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Facebook’s fake-news problem and the rise of the postmodern right

We didn’t see this year coming, but we heard it from all sides. In Signal & Noise 2016, you’ll find the way we made sense out of all of that sound.

Is anyone surprised that Mark Zuckerberg doesn't feel responsible? One of the luxuries of power in Silicon Valley is the luxury to deny that your power exists. It wasn't you, it was the algorithm. Facebook may have swallowed traditional media (on purpose), massively destabilized journalism (by accident), and facilitated the spread of misinformation on a colossal scale in the run-up to an election that was won by Donald Trump (ha! whoops). But that wasn't Facebook's fault! It was the user base, or else it was the platform, or else it was the nature of sharing in our increasingly connected world. It was whatever impersonal phrase will absolve Zuckerberg's bland, drowsy appetite from blame for unsettling the things it consumes. In this way, the god-emperors of our smartphones form an instructive contrast with our president-elect: They are anti-charismatic. Unlike Trump, the agents of disruption would rather not be seen as disruptors. In the sharing economy, nothing gets distributed like guilt.

The argument that Facebook has no editorial responsibility for the content it shows its users is fatuous, because it rests on a definition of "editorial" that confuses an intention with a behavior. Editing isn't a motive. It is something you do, not something you mean. If I publish a list of five articles, the order in which I arrange them is an editorial choice, whether I think of it that way or not. Facebook's algorithm, which promotes some links over others and controls which links appear to which users, likewise reflects a series of editorial choices, and it is itself a bad choice, because it turns over the architecture of American information to a system that is infinitely scammable. I have my own issues with the New York Times, but when your all-powerful social network accidentally replaces newspapers with a cartel of Macedonian teens generating fake pro-Trump stories for money, then friend, you have made a mistake. It is time to consider pivoting toward a new vertical in the contrition space.

The sensational headline that's been thrown at Facebook's misinformation problem asks whether fake news cost Hillary Clinton the presidency. But you don't have to believe Facebook got Trump elected to be a little chilled by its current estrangement from fact. One of the conditions of democratic resistance is having an accurate picture of what to resist. Confusion is an authoritarian tool; life under a strongman means not simply being lied to but being beset by contradiction and uncertainty until the line between truth and falsehood blurs and a kind of exhaustion settles over questions of fact. Politically speaking, precision is freedom. It's telling, in that regard, that Trump supporters, the voters most furiously suspicious of journalism, also proved to be the most receptive audience for fictions that looked journalism-like. Authoritarianism doesn't really want to convince its supporters that their fantasies are true, because truth claims are subject to verification, and thus to the possible discrediting of authority. Authoritarianism wants to convince its supporters that nothing is true, that the whole machinery of truth is an intolerable imposition on their psyches, and thus that they might as well give free rein to their fantasies.

This is what Orwell meant when he wrote that the goal of totalitarianism is to destroy our "common basis of agreement," and it seems urgent enough just now that hundreds of Facebook employees have formed a renegade group within the company to try to stop the fake-news crisis. (It isn't only Facebook's crisis, of course — for a while this week, Google's top news link for "election results" pointed to a bogus site that showed Trump winning the popular vote — but Google is a search engine; Facebook is where millions of people live.) Zuckerberg should put on his best listening hoodie and hear them. Instead, they're guerrillas in Teslas, acting in secret and fearful for their jobs. 2017 is going to be magnificent.

We are living, to put it gently, in a strange moment. But then, why put it gently? This interval between electing the white-supremacist demagogue and seeing him take power — is there not something a little psychotic about it? Irony seems crueler, the gap between what we're told and what we're able to believe more perilous. (Who's going to be attorney general again?) The intermission is more shattering than the first act of the play was, not least because it is real. "Normalized" is the new normal. Journalists who won't trade independence for access face an unprecedented loss of access. In this climate, the problem of fake news on Facebook seems trivial, because it has nothing to do with what's happening on the street. It is also frighteningly essential, because democracy depends on a public forum, and ours is upside down.

One of the stories of this election season is that the American right has now fully postmodernized itself. This would have been hard to imagine even 20 years ago. There was a time, not all that long ago, when conservative Republicans considered themselves the party of virtue, a word they used not only in the evangelical sense but also to conjure a loose tradition of European and American moral philosophy. They championed Locke as well as Leviticus. I remember, as a teenager in Oklahoma, the proliferation of books by William J. Bennett on my friends' fathers' shelves: parchment-colored behemoths full of phrases like "Aristotle would have loved this poem" and "the treasure house of human wisdom."

