Fake News Had to Happen; But Why?

The following conversation, set in an executive boardroom – around ten years ago, may or may not have taken place …

  • Rupert: “G’Day Cobber. How’s it hangin’?” (You’ll have to imagine an appropriate accent.  Also imagine him sitting in a large black chair, stroking a white cat, if it helps.)
  • Bruce: “G’Day Boss. Bit of a bugger, tell the truth!” (Same accent; no cat)
  • Rupert: “Whassa problem, Bruce?”
  • Bruce: “It’s this ‘social media’, Boss. I dunno what we’re going to do with it.”
  • Rupert: “No worries, Bruce. I’m the most important man in the world. I can do anything to anything. What do I need to do to this ‘Media’ drongo? (Where’d he get a funny name like that?) And just what makes him such a sociable figjam, anyway? (Burp) I’m the cultured one around here. (Fart) Just ask Bushie and Blarie: they always said so.”
  • Bruce: “It’s not a fella, Boss; it’s a thing. Like Facebook and Twitter and stuff like that?”
  • Rupert: “Why should I be worried about that crap? Doesn’t make me any money.”

  • Bruce: “That’s the point, Boss. You don’t really have much control over it at all. We use it for advertising and stuff like that but we mostly can’t tell it what to say.”
  • Rupert: “No biggie, Bruce. There’ll always be a few pinkos out there who don’t read my papers or watch my TV. No-one takes any notice of them. They can say what they like: I tell the rest of the world what to think.”
  • Bruce: “But the Internet doesn’t work like that, Boss. On social media, anyone can say what they like and if people agree with it, it can be shared all over the world in a few minutes. It doesn’t matter how left-wing they might be, where they are in the world, how poor they might be, whether they …”
  • Rupert: “Bastards!”
  • Bruce:  “Yes, Boss. And these bastards on social media might be a threat to us. They might by-pass our conventional media and start telling people bad stuff. Then people might start thinking for themselves.  They might not buy the things we tell them to. They might not vote for the right people. They might even start blaming us for what’s wrong in the world instead of each other!”
  • Rupert: “Bloody bastards!”
  • Bruce: “And there’s nothing we can do to stop it.”
  • Rupert: “Bloody, bloody bastards!” (Stands up abruptly.)
  • Bruce: “Where are you going, Boss?”
  • Rupert: “To talk to the boss.” (Grabs ceremonial knife; puts on horned helmet.)
  • Bruce: “But you’re the boss, Boss!”
  • Rupert: “The real boss!” (Takes live chicken from cage; enters passage in corner of room, marked ‘The Nameless One’. Dancing flames are reflected on the briefly open door, which then closes behind him.)
  • (Twenty minutes pass. Rupert emerges, bloodstains on hands and around mouth, and sits down again.)
  • Rupert: “Sorted!”
  • Bruce: “What’s sorted, Boss?”
  • Rupert: “This ‘social media’ crap.  ‘Twitbook’ and ‘Facer’, or whatever it is.”
  • Bruce: “Sorted how, Boss?”
  • Rupert: “He’s told me what to do … We’ll screw it up! We’ll bugger it!”
  • Bruce: “How, Boss!”
  • Rupert: “We’ll play it at its own game! Take advantage of what it’s good at!”
  • Bruce: “How do we do that, Boss?”
  • Rupert: “Think about it. No-one can really control what goes out on social media, right?””
  • Bruce: “S’Right, Boss. So?”
  • Rupert: “So, we can’t stop people putting things on social media; but no-one can stop us either, right?”
  • Bruce: “S’Right, Boss. But how does that help?”
  • Rupert: “Coz we’re going to fill it full of shite!”
  • Bruce: “But we’ve done that anyway, Boss; in your papers and on your TV.”
  • Rupert: (with a difficult to interpret frown of either appreciation or disapproval at the previous comment) “Not on this scale, we haven’t: this is going to be way, way bigger. We’re going to fill social media with so much shite that people won’t know what’s hit them. And it won’t just be our normal stuff. It’ll be all types. Right-wing, left-wing, war, peace, bigotry, luvvies, our brave lads, terrorists, tree-huggers, big stuff, small stuff, clever stuff, thick stuff, scary stuff, nice stuff, someone’s done something, someone hasn’t done something, someone’s denied doing something – even though no-one said they did in the first place. The International Space Station is a Muslim recruitment centre, The Amazon is the highest mountain in Europe, Mother Teresa was a serial child-molester, The square root of orange is a triangle, ‘My truth is just as good as your truth: it all depends how you look at it’. We might even put on the odd sensible thing – just to confuse people. Eamonn Holmes has nothing better to do these days: I’ll get him to do it.  I’ll pay people to do it: by the thousands – millions if need be. I’ll fill the whole world full of shite!”
  • Bruce: “Hmm; well, it’s always worked before, Boss …”
  • Rupert: (the frown taking a darker turn) “By the time I’ve finished with it, people won’t trust social media to tell them what their own names are, let alone who’s said what or why. In ten years’ time, social media won’t be good for anything except telling you were Rasputin in a previous life!”
  • Bruce: “Ah! I see, Boss! And then …”
  • Rupert: “And then this daft social media experiment will be over; and they’ll all come back to my newspapers and my TV and my websites, and I’ll carry on telling them what to think and who to vote for!”
  • Bruce: “That’s brilliant, Boss!”
  • Rupert: “She’ll be apples, Bruce.”

