Just when general-purpose kook Alex Jones had almost — almost — single-handedly turned the phrase “false-flag operation” into an unmistakable banner of kookery, along comes the news out of Alabama that Democratic operatives working with former Obama advisers and a left-wing Silicon Valley billionaire indeed ran a series of false-flag operations against Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, the first Republican to lose a statewide race in Alabama in a decade.
Moore, a controversial former chief justice of the Alabama supreme court, barely lost the race — the margin was just over 20,000 votes out of 1.3 million — in spite of allegations of sexual misconduct involving minors as young as 14 and his admission of having dated 16-year-old girls as a lawyer in his 30s.
With an eye on the burgeoning controversy surrounding Donald Trump’s alleged relationship with Russian operatives, Alabama Democratic operatives — in the words of their own report on the project — “planted the idea that the Moore campaign was amplified on social media by a Russian botnet.” “We then tied that botnet to the Moore campaign digital director, making it appear as if he had purchased the accounts.” Many of the bots were obviously Russian, with profiles written in Cyrillic. (In the interest of disclosure, I should note here that I had the same thing happen to me during the 2016 presidential race, with about 20,000 new Twitter followers, obviously Russian in origin, appearing overnight. Twitter helped to weed them out but was of no use at all in my effort to identify the source.) A Republican write-in rival to Moore also got a sudden bump of 10,000 new Twitter followers and received the enthusiastic support of a phony “conservative” Facebook page operated by Democrats. Another phony campaign, called “Dry Alabama,” attempted to sway moderate Republican votes by giving the false impression that Moore intended to pursue the prohibition of alcohol as part of his legislative agenda.
These shenanigans were paid for by Reid Hoffman, the billionaire cofounder of LinkedIn. Jonathon Morgan, the CEO of New Knowledge, which purports to be a cybersecurity firm, helped to carry out the scheme. The in-house report on the project describes its efforts to “enrage and energize Democrats” and “depress turnout” among Republicans. According to the New York Times, other participants in the project included a firm run by Mikey Dickerson, who was the founder and director of the U.S. Digital Service, an Obama-administration project aimed at improving federal information-technology programs. Also involved was Sara K. Hudson, a veteran of the Obama Justice Department who works with a technology company funded by Hoffman.
Renée DiResta, a New Knowledge executive involved in the operation, told the Times: “There were people who believed the Democrats needed to fight fire with fire.” She says she did not agree with that. Democratic operative Matt Osborne, who was behind the “Dry Alabama” campaign, was unapologetic: “If you don’t do it, you’re fighting with one hand tied behind your back,” he told the Times. “You have a moral imperative to do this, to do whatever it takes.”
That is part schoolyard ethics — “He did it first!” — and part old-fashioned political cynicism. But there is something else in there, too. When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was challenged by 60 Minutes on one of her patently absurd claims — that there are trillions of dollars in Pentagon accounting errors, sufficient to fund most of her Medicare-for-all scheme — the New York socialist elected as a Democrat protested that it was morally wrong to be “more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.” No, she apparently does not know what “semantic” means, but she knows what she is trying to say: Lies — and a willful exaggeration is only a cowardly kind of lie — are just another tool in the arsenal of social justice.
This is the new normal for American democratic discourse — a national conversation that no longer performs the function of democratic discourse at all.
That our discourse has failed is generally understood. What is not properly understood is that this is the final bitter fruit of the one thing that dismays conservatives even more than the Left does: media bias. Legitimate political news was not done in by social media and “fake news.” What has rushed out of the sewers of Twitter, Facebook, and Russian troll farms rushed into the void where the media’s credibility used to be.
Democratic discourse relies on a social order, and all social orders rely on hierarchy. As it stands, no institution — neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post nor any other organ — has the power to credibly declare, “These are the facts.” Trying to reestablish that credibility and hierarchy is what the plague of “fact check” columns and sites established in recent years is really all about: Unfortunately, PolitiFact et al. have proved as corrupt and incompetent as the rest of the press and have only repeated its failures.
As the Alabama debacle unfolds, a few old beard-stroking intellectuals have asked: “What can be done to combat fake news?” (Darrell M. West of the Brookings Institution, one among many, authored a long report on the question.) The short answer is: nothing. Fake news cannot be counteracted because fake news is what people want. Only a small minority goes to the media for information and insight; most go for entertainment and social vindication. Think of the relative audiences for classical music and Taylor Swift and you’ll have an idea of the difference in scale.
There are four main problems:
One is self-radicalization. Academic research shows a consistent tendency of groups to self-radicalize when asked to deliberate on a subject or task, especially a subject or task that the members of the group know nothing about. For example, mock-jury experiments have found that, after deliberation, those who had previously evinced severe views of justice became even more severe, while those who had evinced permissive views became more permissive. Both kinds of exchange typical of social media — i.e., among like-minded people and between members of groups with different views — contribute to polarization: Members of like-minded groups reliably become more extreme in their views after deliberation (somebody always wants to be the hard-core purist), leaving the typical view more extreme than it had been before the conversation; discussions between those with different views tend to reinforce the in-group/out-group dynamic, the us-and-them orientation that completely dominates our politics at this point in history.
The second is self-selection: After the murder of abortionist George Tiller by an antiabortion zealot, two researchers, Sarita Yardi of the Georgia Institute of Technology and danah boyd (sic) of Microsoft Research, followed the subsequent conversation on Twitter. What they found was not encouraging for the prospects of discourse: Even though there was relatively little new polarization of views (abortion conversations started out polarized), they discovered that over time the conversation grew more emotional — specifically, more angry — rather than less so. One of the things that drove the increase in anger was that the angriest people were the ones who stuck with the conversation — cooler heads did not prevail, but exited. The authors conclude:
Some people refuse to speak to people with opposing views and instead direct conversation only toward their co-ideologues. However, the technical constraints on Twitter could exacerbate the effect. The kinds of interactions we observed suggest that Twitter is exposing people to multiple diverse points of view but that the medium is insufficient for reasoned discourse and debate, instead privileging haste and emotion.
But it isn’t just Twitter. Paul Krugman made a splash in January with a column in which he christened the Trump administration a “team of morons.” There was almost nothing else to the column, just a Nobel laureate calling some people “morons.” It was one of his most-discussed columns in a long time. “Paul Krugman has a scathing new nickname for Donald Trump’s administration,” Lee Moran panted in the Huffington Post. “Team of Morons.” Anybody remember what Krugman’s Nobel lecture was called? No? That’s because Krugman’s readers in 2019 are after validation, not information.
Third, extremists define the conversation. Yardi and boyd found that the most extreme members of the abortion conversation in effect determined what counts as reasonable: “These tweets and users define group boundaries — the occasional extreme post may [bound] the rest of the group as rational.”
Fourth and finally: In the absence of a hierarchy of credibility, the only hierarchy that remains is the crude hierarchy of popularity. Rage and extremism build audiences, especially on social media. Measured and intelligent conversation? Not really. Celebrity (or notoriety, increasingly indistinguishable commodities) is the reason Kanye West is a more important voice in the national political conversation than is, say, George Will. President Trump may be vain to fret so much about his ratings and crowd sizes — or he may just be ahead of the curve.
The news is there for people who want it. The problem is: Most don’t. Intelligent commentary has become, practically overnight, a rarefied and specialized interest, like opera. If you’re looking for scale: The editor of Politico has a Twitter following that is 0.02 percent the size of Justin Bieber’s. Popular discourse is on the same trajectory as popular music: synthetic, primitive, illiterate.
The future is fake.