While our previous chapter focused on political discourses, the internet, mobile telecommunications, and social media platforms have also become integral to our social lives and how we get news and information. A Pew Research study showed that 67 percent of Americans get news from social media, which is up 62 percent from the year before. This presents not only a challenge for the institution of journalism but also a crisis in how our society discerns information and truth in public discourse. Knowing the difference between real and fake news, as well as truth and misinformation has become increasingly problematic with the proliferation of tweets, memes, and so-called alternative facts. With open platforms on social media, anyone can share practically anything with everyone without any fact-checking filters, making it difficult to separate credible sources of information from specious ones.
Moreover, “bots” allow users to automate hundreds of posts from a single social media account within a day and spread false information from fake news sites at levels that can make it appear legitimate. “Bots” is short for “robots”; these are automated software programs that operate on social media platforms. They perform specific tasks, such as making posts, giving the appearance of representing a real person interacting and engaging on social media. For instance, two of the most popular conservative Twitter pundits during the 2016 presidential election campaign, “Jenna Abrams” and “Pamela Moore,” were eventually found out to be Russian trolls, manufactured by the now infamous Internet Research Agency. The “Jenna Abrams” account had over 70,000 followers, and combined with others from the same farm had immeasurable reach, if not effect, as bots can give the illusion of viral popularity for particular political perspectives and candidates.
Although bot-generated messages do not exercise mind control over social media users, when cranked out by the thousands upon thousands, they do allow certain ideological frames about timely political issues and candidates to gain saliency over others (e.g., “crooked Hillary,” “lock her up,” “build the wall,” “liberal media,” “Pizzagate”, etc.). Bot-generated tweets and ads posted on Facebook or Instagram from a broad array of accounts—“Jenna Abrams,” “Pamela Moore,” “Army of Jesus,” “Heart of Texas,” and many others—provide their own digital echo chamber and manufacture the prevalence of a certain kind of thinking, including thinking about issues related to elections as well as social justice.
The exploitation of fake news on social media became a point of controversy in the 2016 U.S. presidential election cycle after reports about Russians micro-targeting key voting districts in Ohio, as well as in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, with fake news stories on Facebook. Whether or not there was political intent to sway voters’ opinions, there was nonetheless a commercial incentive to produce stories with salacious headlines that would cater to individual biases, and more importantly, draw “clicks.”
Bloomberg News reported that an engineering manager at Twitter discovered a hoard of Russian and Ukrainian spam accounts in 2015, but the company did not delete them because doing so could be interpreted as a decline in popularity of the social media network. In Congressional testimony, the estimated number of fake accounts from Russia was reported to be over 36,000. For its part, Facebook estimates that at least 146 million of its users were exposed to advertisements purchased as part of a Russian campaign. Again, it is difficult to directly quantify the impact of those ads, but it does point to a more significant problem presented by a culture that, perhaps, is losing its ability to recognize and appreciate epistemic rigor.
Epistemology refers to an understanding of how we know things. For instance, science, and the scientific method, is one of the most regimented ways of knowing, as it produces empirical knowledge that is based upon direct and measured observation of specified phenomena. University professors and investigative journalists can be recognized as members of epistemic communities, as they employ empiricism in the discovery of knowledge and truth. The problem presented by fake news and misinformation is that it presents a sophistic kind of epistemology in which knowledge is based on what one wants to believe and is merely rooted in clever tweets and memes. As described by Plato, sophists used crafty rhetoric to make logically flawed arguments persuasive. Today we see sophistry as a form of post-truth discourse, where biases shape all news and information, and thus one source is no more or less valid than any other. No matter what the actual truth may be, there are “alternative facts” that offer another explanation consistent with one’s own worldview or self-interest.
George Orwell is credited for presenting the concept of “doublespeak” in his novel 1984, about a dystopian society in which “Big Brother,” the leader of the ruling party of a totalitarian state, uses what is termed “doublethink” to present patently hypocritical ideas as normal: “war is peace,” “freedom is slavery,” and “ignorance is strength.” Orwell also coined the term “newspeak” as an ideological form of language that ultimately leads to unclear reasoning. Although Orwell never used the term “doublespeak,” it has become fashionable to merge his concepts of “doublethink” and “newspeak” into a single term—“doublespeak”—referring to a form of rhetorical deception.
President Donald Trump regularly engaged in his own brand of doublespeak when describing any reporting about his administration that happens to be unfavorable as “fake news,” in addition to his denigrating attacks on journalists and journalism. From the campaign trail to the Oval Office, Trump stoked hatred and distrust of legacy news media by frequently describing the press and reporters as “dishonest,” “scum,” “horrible people,” “sleaze,” and “the enemy of the people.” These slurs are particularly troubling as they put actual fake news on an equal platform with journalistic institutions. In Trumpian doublespeak the real news is fake.
