Not a good look


Social media has largely taken over the family-and-friends propaganda market from email. I’ve mentioned my collection of over 200 specimens of right-wing “pass-it-on” emails. You know the ones: the lies, smears and disinformation we all have received from fathers and T-party uncles, the kind with large, colored type and maybe a gif of praying hands above the exhortation to “pass it on.” But in-box Izvestia pretty much tailed off as Facebook, Reddit, etc. gained market share. Sadly, what with email was overwhelmingly a phenomenon of the right has shifted left with social media. Not a good thing. We should be better than this.

In the misty past before the dawn of the internet (1980?), I was visiting the home of a friend who told me with some alarm that I should never buy any more products from the Procter & Gamble company of Cincinnati, Ohio. Its president, she said, was on the Phil Donahue Show and said the company gave money to the Church of Satan. As proof she told me, you could look on their packaging and see a small crescent moon and stars symbol, a “satanic symbol.”

“When did you see this?” I asked.

Oh, well, she had not seen it. A friend had told her about it. Except, of course, her friend had not seen it either, because it never happened. But because the news came from a friend and confirmed her darkest fears about how the world worked, she never questioned it.

For its part, P&G had to issue a press statement denying the rumor. It eventually changed its logo and some years later won a lawsuit against Amway for spreading it.. This is one of the earliest urban myths of the sort that gave rise to Rumors once passed over telephones and in living rooms have since gone digital.

Enter Facebook. “Pass it on” has given way to “Share.”

Frank Bruni opined in the Times over the weekend on how Facebook is warping our perception of the world. Bruni writes, “We construct precisely contoured echo chambers of affirmation that turn conviction into zeal, passion into fury, disagreements with the other side into the demonization of it.” Appealing to authority, Donald Trump said, “All I know is what’s on the Internet.” Bruni continues:

Those were his exact words, a blithe excuse for his mistaken assertion that a protester at one of his rallies had ties to Islamic extremists. He’d seen a video somewhere. He’d chosen to take it at face value. His intelligence wasn’t and isn’t vetted but viral — and conveniently suited to his argument and needs. With a creative or credulous enough Google search, a self-serving “truth” can always be found, along with a passel of supposed experts to vouch for it and a clique of fellow disciples.

Carnival barkers, conspiracy theories, willful bias and nasty partisanship aren’t anything new, and they haven’t reached unprecedented heights today. But what’s remarkable and sort of heartbreaking is the way they’re fed by what should be strides in our ability to educate ourselves. The proliferation of cable television networks and growth of the Internet promised to expand our worlds, not shrink them. Instead they’ve enhanced the speed and thoroughness with which we retreat into enclaves of the like-minded.


We’re less committed to, and trustful of, large institutions than we were at times in the past. We question their wisdom and substitute it with the groupthink of micro-communities, many of which we’ve formed online, and their sensibilities can be more peculiar and unforgiving.

The presidential primary has enhanced the effect. My feed is filled with caustic posts shared by friends who got it from their friends, gleaned from numerous sites I’ve never heard of with vaguely credible-sounding names. Shared by partisans as “research,” the praying hands are missing, but the point is the same as right-wing talk and chain email. Not to inform, but to inflame. To get people angry and to keep them that way.

For the left, it’s not a good look.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

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