Virtue was church, but it was more than that. It was an intellectual formation, or at least a gesture toward one. It was a sense that great things had been thought and written in past centuries and that whether one chose to familiarize oneself with those great things personally, by reading them, respectable people would still regard them with respect.

Often the battleground for this idea was the integrity of language itself. The conservative idea, at that time, was that liberalism had gone insane for political correctness and continental theory, and that the way to resist the encroachment of Derrida was through fortifying summaries of Emerson. Great Books. Great Ideas. Ideas have consequences. Words mean things. Remember the Clinton-era furor over "it depends upon the meaning of what the word 'is' is"?

What had really happened was that the left had become sensitized to the ways in which conventional moral language tended to shore up existing privilege and power, and had embarked on a critique of this tendency that the right interpreted, with some justification, as an attack on the very concept of meaning. But what would we have without meaning? Isolation and chaos, conditions in which it would presumably be easy to raise the capital gains tax. So if the left found itself in the strange position of supporting science on the one hand while insisting that truth was a cultural construct on the other, the right found itself in the even stranger position of investing in meaning even as it dissociated itself from fact. Evolution was a myth and climate change was a hoax, but philosophers still had access to objective truth, provided they had worn curly wigs and died enough centuries ago.

I don't know when it happened. Maybe with intelligent design? Maybe Colin Powell's WMD testimony? Maybe it was already under way, with Fox News and Rush Limbaugh? But at some point, the American right — starting with the non-alt version, the one before the one we just elected — took another look at the postmodern critique of the linguistic basis of virtue and tumbled absolutely spinning into love with it. It turned out that postmodernism also contained the seeds of a system that would shore up existing privilege and power. All you had to do was take the insights of subversion and repurpose them for the needs of authority.

Everything was a media construct? Perfect! Hang a "Mission Accomplished" banner on an aircraft carrier and pose for cameras in a flight suit. Truth was an attribute of language? Brilliant, talk about trusting your gut while you're shutting down the government. Political correctness invested victimized groups with moral power? Outstanding, redefine your own group, the most privileged of all the groups, as the most victimized. That this would fly in the face of all reason and common sense would make no difference as long as it was done unscrupulously enough, because the intellectual left had spent a generation taking apart the ideas of reason and common sense and was deeply unprepared to defend them. Even in the regular news media, the need for "balance" meant that you could say whatever you wanted and be sure of an airing that would make your weirdest hallucinations sound credible. So say whatever you wanted! The president is from Hogwarts! They've got sharia law in Kansas! White genocide is real! BROTHERS, TO THE BIRD SANCTUARIES.

And thus we arrive at the Trump campaign, with its annihilating virtuosity in falsehood; and thus at the Breitbart right, which loves small government so much it will settle for a little tyranny. Thus, too, we enter the context in which your Aunt Margaret clicks a link from her college boyfriend and learns from the Philadelphia Post-Intelligencer that Black Lives Matter protesters have been chanting their allegiance to ISIS. There has always been a heavy dose of unreality mixed into American reality. But so many of the checks against unreality have fallen away, and reality — the thing outside your windows — is paying the price for it. Alex Jones, the right-wing conspiracy theorist, who is "unhinged" in approximately the same way as the rubble of a wall whose doors have been blown off by dynamite, is starting an initiative to combat "fake stories being pushed by the Mainstream Media." Frank Gaffney, another right-wing conspiracy theorist, who is "unhinged" in approximately the same way as the asteroid remains of a planet whose doors have been vaporized by a supernova, is now on the presidential transition team. An America where we are all entitled to our own facts is a country where the only difference between cruelty and justice is branding.

Mark Zuckerberg, in his mild, untroubled blamelessness, may simply be demonstrating the Crescent Park version of the delusion afflicting many Trump voters, which is that privilege is itself a kind of innocence. But then, some things are hard to disrupt. And if our president-elect has taught us anything, it's that you don't have to believe in your own convictions to let other people suffer for them.

Check out more from the year in music, culture, politics, and style in Signal & Noise 2016.