During Congressional hearings about fake news on social media, some started looking to the law to address the problem. However, the First Amendment provides a broad right of free expression, except in very rare circumstances such as blackmail, fraud, incitement, and child pornography. Moreover, most fake news or misinformation is likely to be regarded as “political speech,” which is at the heart of what the First Amendment is supposed to protect. Rather than trying to regulate false speech, it has been fashionable in U.S. jurisprudence to apply the “marketplace of ideas” metaphor, and trust in the self-righting process. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said that the way to counter falsehood, fallacies, and lies is with more speech—speech that is true.
However, fake news and Trumpian doublespeak may have exposed a fatal flaw in the marketplace-of-ideas metaphor, as the truth doesn’t necessarily emerge in a bot-generated barrage of sophistic tweets, posts, and memes. Moreover, Brandeis asserted that the news media is key to fostering an educated and well-informed public to make the marketplace of ideas work. In the post-truth world, though, the institution of journalism is the central target of doublespeak and its status is diminished.
Perhaps a public that values accurate and credible information is needed before journalism can perform its epistemic function. Only educated news audiences, or those motivated by a concern for accuracy, will critically distinguish sources of information, and take responsibility for what they communicate to others, whether it’s a share, a like, or a retweet. Only then will journalists be able to reclaim their status as an epistemic community, allowing audiences to consider the meaning of what might otherwise seem to be isolated bits of information. Before we can have an institution that successfully supports the exploration of truth, we need an audience with the critical literacy to appreciate that something can be true based on evidence, even if it is counter to our political worldviews. Otherwise, we will be left to swim through a digital marketplace of commercial and political appeals that will manufacture versions of reality in their own interest.
As the subsequent political economic analysis to be presented as a part of this project will show, the growth and distribution of fake news via bots on social media during the 2016 U.S. presidential cycle, along with doublespeak about what is considered “fake news,” has had a detrimental impact on the institutional effectiveness of journalism and has exposed an epistemic flaw in the oft-cited “marketplace of ideas” metaphor used in First Amendment jurisprudence. We will consider the impact on political discourse and social justice efforts.
Social media, social problems, and social justice
Given the political economic limitations of the digital marketplace of ideas described in this chapter, particularly in relation to national politics, questions must be raised about how social media is prone to manipulation around social problems and social justice efforts. Just as fake news played a critical role in the 2016 presidential election, similar concerns are present in the realm of social justice, as the largest Black Lives Matter page on Facebook was found out to be a fake one.
In January 2019 a fake account on Twitter flamed controversy around a Covington, Kentucky, Catholic high school, with a viral video showing students wearing “Make America Great Again” hats while confronting a Native American man in Washington, D.C., on the National Mall. A caption with the post claimed that the students were yelling “build the wall.” It turned out that the account that initially posted the video was deactivated because it checked several boxes for being a fake account. Ostensibly, the account belonged to a California teacher, but Twitter determined that it actually originated from Brazil and had an inordinate number of followers (approximately 40,000) for a non-celebrity, similar to the fake “Jenna Abrams” account described earlier.
A different video of the same incident emerged later that provided more details, more context, and further distinction than the original video that went viral. However, this later video came about after national outrage had already focused on the Covington Catholic High School students. Instead of having an informed public discourse about the event, a single fake Twitter account was able to spark political indignation over the incident by presenting it within a narrow frame of cultural politics. Even after the later video emerged, which showed that the students were not necessarily the sole aggressors in the incident, it was too little and too late to quell the controversy surrounding the students.
Furthermore, what seemed to bother social justice advocates was the disparity in how the white youths targeted by trolling after the initial video were treated with broader empathy after the longer video emerged—something that would not seem possible for Black people in somewhat similar situations, such as the Harambe incident in Cincinnati, which occurred a few years earlier.
Social media is the digital frontline of confrontations, where groups of people immediately stake out entrenched positions in the immediacy of a moment—and then vigorously defend that position, rather than engaging in discourse and moving to potentially changing positions based on new information, context, and nuance. Social media tends to present an epistemology of memes, mean tweets, trolling, and bullying, while legacy news media struggles to catch up and provide the context and nuance with more information to better understand events taking place.
In the Covington Catholic incident, it appeared that an entity (outside of the three that were actually involved) manufactured a version of reality and stoked emotions in such a way that no one wanted to concede any ground in their understanding of the event. Even in the aftermath of the confrontation, spectators on social media seemed closed off to perspectives and facts that contradicted their original position about the event. This phenomenon seems distinct in the post-2016 national cultural political divide and social media amplifies emotions, especially fear, anger, and outrage. Those who were originally critical of the Covington Catholic students claimed that legacy reporting of further details that emerged was an attempt to whitewash the incident and excuse otherwise boorish behavior by the students. Indirectly, it also presented a challenge to journalistic norms, which are to cover all sides of a story and provide as much information as possible. This further eroded trust in news media. In process, the artificial nature of the viral tweet in conjunction with the refutation of additional information about the event in D.C. gives some a means to dismiss legitimate claims of social injustice. Accordingly, the next chapter examines the manipulation of social justice activities on social media, and we will return to the Covington Catholic case in particular to further illuminate some of these points.