Lc&Cs: Disinfo’s Popularity, Villainous Facebook, and the Complexity of Modern Life

Links from this past week, with comments, about how Facebook finds disinformation popular and therefore profitable, how its users search out disinformation to confirm their preconceptions, how Republican disinfo about COVID is killing off its base, about Trump True Believers’ authoritarian reasons, and about the complexity of modern life.

[Image from Salon.]


Salon, Amanda Marcotte, 4 Oct 21: Facebook whistleblower exposes a dark reality: Right wing disinformation is popular — and profitable, subtitled, “Lies are profitable on social media because millions want to be radicalized”

This follows Frances Haugen’s 60 Minutes interview about Facebook, last Sunday, Oct. 3rd.

[S]he says Facebook wasn’t interested in shutting down disinformation at all. Instead, the company sought the appearance of taking the problem seriously while doing as little as possible to interrupt the flow of lies, conspiracy theories and right wing propaganda. The reason, according to Haugen, is simple: Pure profit motive.

Comments: As always, “follow the money” is a good guide to thinking through why someone is making a particular argument, or presenting certain information. (E.g. climate change deniers who hold stock in oil industries.) How might they be gaining? (It’s not the only such guide; some purveyors of misinformation are just playing with your head; others truly don’t understand the difference between valid information based on evidence and thinking that if they just make any outlandish claim some people will believe them.)

Key point in this article: people know they are being fooled, but actively seek out misinformation to validate their preconceptions.

Most people — especially liberals, journalists and Democratic politicians — have a mental model of how disinformation functions that is all wrong. The assumption is that audiences are passive vessels, wide-eyed innocents who are being taking advantage of, due to their gullibility. People are described as being “susceptible” to misinformation and disinformation because of an assumed lack of education, or other factors like being older and less internet-savvy that are believed to make them less able to tell the difference between good information and bad information, especially online. Fixing the problem certainly would be a lot easier if that were true.

…Disinfo is everywhere because of old-fashioned market demand. Ordinary people, especially conservatives, crave lies and actively seek out and reward those who will feed them the lies they so dearly desire.


Not all disinfo is benign.

The Week, 4 Oct 21: Conservative media is killing Republican voters the party can ill afford to lose, subtitled, “Anti-vaccine rhetoric does irreversible harm”

With an example of how the right imagines a (nonsensical) conspiracy on the left:

Breitbart‘s John Nolte recently advanced a tortured argument that conservative media turned anti-vaccine because of a liberal conspiracy: “The organized left wants unvaccinated Trump voters to remain unvaccinated. That’s what they want,” he wrote. In another article, he asked: “In a country where elections are decided on razor-thin margins, does it not benefit one side if their opponents simply drop dead?”

Setting aside the birdbrained idea that timid, milquetoast liberals like Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would conspire to massacre people to win an election, the argument here implies an astounding and belligerent stupidity in the Republican base. And while Nolte’s conspiracy theory is ridiculous, his picture of the base is not. People who will refuse to take a free, life-saving treatment simply because people they don’t like urged them to take it are the final form of a politics with no more substance than “owning the libs.”

In 100 years, if we survive, we will look back at this time and 1, simply disbelieve it ever happened; 2, marvel at the stupidity of people a couple generations back (just as we think people of the 19th century weren’t as intelligent or enlightened as we are); or 3, recall that those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it. (As with the 1918 pandemic.)


But it’s worse than 1918, because of social media.

The Morning Heresy, 5 Oct 21, compiled by Paul Fidalgo: We Smote This City with Rocks from Space

And it just so happened that the outage took place just as the revelations from former Facebook executive Frances Haugen about the company’s allegedly intentional promotion of extremist and conspiratorial content were reverberating through the media. She told 60 Minutes, “The version of Facebook that exists today is tearing our societies apart and causing ethnic violence around the world.”

She said that a person who does nothing more than follow Donald Trump, local news, and some other associated topics, Facebook’s algorithm determines, “Within a week you see QAnon. In two weeks you see things about white genocide.”

