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How Bullshit Conquered The World

by James Ball


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Currently a special correspondent for Buzzfeed news, Ball has written for the Guardian and the Washington Post. During the 2010 Chelsea Manning leaks, he worked for WikiLeaks. As Ball disarmingly puts it in his introduction: "If you're looking to call me an MSM [mainstream media] shill, the evidence is all there."

What’s the big idea?

We mustn't just focus on new technologies in explaining the rise of bullshit. We should follow the money. Old media outlets are suffering falls in ad revenue, which results in fewer reporters, which results in a journalistic ecology wherein regurgitating what politicians say is more cost effective than digging into what they're saying. Fake news sites take this economic imperative to its conclusion: if a story is going to be unchecked or exaggerated, why not just make it up altogether and reduce production costs to next to nothing? The end result of this ecology, Ball argues, is that we give no more weight to the BBC or the New York Times than to a Facebook status or American Patriot Daily.

Even major news sites have sponsored links at the foot of their stories, often linking to fake or hyped news. As a result, Ball, argues: "Traditional media boosts and profits from fake news even as it tries to fight it."

As a result of the decline of what Sarah Palin once called the "lamestream media", we become more and more susceptible to dangerous lies peddled online. Last December for instance, police arrested a man wielding an assault rifle who entered Comet Ping Pong, a pizza restaurant in Washington, which was the target of fake news reports that it was operating a child abuse ring led by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief John Podesta.

How did we get here?

Next, Ball turns his attention to our complicity. One bad habit we have is sharing articles on social media without checking their veracity. Ball cites a study analysing links posted using the sever, which displays statistics on how many users have ever clicked. It found that for 59% of those links, not a single person had ever clicked through, meaning that of those who shared or commented on the attached Facebook or Twitter post, most had read nothing except the headline. This, for Ball, typifies how information is consumed: we form an opinion based on summary or summary of summaries. We have become, Ball suggests, passive consumers of bullshit.

How do we get out? There’s no single solution, argues Ball, but lots of little things all of us can do. We must learn how statistics work, treat the narratives we believe as sceptically as those we don't, try not to succumb to conspiratorial thinking. One tip for the media is that fact-checking may cause more problems than it solves. Why? Consider what happened when Sean Spicer claimed 78 terror incidents had received less coverage than they merited. When news outlets meticulously checked this story, argues Ball, they "created a highlights real of attacks connected to extreme Islamic terror, while being unable to definitively debunk the claim". Another striking tip, at least for politicians including Jeremy Corbyn and Trump, is to lay off laying into the media. "For most politicians, attacking the media looks weak … polling evidence shows a majority of the population across multiple democracies are looking for a strong national leader."

Trumped up: Trump once claimed that on 11 September 2001, he witnessed firsthand Muslims cheering as the Twin Towers fell after the terror attacks. “I watched in Jersey City, NJ, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down,” Trump told a rally. Later Trump cited a Washington Post story to corroborate his claim, but one of its authors, the New York Times’s Serge Kovaleski, retorted that the article did not stand it up. At a later rally in South Carolina in November 2015, Trump mocked Kovaleski, argues Ball, “by imitating a condition the New York Times reporter has which limits the movement in his arms”. Wildly jerking his arms and pulling grotesque facial expressions, Trump said: “He’s going like, ‘Uhhh, I don’t remember, oh, maybe that's what I said." Kovaleski said he had tried to find out if any Muslims had celebrated the attack and reported that he had been unable to prove that point.

Brexit bull: Last year, Vote Leave issued an online poster that said: "Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU". Not really, counters Ball: Turkey is being considered for EU membership but the process of joining requires 35 prerequisites to be met, and at the time of the EU referendum it had met only one. No matter: the poster alluded successfully to an influx of new immigrants and, Ball argues, helped make some Britons more sceptical about remaining in the EU.

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