This year, we entered a brave new world of bullshit. It goes beyond the fake news we’ve heard so much about lately – though that’s a central component of our new post-truth environment. It has a conservative bias. It poses a threat to our democracy. And our institutions, including the media, appear totally unprepared to deal with it.
American presidents have always engaged in political spin, shaded the truth and, when they could get away with it, told carefully crafted lies. But with weeks to go before his inauguration, President-elect Donald Trump has already proved to be a different animal. Trump was elected following a campaign in which 70 percent of his statements were rated “mostly false,” “false” or “pants on fire” by PolitiFact, and he has since demonstrated a penchant for spontaneously creating his own fake news with just a few keystrokes on his Blackberry.
This story is about more than a president’s ability to muddy the waters. Trump’s spent hours on Twitter excoriating reporters for stories he didn’t like, which unleashes his flying monkeys on journalists, many of whom have received death or rape threats.
He’s also shown that he can dictate the direction of news coverage with a single wacky tweet. The political world spent just about all of Tuesday talking about flag-burning instead of Trump’s many conflicts of interest or his terrifying cabinet picks. Ideally, we’d all ignore his provocations, but in the real world, a tweet from the president is news.
Trump’s mendacity has dovetailed neatly with the larger conservative bullshitosphere. That should come as no surprise, given that Breitbart’s Steve Bannon is deeply embedded in Trump’s administration.
Consider this example: If you’re anywhere on the left side of the ideological spectrum, you probably know people who protested Trump’s Electoral College victory. You may have done so yourself. But many Trump supporters are convinced that there’s no popular outcry over the election results, and thousands of protesters are only marching in the streets because they’re being paid by George Soros. Never mind that this is a recycled conspiracy theory dating back to the Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri, or that the Washington Post tracked down the guy who was happy to admit that he’d made up the now-viral “news” story that started this nonsense – the belief endures, in part because the president-elect himself tweeted about how “unfair” it was that “professional protesters, incited by the media,” were out in the streets.
The idea that people would need to be paid to protest a president-elect who got more than two million fewer votes than his opponent is ridiculous, but if you had Googled “who won the popular vote?” two weeks ago, one of the top results would have been a piece of fake news hailing Trump’s popular vote victory from a conservative website called “70News.” On November 15th, Breitbart ran a story claiming that Trump won the popular vote in the (bizarrely defined) “heartland” of America by a “landslide.” Philip Bump of the Washington Post characterized those claims as “hilariously idiotic,” but Trump himself echoed them on Sunday, tweeting, “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”
These themes won’t be shaken by the fact-checkers, whom a lot of people believe to be hopelessly biased anyway. A poll conducted a couple weeks before the election found that six in 10 Republicans believe undocumented immigrants vote, and four in 10 think fraudsters voted en masse under dead people’s names.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. During the Obama years, a symbiotic relationship developed between Britain’s infamous tabloids and right-wing American websites like Breitbart and the Drudge Report. The tabs provided a steady stream of sensational, exaggerated reports of migrants and asylum seekers running amok across Europe, and their American compatriots in turn sent them a ton of credulous readers. Early in 2015, Fox News mainstreamed one such report claiming that Birmingham, England, was plagued with “no-go zones,” where Islamic extremists ruled and non-Muslim Britons feared to tread. The story, which had long been a staple of The Daily Mail, was breathlessly hyped by a bunch of conservative media outlets in the U.S., cited by then-presidential candidate Bobby Jindal and ultimately offered to Fox News by “terrorism expert” and professional Islamophobe Steve Emerson, whom former British Prime Minister David Cameron characterized as “a complete idiot.”
Researchers at Oxford University recently found that bullshit “news” is as likely to go viral on social media as the real thing, and that during the final months of the election, more people engaged with fake news on Facebook than with real stories. They also noted that automated pro-Trump Twitter “bots” overwhelmed positive messages about Hillary Clinton. “The use of automated accounts was deliberate and strategic throughout the election,” the researchers wrote.
Purveyors of fake news had varied motives. There are industrious web denizens – from unemployed restaurant workers in California to a bunch of Macedonian teens – who found that fanning the anger and paranoia of Trump supporters was an easy way to make a quick buck. Lee Fang reported for The Intercept that “some of the biggest fake news providers were run by experienced political operators well within the orbit of Donald Trump’s political advisers and consultants,” and they were joined by Russian propaganda outlets like Sputnik, which had honed their art in disinformation campaigns across Europe.
As more people turn to social media for their information, traditional journalism will continue to be swamped by nonsense. It’s easy to flood the zone with dishonest click-bait given that it takes moments to spit out a fake news story and often many hours to produce a well sourced, edited fact-check in response.
Meanwhile, mainstream reporters have responded with a lot of tut-tutting. Some have blamed this whole situation on the Russians – the Washington Post, for instance, responded with a shameful story promoting a shady group of un-named neo-McCarthyites who consigned virtually all non-mainstream media outlets into the fake news category. If the fake news peddlers’ intent was to undermine the public’s trust in all media, they’ve done a great job of it.
All of this is a culmination of longer trends. Conservative donors developed a well-funded alternative media universe to combat what they perceived as the bias of professional reporters. Media siloes were erected around our increasingly partisan tribes, the barriers to entry into publishing fell away with the advent of social media and the transmission of information now outpaces traditional reporting.
But we’re entering this era of Peak Bullshit at a time when democracies appear to be fraying, and authoritarianism and ethnic nationalism are gaining a foothold throughout the West. Without any institutions capable of serving as relatively neutral arbiters of reality, we may end up retreating into our own bubbles and stewing on the righteousness of our “factual” beliefs, however divergent they may be. In that kind of environment, the survival of democratic pluralism is anything but a sure bet.