Living in a post-truth society


The so-called ‘pizzagate’ story gets weirder the more one delves into it. It has become a symbol of how social media has enabled fake new gets circulated widely. For those not familiar with it, the story was that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party were running a child porn/sex trafficking ring out of a Washington, DC pizza shop. Just stating this will raise the eyebrows of even a marginally rational person, because it seems such an absurd claim on its face that it would require a high level of evidence to substantiate it. But apparently no evidence at all was necessary for the Clinton-haters, especially one person who went to the shop with a rifle to shut down this operation and shot up the place before being arrested. Fortunately there were no injuries.

Robert Mackey provides more details of how this absurd story spread and his own experience when he tried to confront the propagators.

When I learned that a man with an assault rifle had stormed into a Washington pizzeria to “self-investigate” an online conspiracy theory for which there is no evidence — that the restaurant is a front for child sex abuse involving Hillary Clinton — I decided to confront some of the alt-right bloggers who had played a role in spreading the hoax on the social network.

The gunman, Edgar M. Welch, surrendered after telling the police that he had discovered that there were no child sex slaves being held at the pizza place, Comet Ping Pong, despite the lurid fantasies he had read online about a made-up scandal known as “PizzaGate,” which surfaced just before election day.

pizzagate-code-wordsThis illustrates so well the idea of confirmation bias because by very virtue of repetition, something that is totally false can become seen as true as long as the news is congenial to your own views. Adding layers of detail, however preposterous, adds to the credibility. For example, it was claimed that while people were ostensibly ordering pizza, they were using code words for what they really wanted (see right). Mackey’s article also shows how any crackpot theory can be made immune from refutation by placing the burden of proof on those denying the claim, by saying that they will believe it is true until proven otherwise. Of course, such a defense is impregnable. People can cling on to anything, however meager, to sustain beliefs, and resort to saying things like “There’s no smoke without fire” in place of actual evidence. Even when the shooter himself conceded that he had found no evidence of a crime going on, the true believers said that this was a ‘false flag’ operation, and that the shooter was actually in on the crime and trying to divert attention from it and discredit the accusers.

Where do these stories originate? A BuzzFeed investigation finds that Macedonia is the home to many such stories and that young people there, some teenagers, are making a financial killing by feeding into the fantasies of gullible Americans.

Over the past year, the Macedonian town of Veles (population 45,000) has experienced a digital gold rush as locals launched at least 140 US politics websites. These sites have American-sounding domain names such as WorldPoliticus.com, TrumpVision365.com, USConservativeToday.com, DonaldTrumpNews.co, and USADailyPolitics.com. They almost all publish aggressively pro-Trump content aimed at conservatives and Trump supporters in the US.

The young Macedonians who run these sites say they don’t care about Donald Trump. They are responding to straightforward economic incentives: As Facebook regularly reveals in earnings reports, a US Facebook user is worth about four times a user outside the US. The fraction-of-a-penny-per-click of US display advertising — a declining market for American publishers — goes a long way in Veles. Several teens and young men who run these sites told BuzzFeed News that they learned the best way to generate traffic is to get their politics stories to spread on Facebook — and the best way to generate shares on Facebook is to publish sensationalist and often false content that caters to Trump supporters.

“I started the site for a easy way to make money,” said a 17-year-old who runs a site with four other people. “In Macedonia the economy is very weak and teenagers are not allowed to work, so we need to find creative ways to make some money. I’m a musician but I can’t afford music gear. Here in Macedonia the revenue from a small site is enough to afford many things.”

Most of the posts on these sites are aggregated, or completely plagiarized, from fringe and right-wing sites in the US. The Macedonians see a story elsewhere, write a sensationalized headline, and quickly post it to their site. Then they share it on Facebook to try and generate traffic. The more people who click through from Facebook, the more money they earn from ads on their website.

When you combine this willingness to believe anything that they agree with with a president-to-be in Donald Trump who does not care about the truth and is willing to say anything and spread any lie as long as it meets his immediate needs, and who is backed by a Republican party that cravenly refuses to confront him on this dangerous practice, it suggests that we have entered a bizarro time where truth consists of what you want to believe and the idea of evidence has no meaning to many people.

Take a look at this interview with some of Donald Trump’s voters and the way they rationalize Trump’s reversals. Look especially at the woman at the 4:10 mark when the interviewer asks about the false claim that millions of people voted illegally, something that was spread on a fake news site and then repeated by Trump. Under questioning, the woman keeps shifting her position in order to maintain her belief. She is so sure she is right but has no idea why.

People like to quote Abraham Lincoln’s statement that you can fool all of the people some of the time to explain the current state. In the Oliver Stone documentary Comandante (thanks Matthijs!) Fidel Castro, who has a bust of Lincoln in his office, points to it and says that he disagrees and that you cannot fool all of the people for even a short time. There is always a reality—based community out there that will bring you down to Earth and you ignore them at your peril.

What happens when the fictional world of Donald Trump and his supporters collide with that reality-based world? What happens when a court rules against him on some issue? What happens when the economy dips? What happens when there is some international crisis? What happens when good jobs don’t suddenly materialize? What happens when people lose their health insurance? What happens when Medicare and Social Security benefits get cut? What happens when other nations expect negotiations to be based on reality and not fantasy?

The list of real events that can threaten to prick the bubble these people live in is long. There is a limit to how much you can get from spinning your own fantasy world. Reality has a way of always winning in the end. And the eventual collision of fantasy with reality can be painful and hurt a lot of innocent bystanders. A hard rain’s gonna fall.

