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The Disinformation Age of Fake News

December 21, 2016

The Disinformation Age of Fake News

“No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”       P.T. Barnum

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Job prospects are bright for college grads interested in careers in fact checking.  Donald Trump has boosted the field with his many gross exaggerations, ignorant falsehoods and outright lies.  The growth rate in this new industry is so rapid that the market is having trouble keeping up with it.

Trump, being no stranger to the subtleties of the differences in each form of falsehood, practices all with equal enthusiasm and occasion.  Each day he spews forth outrageous statements that challenge the readily available data that proves otherwise. Despite this, there is no end in sight to his daily false pronouncements.  It’s not that he invented this style of management, there have been many experts before him who have paved the way, but in Trump’s case he has fashioned a new viral form through the use of social media blended with the power infused into his lies through rallies, a form of collective group surrender emulsifying the audience with his monumental ego, producing the current form of nationalism.

One of the his latest claims is that he won the 2016 election in one of, if not the greatest, landslide victories ever.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Whether evaluating his claim by the popular vote or the electoral votes, it is blatantly false.

Of the total votes counted for Clinton and Trump, 128,824,210, Clinton received 62,844,594 while Trump received 62,979,616, a loss of 2.22% for Trump, hardly a landslide.

But Trump’s claim gets even more preposterous when the electoral vote count is considered.  Of the past 58 elections since the founding of this country, Trump’s victory ranks 46th in the percentage of winning electoral votes, certainly not one of the greatest landslides ever in political history.

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Another current debate in the media centers on Trump’s refusal to admit that the Russians hacked the 2016 election.  It’s understandable that he does not want the legitimacy of his win to be undermined by nefarious actions on the part of the Russians, but his attempts to suggest that it could be the Chinese, or a fat man somewhere does not dismiss the data that a hack existed.

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In this all the security agencies of our nation are in agreement, the FBI, the CIA and the NSA. Any uncertainty on Trump’s part as to who performed the hack does not repudiate that a hack was committed. That notwithstanding, the agencies all agree hat it was the Russians.  Trump alone advances the argument for uncertainty, as he alone benefits from it.  In his heart he knows it does challenge the legitimacy of his win.  So just how does shifting the blame change the only fact that matters, that the election was hacked?  It doesn’t.  What it does do, is shift the focus of the discussion away from the facts and into the realm of speculation, his intent being that he won’t go broke underestimating the ability of the American public’s intelligence to distinguish between the two. And the sad news is, he is probably right.

The irony of all this is that Trump won the GOP primary and the general election by propagating  falsehoods regarding his opponents. The Russians, however, influenced voters to a Trump win by releasing accurate, however biased, information regarding the Democrats and Hillary. Say what you will about the Russians, but if the information had been leaked by the GOP, would we be in such a fuss about it?  After all, it’s true.  So ultimately the vote was an accurate reflection of the sentiment of the voters, whipped to a frenzy by Trump’s lies but codified by the truth revealed by hackers.  This should not be viewed as  an endorsement of the method but a confirmation of the belief in the truth of the information revealed. So one might be safe to say, “what does it matter?”  In general, we permitted many lies to go unchallenged but have stoked a large controversy over facts acquired through illegal means.  It seems our emphasis is on the means and not the content, perhaps rightly so.  The content is incontrovertible.

But today, the big topic is fake news and it’s everywhere, from politicians, the media, the entertainment industry and now in it’s final form from individuals on social media.  Fake news has come full circle.  Gossip is the original form of fake news.  It began when an individual with malicious intent inventing a lie that could be spread through simple oral communication, “the grapevine.”  It can be as simple as “Mrs. so-and-so has taken a lover” or as the lie that Lyndon Johnson once spread through his minions, “my opponent is fucking a pig,” just to see him deny it.

A good liar does not have to personally shoot someone on Fifth Avenue.  No, all they have to do is stimulate someone else to do it for them.

“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when at first we plot to deceive.”

In both cases gossip is manufactured to influence opinion. Is that not the very definition of a politician, creating perception?  Managing falsehoods can be the most relevant activity in a politicians bag of tricks.  It is performed most effectively through second parties such as media personalities like Rush Limbaugh, super pac advertising, loyal surrogates and paid pundits all furthering the principle of “divide and conquer” through multiple choice “truths” while maintaining deniability.

This is disinformation at its best, an art form practiced by spy agencies the world over, including our own CIA.  It redirects opinion away from the truth, obscuring the facts while creating multiple possibilities.   Like a court with a hung jury, we are mired in gridlock and division, unable to act as required.

Technology has played no small part in advancing the cause of disinformation.  It is the conduit by which a lie takes root so rapidly.  First, the lie itself becomes news.  Then the act of lying becomes news.  Then the spin becomes news, and finally the deflection becomes news.  The surrogates are trotted out to create confusion while the very existence of the lie is debated ad nauseam. If so many good people believe it, how can it be questioned?  It is repeated endlessly, over and over and over.  Maybe it is true?  Like kudzu overwhelming a tree, it becomes the only visible entity. Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK.

And with good reason.  Everybody profits.  The media profits with increased advertising revenues. The surrogates and pundits are well paid. All parties advance their political agenda.

Recognizing the potential in this arena supermarket rags have chosen to specialize in fake news, rags like the National Enquirer.  Aliens are keeping Princess Diana alive on Mars.  Brad Pitt is dating Honey Boo-Boo. Jesus appeared in a dog’s ass.  Elvis was identified at a truck stop in Alaska. Nothing, not even the most preposterous claims, has ever stopped them from going to press with it.  These stories are sold endlessly to gullible shoppers waiting in long checkout lines to buy their cigarettes, beer and ho-hos to return home with their snacks and settle in to an evening of FOX news and Duck Dynasty. This is the new American electorate.  It’s an easy sell for someone brash enough to try and one that pays off with big returns.

Like the best advertising, it creates a perception and then sells to it.  Just as that sale can justify questionable actions, it can also motivate to action or cause inaction.  It is a tool that can create gridlock or shatter the status quo, depending on how it is directed. It encourages the spread of an ideology for financial gain and it rewrites history.

Recognizing this potential, disinformation has come full circle, returning in an exponential degree to the private individual voice as fake news. Fake news, like the National Enquirer relies on the most outrageous and preposterous claims to attract the most attention.  It sells to perception as does the best advertising, and it feeds on the gullible, the innocent, the lazy  and the ill-informed.  The power of the internet and creation of social media gives voice to anyone with a story to share and the most mischievous can profit handily with paid advertising click-throughs, quite the incentive to spread clever lies, but also fertile ground for experienced political disinformation operatives.

But fake news is not a new phenomena, nor is it necessarily untrue.  Saturday Night Live crafted fake news into a comedic art form, but John Stewart and The Daily Show shaped it into a vehicle to comedically present real news and the truth behind it, in an entertaining form.  None other than Colin Powell, when asked in an interview, identified The Daily Show as his preferred news source.

Until the media cleans up it’s act we will be offered little choice, if that choice must consist of one form of fake news versus another.

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