Bad Faith Has Many Brands

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Bad Faith Has Many Brands

Defeat has many parents, and buck-passing cannot be the national pastime.

(Image: Esther Vargas/cc/flickr)

These days are for resistance to the abomination that has befallen us; as also for decent conduct among our injured humanity of every shape and color; as also for “tears of rage, tears of grief,” in the pained words of our Nobel laureate, who some 50 years ago saw the hard rain falling, as it was then and shall, for some time, continue to do. Rending of garments would be an appropriate recourse, though it would be better to donate the garments to the homeless whose presence on the streets is an everyday pointer to the grand social failure which has borne such rotten fruit.

A narrow loss cannot possibly be laid at a single door.

But amid all the postmortems after an election campaign that will live in infamy, one historical principle ought to be kept uppermost in our minds. A narrow loss cannot possibly be laid at a single door. History does not work in straight lines in which A — and nothing but A — causes B, as the location, trajectory and spin of the basketball leaving the hand of LeBron James sends the ball through the hoop. It follows, then, that recriminations ought to be tempered. For one thing, as political scientist Jeff Isaac has lucidly written in an appeal for intellectual and emotional modesty:

…[I]t is simply impossible to definitively settle complex questions of political and historical causality. This is what keeps historians and social scientists in business, for good or ill.

[Moreover] it takes more than a few days to sort through all of the relevant evidence, and it takes even longer to generate compelling and sufficiently nuanced accounts of events so current and so shocking.

Remember that the popular vote count is not yet complete. Remember also that decisive state races were so close — Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania evidently decided by a total of about 110,000 votes — that responsibility for Trump’s victory has to be shared. According to The Nation’s John Nichols, “The results in a number of battleground states were so close that a shift of around 55,000 votes in three states (Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) would align the national popular vote result with the Electoral College result for a Clinton win.”

In a knife-edge election, no one gets off the hook. Disaster has many parents.

Still, to those who have the power to drive attention, to amplify certain tones and spirits and depress others, greater responsibility must be assigned. To start with, it could not be more obvious that James Comey ranks high on the list of this defeat’s parents. The Republicans who made their peace with the vicious bullshitter of Fifth Avenue are up there. The dynamic duo of Vladimir Putin and Julian Assange, discrediting the Democrats in daily bulletins dutifully picked up by the news media, are on the list, too. Lazy, credulous, venal TV news is right up there, obsessed with Clinton emails and the Clinton Foundation while oh so lah-de-dah about Trump’s relations to the mob, Trump’s phony foundation, Trump’s cheating investors, Trump’s employment of illegal laborers.… And then there is Facebook, the world’s largest circulator of junk, outdoing Waste Management by many orders of magnitude.

And then there is Facebook, the world’s largest circulator of junk, outdoing Waste Management by many orders of magnitude.

Which is why I’m appalled, with the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci and Washington Post writer Hayley Tsukayama, to see Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg weasel away from his company’s share of responsibility for the diffusion of lies and distortions that have poured gasoline onto the flames of unreason in our time. Tufekci writes:

After the election, Mr. Zuckerberg claimed that the fake news was a problem on “both sides” of the race. That’s wrong. There are, of course, viral fake anti-Trump memes, but reporters have found that the spread of false news is far more common on the right than it is on the left.

As Politico’s Jack Shafer points out, Trump’s new #2 man, Breitbart News’ Steve Bannon, will not only be his house propagandist, but his propaganda apparatus.

[Breitbart] has a powerful reach on Facebook — higher than many mainstream outlets — and a direct emotional connection to the new populist Republican base that carried Trump to his shocking victory. With Bannon so close to Trump’s office, we can expect Breitbart will coordinate with the Trump White House, functioning as his ministry of information as it did during the campaign, and going on the attack to keep renegade legislators in line. If this sounds theoretical, it’s not: Just three hours after Bannon was named to his new post, Breitbart went directly after Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, publishing a story suggesting he was losing support from some GOP members.

No disrespect to weasels, who have their own species priorities, but is Zuckerberg in the truth or post-truth business? Neither, he says, pretending he doesn’t know that his company took a big part in circulating phony “news” — or, less euphemistically, crackpot Republican propaganda. Facebook may or may not have had a decisive role but see above: Defeat has many parents. Facebook played its part in the collective disgrace. No one can know just how significant it was, but it is not heartening that Zuckerberg now pledges to do better “cracking down on fake news” while still insisting that becoming an “arbiter of truth” is not in his business plan.

In corporate-speak, Zuckerberg plays dumb:

“Facebook is mostly about helping people stay connected with friends and family. News and media are not the primary things people do on Facebook, so I find it odd when people insist we call ourselves a news or media company in order to acknowledge its importance.”

Whatever Zuckerberg’s company chooses to “call itself,” it circulates messages — words, images, whatnot. Much of that content is or purports to be news, as any idiot, even a Harvard dropout, must know. Fake stories that ricocheted through Facebook in the run-up to the election included (in the words of the tech site CNET) “a fake story about an FBI agent associated with Clinton’s email leaks being found dead in a murder-suicide and another fake story about the Pope endorsing Trump.”

 

As Tufekci points out, Facebook is walled off from independent researchers who might be able to ascertain just how much vile, junk “news” circulates under their logo and how grand are its echo chamber effects. “In addition to doing more to weed out lies and false propaganda, Facebook could tweak its algorithm so that it does less to reinforce users’ existing beliefs, and more to present factual information,” she writes. Whether Zuckerberg will do any of that is anyone’s guess. Rather than provide public assurances that the company will deeply investigate its role in the garbage business and come clean, Zuckerberg snuggles into his bad-faith blanket, assuring us that his hands are unstained.

For good reason, Oxford Dictionaries have chosen “post-truth” as their word of the year. Some will sneer that this is just what you’d expect from elitists with their snooty disdain for the common people. As for myself, it redoubles my sense of imperatives:

Be on the lookout for all practitioners of bad faith, those who profess innocence and renounce their own responsibility.

Confront the media moguls, editors and reporters who delighted in Trump’s spectacle, reveled in the eyeballs they gathered by treating him as a decent and qualified candidate, and then scrambled to wash their hands, bleating all the while that after all, viewers were always free to change the channels.

Confront the Republicans who covered for this unscrupulous man and bent their knees once they realized they had no plausible deficit hawk to put up against him.

Confront also those who, in the name of their fantasy revolution or their plain rage, declined to vote or stood with Jill Stein and Gary Johnson in oblivion, preferred the gestures of nihilism to the hard work of politics that they find boring and corrupt.

Mark Zuckerberg’s bad faith has plenty of company. Let no one off the hook.

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University. He is the author of sixteen books, including several on journalism and politics. His next book is a novel, The Opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @toddgitlin.

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