If you have spent any amount of time on social media, whether it be Facebook or Twitter, you are bound to come across a post or tweet that is then editorialized as “disputed”, “partly false”, “misleading” , or just plain false. These characterizations are of course provided by “independent fact checkers” who are far from independent. This whole bit of malarkey was the subject of a recent congressional hearing, where big tech execs clumsily defended their policies. At this point, they could admit they were wrong or “welcomed feedback” as the mission had already been accomplished, i.e. the shaping of a narrative to the defeat the evil demi-god known as Trump. In this way they had thwarted two enormous threats to their respective businesses, removal of cheap H1B visa labor and a liability immunity shield under section 230 of the communications decency act (CDA). Section 230 says that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider” ( 47 U.S.C. § 230 ). So it follows they can’t be held liable for content since they are only a platform or “interactive computer service.”
Taking a step back, the behavior of tech giants in manipulating public opinion is only part of a bigger, much more troubling issue plaguing developed western economies. That is basically the death of journalism and the explosion of activist reporting where facts mean nothing and narrative setting is everything. I consider this as part of the Trump “butterfly effect”, where institutions once considered sacred have been exposed, all in the name of “Orange Man Bad.” The more sinister implication is erosion of the First Amendment, and what is considered the “correct” news. One does not have to go very far to the see the parallels to previous communist regimes where the media was simply an extension of the state. Which leads me to “Mr. Jones”, a 2019 movie about a British foreign affairs advisor turned journalist in the 1930s who interviewed Hitler. After his warning about Hitler to a group of British government officials falls on deaf ears, he sets his sights on interviewing Stalin as the Soviet economic numbers “don’t add up” in his view. The movie occasionally drops in a young George Orwell who uses Mr. Jones’s work partly as inspiration for his own in “Animal Farm”.
The movie is not about Hitler, Orwell, or even Stalin per se. What resonated with me was the parallels of todays western mainstream press with the Soviet Pravda. As Gareth Jones finds out in his effort to expose the atrocities of the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine, also known as the “Holodomor”, the propaganda machine is relentless. Jones is disparaged by Pulitzer prize winning Walter Duranty who was the Moscow bureau chief of the NY Times at the time. Duranty dismissed the notion of atrocities and famine in Ukraine, and more broadly argued that the Russian people were “Asiatic” in thought, valuing communal effort and requiring autocratic government. He claimed that they viewed individuality and private enterprise as alien concepts that led to social disruption and were just as unacceptable to them as tyranny and Communism were unacceptable to the Western world. Sound eerily familiar to today? The irony of the NY Times connection is not lost on me. In the end, Jones paid the ultimate price, dying one day short of his 30th birthday suspected to be at the hands of the Soviets.
Back to present day, you have a mainstream media that has lost credibility with a large portion of the American population. You see, Americans are not that dumb, and have a sense of what is real versus propaganda. Social media has become an extension of the mainstream press, parroting talking points of one ideology while dismissing other opinions as ignorant, debunked, or misleading. Only what they say is true, is true. Except again, Americans are not buying it as millions flee from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to MeWe, Parler, and Rumble. Those with differing opinions should enjoy this electronic “freedom of movement” as it may come under attack in the coming years. Maybe this is about Orwell’s prophecies after all.