OK, that may not have happened exactly!

But the principle’s pretty obvious … Social media is potentially dangerous – even destabilising – to the established order.  It has to be discredited … and that’s exactly what’s happening.  So, we know we’re right somewhere.

But why?

Why exactly is it happening?

Who, or what, is doing it?

And how did we know that it had to happen?

It’s an easy question to answer from a high-level perspective but the Devil’s in the detail (possibly literally).  In simple terms, as we’ve already said, social media had to be broken because it had the potential to destabilise the system.  That’s sort-of the ‘why’.  But to take that analysis further (getting at the ‘how’) involves a far deeper question: Why is ‘the system’ stable in the first place?  And this has had political philosophers arguing for years …

By ‘the system’, of course, we basically mean capitalism: a system that allows a small elite to live in privilege while keeping the rest of us fighting among ourselves for what’s left.  Capitalism has two essential weapons: an unequal distribution of wealth and power, and disinformation.  Social media threatens the former in a small way but the latter massively.

So why is capitalism so stable?  We can’t deny that it is.  It doesn’t make sense; it’s unfair – in fact it’s downright evil; it’s destroying the planet; it enforces miserable lives on the vast majority of people that survive it; and many millions routinely don’t survive it; almost all of us would be better off without it.  But it’s still here; we do nothing about it; it’s survived revolutions and local, temporal and spiritual denouncement; it will probably still be in place when it’s finally caused the world to burn around us and we’re all blaming each other – even though it was responsible.  How does it do that?

Well, to get a single, simple answer depends entirely on your underlying philosophy.  (But perhaps there is no such single, simple answer: perhaps the real answer is much more complicated … or perhaps all the individual answers are right in their own way.)  Perhaps we should instead start with something along the lines of: Is capitalism natural or unnatural? … and see where that takes us.  Essentially, do you think capitalism is an abomination, artificially maintained by a small number of evil people; or do you think it’s an unfortunate, but unavoidable law of the universe that societies have to decay into it?  To what extent, is there ‘a little bit of capitalism in all of us’, perhaps?

To paraphrase Solzhenitsyn: The line between good and evil passes, not among us but, through each of us: only the ratio to each side varies.  And, of course, the ‘Rupert takes orders from a higher evil’ model sort of bends the diagram around so that both ends join up anyway!  That’s often the way with these spectra: totalitarianism, for example, can manifest itself as an extreme of both political wings.  Or as Francis Galton put it, at the time mathematicians were beginning to get to grips with what would become probability theory, “I know of scarcely anything so apt to impress the imagination as the wonderful form of cosmic order expressed by the ‘Law of Frequency of Error.’ The law would have been personified by the Greeks and deified,if they had known of it. It reigns with serenity and in complete self-effacement, amidst the wildest confusion. The huger the mob, and the greater the apparent anarchy, the more perfect is its sway. It is the supreme law of Unreason. Whenever a large sample of chaotic elements are taken in hand and marshaled in the order of their magnitude, an unsuspected and most beautiful form of regularity proves to have been latent all along.”

Now, whichever underlying philosophy we like – whichever part of the diagram we think best explains the truth, we can translate the fake news phenomenon accordingly: we can plonk down an appropriate version in the right place, in the right terms.

… and you can add whatever subtle variants you like, wherever you prefer to relate back to the original model: it makes no real difference.

Over time, capitalism has evolved; not in terms of its underlying evil (whether that evil be fine- or coarse-grained as in the diagram) but in terms of its raw materials.  Capitalism works by processing raw materials into something else for profit, somewhat brilliantly profiting ultimately from the same people it exploited to make the something to sell to them in the first place.  (Always profit, of course: capitalism creates leisure facilities and shopping malls joyfully but hospitals and schools reluctantly – and only as a necessary part of whatever stabilisation mechanism it uses.)  The raw materials have changed over time from wood and stone, to metal and plastic, and now to data; but the principle remains the same.  It stays utterly stable – we just can’t agree on why, which is why it’s even harder to agree on questions derived from it.

So, did Fake News have to happen?  …   Yes of course; social media couldn’t be allowed to be a force for good: it had to be corrupted like every other nice thing that we could have but capitalism won’t let us.

Why?  …  Who knows?  Who cares?  It was just inevitable: just like everything else.  Social media had to be wrecked: it was just a small victim of whatever (law or otherwise) keeps capitalism intact.  Capitalism will survive – right to the bitterest of bitter ends.  It will destroy us.  And we’ll still be blaming just about everything and everyone else as it does so.

About Vic Grout

Professor of Computing Futures at Wrexham Glyndwr University, Wales, UK. View all posts by Vic Grout

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