If you haven’t noticed, Silicon Valley is still taking the blame for the political setbacks suffered by Western liberalism in 2015 and 2016. Russia and the native prejudices of the deplorables get some of it as well. But they are acting according to their natures. The electoral success of Brexit and Donald Trump has been laid at Mark Zuckerberg’s feet. It was Zuck who had a responsibility to protect the world from Fake News, so we’re told.
Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein from Wired make the latest attempt to explain the aftermath of Trump’s election within Facebook. The report accomplishes a few things. We are assured that even though Mark Zuckerberg was nonchalant at first, many Facebook executives were nervous that they would be blamed for Trump’s election. (These people should get bonuses.) One source claims that Zuck had to be “flipped” on the issue. We are told that Barack Obama himself had a come-to-Jesus talk with Zuckerberg about fake news. We are also given a neat little bit of blame-shifting. Facebook’s fake-news problem in 2016 was the inadvertent result of trying to appease conservative critics of Facebook, who had gone after the site when they noticed the trending-stories section of it had a consistent anti-conservative bias. Or so they say. In response, Facebook is going to rewrite its code so that it highlights “trusted” news sources. In other words, it is going to amplify and appease the mainstream publications that have the ability to sustain a moral panic about Facebook and fake news.
Behind all of this are curious superstitions, that news media — and social media that spread it — should be pedagogical. And further, that an information diet of properly vetted Truth will lead people to vote for Blairite, Clintonite, and Merkelish candidates forever and ever Amen. And all we have to do is make sure that the big players in the economy of distracted attention — Facebook, Twitter — boost the true stories, not the fake news.
And so Facebook has done more appeasing. Obama had used soft diplomacy with Zuckerberg. The Europeans offered more legal threats. After it had done so much to wreck the news industry, Facebook hired a few “fact checkers.” I’m sure they are pleased to work in offices with functioning coffee makers and well-stocked fridges. Now Facebook will be better regulated for correctness by English-speaking and German-speaking liberals.
The curious faith in the ability to regulate the news to make it more edifying, and to produce electoral results more in line with the moral arc of the universe as drafted by the mainstream press, contrasts neatly with the reaction to a recent New York Times column by Ross Douthat about the deleterious effects of pornography, and the need to regulate it, even censor it.
In response, critics used their free hand to type back that regulating pornography was a fool’s errand. They’ve replied that Douthat’s claim that pornography plays some deleterious role in the sex education of young boys isn’t proved out yet by the facts. The alienation of the sexes reflected in lower marriage rates, in collapsing birth rates, and even in lower rates of teen sex apparently don’t strike anyone as significant or worrisome.
It’s a funny thing to hold these two premises together. In one domain of human life, the political, we’re expected to be entirely sober, civic, and lacking in prejudice. We’re supposed to avoid what is coarse and coarsening. And the code that programs our media experiences needs to reflect those same commitments. In the next open tab, judgments about coarseness and its effect on the rest of society are openly sneered at. The heart — or some other organ — wants what it wants. Our culture-makers seem to believe in a neatly cleaved human nature. In one realm, we can expect ourselves to act as angels, and do the disinterested thing. In another, perhaps to let off some steam, we must give the Devil his due.
But perhaps the defenders of porn should consider that the common purveyors and sharers of fake news across social media are also engaged in a form of self-abuse, combined with titillation, and fantasy life. They no more believe that Barack Obama is running guns to ISIS than that the surgically enhanced 30-year-old woman in a plaid skirt is a very bad Catholic-school girl. It’s just a reality they prefer to envision. One where they can gaze into a backlit screen, click around, and imagine they aren’t wasting their lives clicking around on a backlit screen.