Today, when we speak about people’s relationship to the Internet, we tend to adopt the nonjudgmental language of computer science. Fake news was described as a “virus” spreading among users who have been “exposed” to online misinformation. The proposed solutions to the fake-news problem typically resemble antivirus programs: their aim is to identify and quarantine all the dangerous nonfacts throughout the Web before they can infect their prospective hosts. One venture capitalist, writing on the tech blog Venture Beat, imagined deploying artificial intelligence as a “media cop,” protecting users from malicious content. “Imagine a world where every article could be assessed based on its level of sound discourse,” he wrote. The vision here was of the news consumers of the future turning the discourse setting on their browser up to eleven and soaking in pure fact. It’s possible, though, that this approach comes with its own form of myopia. Neil Postman, writing a couple of decades ago, warned of a growing tendency to view people as computers, and a corresponding devaluation of the “singular human capacity to see things whole in all their psychic, emotional and moral dimensions.” A person does not process information the way a computer does, flipping a switch of “true” or “false.” One rarely cited Pew statistic shows that only four per cent of American Internet users trust social media “a lot,” which suggests a greater resilience against online misinformation than overheated editorials might lead us to expect. Most people seem to understand that their social-media streams represent a heady mixture of gossip, political activism, news, and entertainment. You might see this as a problem, but turning to Big Data-driven algorithms to fix it will only further entrench our reliance on code to tell us what is important about the world—which is what led to the problem in the first place. Plus, it doesn’t sound very fun.
The various efforts to fact-check and label and blacklist and sort all the world’s information bring to mind a quote, which appears in David Goodman’s book, from John Grierson, a documentary filmmaker: “Men don’t live by bread alone, nor by fact alone.” In the nineteen-forties, Grierson was on an F.C.C. panel that had been convened to determine how best to encourage a democratic radio, and he was frustrated by a draft report that reflected his fellow-panelists’ obsession with filling the airwaves with rationality and fact. Grierson said, “Much of this entertainment is the folk stuff . . . of our technological time; the patterns of observation, of humor, of fancy, which make a technological society a human society.”
In recent times, Donald Trump supporters are the ones who have most effectively applied Grierson’s insight to the digital age. Young Trump enthusiasts turned Internet trolling into a potent political tool, deploying the “folk stuff” of the Web—memes, slang, the nihilistic humor of a certain subculture of Web-native gamer—to give a subversive, cyberpunk sheen to a movement that might otherwise look like a stale reactionary blend of white nationalism and anti-feminism. As crusaders against fake news push technology companies to “defend the truth,” they face a backlash from a conservative movement, retooled for the digital age, which sees claims for objectivity as a smoke screen for bias.
One sign of this development came last summer, in the scandal over Facebook’s “Trending” sidebar, in which curators chose stories to feature on the user’s home page. When the tech Web site Gizmodo reported the claim of an anonymous employee that the curators were systematically suppressing conservative news stories, the right-wing blogosphere exploded. Breitbart, the far-right torchbearer, uncovered the social-media accounts of some of the employees—liberal recent college graduates—that seemed to confirm the suspicion of pervasive anti-right bias. Eventually, Facebook fired the team and retooled the feature, calling in high-profile conservatives for a meeting with Mark Zuckerberg. Although Facebook denied that there was any systematic suppression of conservative views, the outcry was enough to reverse a tiny first step it had taken toward introducing human judgment into the algorithmic machine.
For conservatives, the rise of online gatekeepers may be a blessing in disguise. Throwing the charge of “liberal media bias” against powerful institutions has always provided an energizing force for the conservative movement, as the historian Nicole Hemmer shows in her new book, “Messengers of the Right.” Instead of focussing on ideas, Hemmer focusses on the galvanizing struggle over the means of distributing those ideas. The first modern conservatives were members of the America First movement, who found their isolationist views marginalized in the lead-up to the Second World War and vowed to fight back by forming the first conservative media outlets. A “vague claim of exclusion” sharpened into a “powerful and effective ideological arrow in the conservative quiver,” Hemmer argues, through battles that conservative radio broadcasters had with the F.C.C. in the nineteen-fifties and sixties. Their main obstacle was the F.C.C.’s Fairness Doctrine, which sought to protect public discourse by requiring controversial opinions to be balanced by opposing viewpoints. Since attacks on the mid-century liberal consensus were inherently controversial, conservatives found themselves constantly in regulators’ sights. In 1961, a watershed moment occurred with the leak of a memo from labor leaders to the Kennedy Administration which suggested using the Fairness Doctrine to suppress right-wing viewpoints. To many conservatives, the memo proved the existence of the vast conspiracy they had long suspected. A fund-raising letter for a prominent conservative radio show railed against the doctrine, calling it “the most dastardly collateral attack on freedom of speech in the history of the country.” Thus was born the character of the persecuted truthteller standing up to a tyrannical government—a trope on which a billion-dollar conservative-media juggernaut has been built.
Today, Facebook and Google have taken the place of the F.C.C. in the conservative imagination. Conservative bloggers highlight the support that Jack Dorsey, the C.E.O. of Twitter, has expressed for Black Lives Matter, and the frequent visits that Google’s Eric Schmidt made to the Obama White House. When Facebook announced that it was partnering with a group of fact checkers from the nonprofit Poynter Institute to flag false news stories, conservatives saw another effort to censor them under the guise of objectivity. Brent Bozell, who runs the conservative media-watchdog group Media Research Center, cited the fact that Poynter received funding from the liberal financier George Soros. “Just like George Soros and company underwrote the Fairness Doctrine several years ago,” he said, “this is about going after conservative talk on the Internet and banning it by somehow projecting it as being false.”
One lesson you get from Hemmer’s research is that the conservative skepticism of gatekeepers is not without a historical basis. The Fairness Doctrine really was used by liberal groups to silence conservatives, typically by flooding stations with complaints and requests for airtime to respond. This created a chilling effect, with stations often choosing to avoid controversial material. The technical fixes implemented by Google and Facebook in the rush to fight fake news seem equally open to abuse, dependent, as they are, on user-generated reports.
Yet today, with a powerful, well-funded propaganda machine dedicated to publicizing any hint of liberal bias, conservatives aren’t the ones who have the most to fear. As Facebook has become an increasingly important venue for activists documenting police abuse, many of them have complained that overzealous censors routinely block their posts. A recent report by the investigative nonprofit ProPublica shows how anti-racist activism can often fall afoul of Facebook rules against offensive material, while a post by the Louisiana representative Clay Higgins calling for the slaughter of “radicalized” Muslims was deemed acceptable. In 2016, a group of civil-rights activists wrote Facebook to demand that steps be taken to insure that the platform could be used by marginalized people and social movements organizing for change. There was no high-profile meeting with Zuckerberg, only a form letter outlining Facebook’s moderation practices. The wishful story about how the Internet was creating a hyper-democratic “participatory culture” obscures the ways in which it is biased in favor of power.