Comments

  1. sonofrojblake says

    it seems such an absurd claim on its face

    It seems absurd? That a cabal of powerful people could be involved in a child porn/sex trafficking ring?

    Two words: Jimmy Savile.

    Or four words: the Roman Catholic Church.

    The idea that powerful people could be abusing children, not just once or twice but in an organised and ongoing manner over decades even while in the public eye, is sadly anything but absurd.

    Or is it only absurd because the people in question are people you like?

  2. Saad says

    Tabby, #3

    Using a pizza place as a cover? Come on, sonofrojblake. Please don’t tell me you’ve fallen for this.

    You sound surprised. Have you read the one where they wonder why black parents keep giving their kids black-sounding names? Or how about the one where they say just ignore Trump, it’s fine?

  3. Militant Agnostic says

    Especially when the abuse takes place in the non-existent basement – we are way into Alex Jones territory here. Especially when the claim is based on an email from one of her associates.

  4. Reginald Selkirk says

    Or is it only absurd because the people in question are people you like?

    Because the people in question have been deeply hated for decades, and if there was mud to throw at them, someone would have thrown it long ago.

  5. Reginald Selkirk says

    I love the smell of Kool-Aid in the morning.

    Is that red Kool-Aid or blue Kool-Aid?

  6. sonofrojblake says

    @Tabby Lavalamp, 3: No, I haven’t fallen for this, because so far I’ve not seen any suggestion of any actual victims coming forward. But the idea that prominent, powerful people could be involved in child sex trafficking practically in plain sight is depressingly not “absurd”, and dismissing it on those grounds is literally dangerous.

    @Saad, 4: I’ve expressed opinions you disagree with in the recent past, so my point here can be safely ridiculed without engaging with its content in any way. Remind who it is who’s supposed to have drunk Kool Aid?

    Maybe it’s a US/UK thing. Maybe you’ve never heard of Cyril Smith, Greville Janner, Jimmy Savile. The first two were prominent politicians, the latter a popular radio DJ and television personality. They were also serial sexual abusers of children, not once or twice, but over decades, and in plain sight. You might consider absurd the allegation that one of the most famous men in the country would think he could get away with sexually assaulting a teenager live on national television… but that’s a thing that happened.

    So no – the suggestion that prominent politicians are running child sex rings does NOT raise the eyebrows of rational people. Rational people do seek evidence, though, which is lacking here. But considering such claims absurd on their face is what has let priests and other monsters off the hook until, well, today.

  7. KG says

    Or is it only absurd because the people in question are people you like? – sonofrojblake@2

    Like? You must be new here – Mano Singham has been conspicuous by his negative commentary on Hillary Clinton over the past year. But you should know there’s a regular poster here who also goes by the handle “sonofrojblake” – maybe you could use a different one to avoid confusion?

    Maybe you’ve never heard of Cyril Smith, Greville Janner, Jimmy Savile.

    Maybe you’ve never thought about how all three differ from Hillary Clinton – in that none of them were the target of a 25-year year campaign of unrelenting attack on every possible ground, valid or invalid, plausible or ludicrous.

  8. tkreacher says

    Pedant alert!!

    Begs the question doesn’t not mean “raises the question”, but rather is a term of logic that means “assumes a conclusion from an unsupported premise”.

    /Pedant alert

  9. sonofrojblake says

    @KG, 10: So what you’re saying is this: if someone is

    the target of a 25-year year campaign of unrelenting attack

    then any suggestion that they may be involved in any actual criminal activity involving sex with children is absurd and can be safely ignored.

    Yes?

  10. Holms says

    sonof, if you can’t see that this particular story is absurd on the face of it, there is no hope for you, but I think it clear that you are not arguing in good faith here based on the numerous differences in detail you omit. This story makes claims that go far beyond ‘Famous Person raped me and is relying on their celebrity cachet to quash any accusation’.

    It is claimed that there is a network of protitution disguised as a pizza shop open to the public, using a pizza themed code for placing orders for sex acts without any apparent way of preventing an ordinary punter accidentally ordering a ‘girl + little girl + orgy’ (pizza with cheese and sauce). This claim arises on a far right media outlet, without any supporting evidence, against a political opponent that the right has been slandering for decades, during her presidential bid.

    And you have the cheek to characterise this as 1) a reasonable allegation, and 2) that is being dismissed purely because Mano likes Hillary… despite Mano’s history of not liking Hillary.

    You’re a fool if you think we can’t see your dishonesty on proud display.

  11. sonofrojblake says

    To repeat – I don’t buy this story, for other reasons than the idea that it’s simply “absurd”. LOTS of other reasons, as it goes. But I’m obviously wasting my time.

  12. Mano Singham says

    sonofrojblake,

    You say you have “LOTS of other reasons” to not buy this ‘pizzagate’ story, implying that you too had little reason to believe it at all. What are those reasons and how does that differ from the more concise word ‘absurd’ which is commonly used to imply “ridiculously unreasonable, unsound, or incongruous”?

    When no evidence at all is produced of such a serious allegation, why is the word ‘absurd’ not a suitable description? The fact that other well-known people have been found to be pedophiles is hardly an argument. Are you suggesting that because a few people who are celebrities and politicians were found to be pedophiles, now all the people in the same class have the burden of proving that they are not pedophiles?

    Also, as many others have pointed out, your suggesting that I “like” Hillary, when I have been criticizing her harshly for a long time, suggests that you jumped to fact-free conclusions of motive, an ad hominem fallacy. All I have said in favor of Hillary is that she is better on some social issues than Donald Trump, a very low threshold.

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