideas.
they fear this so profoundly because they all know, somewhere in their hearts and minds, that their narrative is bankrupt, and that it no longer explains the world around us. It has failed, and this failure is now self-evident.
The mainstream media has faithfully promoted a neoliberal, neoconservative, Keynesian narrative that has failed to produce the expected results. No wonder trust in the mainstream media has declined sharply in the past few years. Why should we trust a centralized institution that has parroted policies and narratives that haven’t produced the widespread security and prosperity that its proponents promised?
The mainstream media’s “experts” who decry populism would rather blame "foreign propaganda" than examine why populism is on the rise: the mainstream political, financial and social institutions have failed to deliver what they promised, implicitly or explicitly.
This failure is powering a search for new ways to understand our world, and this is a positive dynamic. The process is messy and fraught with bad ideas, fake news, hidden agendas, propaganda, and here and there, powerful new ideas and narratives.
The ruling elites and their mainstream corporate media desperately want to shore up their failing narrative by censoring the creation, curation and distribution of competing ideas and narratives.
Censorship is not helpful to democracy--rather, it is the death of democracy. We should ponder that as the mainstream media's increasingly frantic cries for censorship fill the airwaves and print media.
Unfortunately for the ruling elites and their mainstream media shills, you can't put the Internet genie back in the bottle without destroying the economy and democracy.
This essay was drawn from Musings Report 50. The Reports are emailed weekly to our patrons and subscribers at the $5/month or $50/year levels.


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