Sunday, November 20, 2016

In defense of fake news sites

Dear Hannah,

The great value of a page like Shares from your Aunt is it proves what we already knew about the elderly: that they're too old.  Perhaps nobody since the turning of the millennium has pretended to be an aunt so well, and done it so convincingly that our aunts are likely to take the posts seriously.  The author gulps the wildest assertions and conspiracy theories.   He mangles minor facts in ways so embarrassing that he ends up making them important.   He crusades over the stupidest and most irrelevant things.  Each of which comprises the gist of the web page, and the web page comprises the whole idiocy of our aunties.

God bless them -- they try to to make the internet meaningful and that's what makes it embarrassing.  Almost everything they do, from the SHARE IF YOU AGREE posts about appreciating veteran dogs (yes, dogs) to their WHO'S WITH ME about saying Merry Christmas to their sharing of news from the most obvious crack-pots, snowballs into a picture of a person who can't only not persuade anyone in anything, but who's incapable of being persuaded by good sense.   Their reading caters only to their prejudices.  With every post they prove an almost incredible defiance not only of taste, but of proof.

Hence the eye rolls from disappointed youngsters.  Hence the calls from The New York Times and The Economist and other magazines to censor Facebook.  Hence the horrible feeling that our republic is being ruined not only by corporations and fat cats driving us toward an unthinkable tyranny, but by slanderous bloggers and partisan kooks steering us toward a world of chaos and factual anarchy.  The Age of Information means we can learn whatever we want to learn.  The first problem is that not all of us are interested in learning.  The second problem is that too many of us are only interested in learning what's comfortable to learn.  The third problem is that many of us are not testing to see whether what we're learning is true.

In no segment of our population is this proved more than by our elders on the internet.  Nearly all of us know the elderly are susceptible to con-artists.  Few of us thought when we were younger that the same susceptibility would bleed into our politics.  We see the elderly are idiots and we've forgotten the Age of Information is an age; and that like all ages it has a beginning.  The introduction of the internet absolutely meant that each of us would hear new truths that nobody would have told us before.  The introduction of the internet also meant that each of us now encounters lies that nobody would have told us before.  The difference between the youthful and the elderly isn't that one of us is smart and the other is dumb.  It's that in the Age of Information, the elderly are very young, and the youth are very old.

I know it sounds strange, but consider the following.  Every single one of us personally adapts to our environment, and eventually, if you get old enough, that environment can leave you behind.  Simply put, our elders are childish on the internet because they were never on the internet when they were children.  The French discovered that years of tyranny had made the Frenchman, right after the Revolution, incapable of having good government.  American blacks discovered that ex-slaves didn't know how to run anything right after emancipation.   Right now Americans are discovering that old Americans are bad at sifting information after the introduction of the internet.  Yesterday, we got everything primarily from big media.  Today, we get everything from almost anyone.  There's going to be a period of adjustment.

This is why The New York Times is calling for regulation.  Not because Americans are being oppressed, but because they believe Americans are too free.  Because the Baby Boomers, like college students learning how to handle free beer and easy women, are learning how to deal with the most extreme liberation of information since the Gutenberg press.  The New York Times ought to give Americans some time.  The Millenials ought to spare America another decade.  Our laughing at our aunts makes sense because they're ridiculous.  But it also proves that none of us ever think we'll get old.  It shows we think the world will never leave us behind.  And part of all this is true.  We'll never be laughed at like we laugh at our parents.  We'll be laughed at in ways we have yet to imagine.

The great virtue of the Millennials is that we're natural skeptics.  We've been raised in a world where everything could be false, which leads many of us to see if they're true.  If we don't (yet) understand political theory or economics, and few of us (being young) have come to realize just how ignorant we are, conspiracy theories are less likely to take us by surprise, and the posting of one is likely to end in an online tar-and-feathering.  We roll our eyes at unlikely things and ask for sources from the crack-pot.  Many of us like our parents are slacktivists -- and many more of us are vocally critical of slacktivism.  This may never make any of us brilliant or wise or even informed.  But it will have a tendency, if The New York Times and Facebook don't squash it, for our media to actually be freer than before, and for us to judge it better than our parents.  In this we've got a chance to be superior.  And the mark on our tombstones, if we're wise enough first to be worthy of it, was that we were the first generation to experience the madness belching from the soul of a newly freed and recently connected mankind -- and that we were able to see right through it and laugh.

Your father,

PS: About a week after writing this I realized I forgot to mention something that was only implied: that when I was young, I was just as much a fool as the people I described in the essay.  To help you or anyone else out who reads this, I've decided the best way to get over being propagandized is to have three news sources on each end of the political spectrum, and follow them regularly.  You don't have to read all the articles they publish, but pay attention to the headlines, and read anything that sticks out to you or presents a view you've never heard before.  Currently, for the left, I read Salon Magazine, The Daily Kos, and The Atlantic.  For the right, I follow Milo Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro, and The National Review.  For a basic overview, I follow The Drudge Report and The New York Times.  I also follow The Seattle Times, as everyone should be aware of what's going on locally.

Each of these is strictly for information.  For my philosophy -- for the way I ought to view the world and approach it -- I head to my library.  You will find almost nothing really good from these papers.  You will not become a great person by reading these papers.  You will not even become educated by reading these papers.  You will become informed about the world by them, and if you supplement them with serious reading from serious books written mostly by history's great dead men, you will become a wise person.  To read these papers is to get knowledge.  To know what to do with that knowledge, you will have to look elsewhere.

I have each of these set to "see first" on Facebook, because otherwise Facebook will hide their posts from me.  I'm in the habit of ignoring articles from strangely named newspapers, and if strange papers have an article that is too interesting to ignore and too probable to disregard, I see whether they direct me to reputable sources' sites -- like the FBI, or other articles buried in the respectable papers above.  That ought to do it for you.  If this all seems overwhelming to you, ask yourself whether it is more overwhelming than being a slave.  If you would rather not be a slave, follow the papers so you can know what powerful people are doing.

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