In January of 2019, I wrote a post asking if, thanks to the internet, we had achieved a state of maximum inescapable bullshit. But whether we were there almost two years ago, we are certainly there now. It took less than a decade for the internet—and, it turns out, mostly Facebook—to destroy American democracy. I know that’s fatalistic, but even if the psychotic would-be monarch lurking inside that corpus we call Trump is no longer president come January, the self-inflicted damage to democratic institutions, conducted in the “marketplace of ideas,” may be irreparable. At least for quite some time.
I would propose that maximum inescapable bullshit derives from two conditions. The first is that, even with the best intentions, we lose almost all context (i.e. accountability) for the inputs that drive much of our political discourse. And the second is that our capacity for discourse itself is overwhelmed by volunteering to be constantly outraged, without a break to process what may not be useful information.
Take the shocking story of Kyle Rittenhouse as an example. The facts, as they are known, indicate that he should be charged with murder and his mother charged as an accessory; and the extent to which any police officers condoned his presence prior to the shooting should be investigated. That ought to be enough for the moment. In a pre-Facebook world, this incident would not be a top story every day, let alone every ten seconds. But on Facebook, I am reminded several times a day by incendiary memes that a Christian group has raised about a hundred-thousand dollars to support Rittenhouse. Now, pause a moment.
The point is not whether those memes refer to a true story. It is certainly a plausible story, and there are undeniably many addle-minded Americans who think of Rittenhouse, now apparently nicknamed the “Kenosha Kid,” as a hero. But also recognize that the meme itself happens to be exactly the kind of post that a professional Russian troll at the Internet Research Agency would generate in the wake of these shootings. At the same time, his buddy sitting next to him will be posting the counter-meme designed to stir up outrage on the other side, as it were. Further, the story could be true and grist for the propaganda mill at the same time.
Take the matter a step further, and try to investigate the claim made in the meme, and where do we begin? With a Google search, naturally. But alas, the first results may or may not be credible. Or perhaps the real story is not exactly what the headlines, or the meme, promised. Can we trust ourselves, or one another, to vet a story that fulfills our confirmation bias? Either way, it’s a lot of damn work when we multiply this example by dozens of stories every hour.
How many of us pause to consider the source of an image with its provocative headline? Was it made by a well-meaning citizen trying to get the word out? A professional troll in St. Petersburg? A fourteen-year-old kid who spends his time on 8Chan and gets his kicks (lulz) pranking the Boomers? Or was it made by domestic provocateurs, who want to incite violence? Answer: all of the above.
I said that part two of attaining maximum inescapable bullshit is that we volunteer to be constantly outraged, and usually to little or no purpose. Whether based in truth or not, what is the value of chronically engaging with that meme, and a thousand others just like it, every day for weeks on end? Awareness is not increased. Knowledge is not enhanced or refined. Justice is not served any more rapidly or more properly. And for sure, underlying policy issues are not addressed.
It may feel cathartic to click the Angry button or to share the meme with likeminded friends, and some people may even believe they are helping to spread useful and important information. But this is almost never true. All that is being accomplished is self-immolation. We pour gasoline on our own smoldering rage, and the only tangible goal being achieved is that those who truly want to destroy democratic societies put another hashmark on their side of the tally board. That, and Facebook gets to monetize it all.
To reiterate, it does not really matter whether that one story about a group raising money for Rittenhouse is true. It is an example among millions of memes or video clips that have an astounding power to color our perception of events for which we are not present. And this is the same potent force that inspires people like Rittenhouse to do what he did.
Harvard researcher Joan Donovan, in a recent article for MIT Technology Review describes the rise of “riot porn” presently dominating right-wing propaganda, amplifying the narrative, mostly through video clip editing and manipulation, that BLM protestors are a threat to white people everywhere. “With riot porn,” writes Donovan, “what moves someone from watching to showing up is the potential for participating in a violent altercation. The motivating factor is the hope to live out fantasies of taking justice into their own hands …”
We mock QAnon, which, as it turns out, really is the result of Boomers who don’t know how the internet works. But I would remind my wise and learned Xers of the political left, who believe they seek the truth, that they helped soften the ground for the now thriving conspiracy of the “deep state” with their many tweets and shares etc. during the Obama years. All that misguided enthusiasm for leakers and the generalized fear of government surveillance online did not seem to pause to contemplate the future Rittenhouse being radicalized on platforms where we would have been happy to have the FBI watching and possibly able to intervene before he left for Kenosha.
While propaganda of this nature is currently more prominent and effective on the far right—not least because Trump exploits the narrative—my broader point is that we are all consuming at least sampler plates of “riot porn” or “outrage porn” or however we want to describe it. Tribalism is reinforced and galvanized such that we seem headed for an inevitable clash of Hatfields and McCoys on a national scale. I hope not. But for sure, we have to come to grips with the fact that social media is not only not the solution, it is the problem.
With credit to my eldest for this observation, our reality is now Schrödinger’s Cat: everything on the internet is both true and not true at the same time. We are, of course, witnessing so much extreme conduct in contemporary society that no story is beyond plausibility. But this also means that no story is beyond deniability. The line between conspiracy theory and reality is murky to say the least, and that’s hard enough to track. But we can know for certain that none of the meme-based, click-bait impressions feeding our emotional fires has any accountability whatsoever. Yet we continue to comment and share and to teach the machines and the manipulators how to do an even better job of messing with us next month.
For years, the internet industry and its well-funded network of tech-utopians insisted that these platforms are, at worst, neutral lenses revealing society for what it is, or, at best, improving the world by giving everyone a platform for the “exchange of ideas.” Any criticism that these platforms might be used to severely damage the democratic institutions they were allegedly going to help was met with an impatient eye-roll, a *sigh* at the naïve luddites, resistant to change and innovation. But if it is not clear by now that these platforms are the primary catalysts in democracy’s decline, that alone proves we have achieved maximum inescapable bullshit.