Now I never see QAnon or white genocide links in my Facebook feed, but then I don’t follow Donald T****. Even so, can’t we count on responsible users of Fb not to be sucked down conspiracy-ridden rabbit holes? Well, no, we can’t. (Any more than we were able to count on the “common sense” of citizens in the early days of the pandemic.)

Later this same blog says:

“Vincent Shaw has some of the best medical advice you can get these days: “Stop, stop, just stop looking at Facebook.””

It’s almost as if Fb *intends* to be the ‘gateway drug’ for misinformation and social dysfunction. If someone had intended to set up a social media site to do exactly that… But I am not given to conspiracy theories.


NYT, Thomas B. Edsall, 6 Oct 21: Trump True Believers Have Their Reasons

With some statistics about how those who think the election stolen are “disproportionately white, Republican, older, less educated, more conservative and more religious (particularly more Protestant and more likely to describe themselves as born again).”

It’s all about the appeal of authoritarian values. With quotes from many, many studies about how moral convictions are formed. Here are comments from one:

The populist right hates the intellectual left because they hate being condescended to, they hate what they perceive as their hypersensitivity and they hate what they view as an anti-American level of femininity (which is for whatever reason associated with intellectualism).

The populist/anti-intellectual right absolutely believe that the intellectuals are not only out of touch but are also ungodly and sneaky and therefore think they must be stopped before they ruin America. Meanwhile, the intellectual left really do believe the Trumpers are racist, sexist, homophobic (and so on) authoritarians who can’t spell and are going to destroy the country if they are not stopped.

The idea of intellectualism — respect for facts, use of reason — is discussed here only as a partisan identifier. Whereas it might be taken as an indicator of which side might actually be “right” and which side “wrong.” But no one seems to agree on whether a truth exists, or how to identify it. This is an epistemic crisis, which the US may not survive. (Because other nations will overtake us.)

Thinking Big Picture: the difference between populists (in rural towns) and intellectuals (in big cities and college towns) has been around for decades, perhaps centuries, but has only become such an issue recently because of…. social media. 50 years ago both sides lived in relative ignorance of the other. Now we’re all in each other’s pockets, whether we like to or not. Eventually this will resolve…


The increasing complexity of everyday life.

The Week, 7 Oct 21: The boring explanation for what went wrong with our pandemic response, subtitled, “COVID, Chipotle, and the risks of narrow expertise”

The article delves into details of the Chipotle crisis in 2015, and the COVID crisis in 2020, and the hasty steps taken by authorities to ameliorate them, many of which were misguided. One reason authorities took these steps, the article claims, is because society considers physical health a “consuming priority.” (A little like the way NASA is so risk-averse?) But the article barely explores its headline of “narrow expertise”; only here at the end:

It might include reforming and broadening the education and training that public health and safety experts receive. It might mean making their curriculum more interdisciplinary, teaching them to think and talk about trade-offs and risk assessments in ways that don’t minimize the crisis at hand but illuminate different approaches and allow different disciplines to work together.

Well, sure. But this is not a new problem; it’s a consequence of our increasingly complex global society. No one can be an expert on more than one or two narrow subjects. And there are now millions of subjects.

Decades ago, perhaps in the 1960s, Robert A. Heinlein (the science fiction author) wrote a passage about what a “competent man” should be able to do. (The full quote is here, and ends with “Specialization is for insects.”)

He might have been right then, though I suspect not, but the statement is wrong now. He may have been right when settlers to America lived on the frontier, and had to do everything themselves — build their cabins, shoot game for food, deal with all family issues. But the statement isn’t right now, when our global society depends on millions of interconnected parts, each requiring a kind of expertise. (Oddly, conservatives, and libertarians, have this same notion of living independently, free from the government, and resenting government cooperation in order to, say, build interstate highways or create the internet. Or go to the Moon.)


Finally, without comment:

Newsweek, 7 Oct 21: Fox News 25th Anniversary: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, and the Just Plain Odd

Salon, 7 Oct 21: Fox News: 25 years of making everyone’s lives progressively crappier, subtitled, “Conservative media was going to birth a network eventually. But Fox has made life worse, even if you never watch”

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