Ruminations on Social Media in 2016 and 2017 Resolutions

I’m a big fan of The Oatmeal, an internet-based comic strip. It is simultaneously witty and well drawn, with a certain zero fucks given attitude about what others may feel about the author’s opinions. Something a reader will know is something I can definitely get behind. A few days ago the author “Matt” published a cartoon depicting 2016 as an unwanted houseguest that had clearly outstayed it’s welcome, capturing the essence of what a lot of us have been feeling – this has been a harder than usual year in a lot of respects all over the globe, and we are all ready to move on.

It does seem that way. Terrorist attacks are on the rise in Europe and in the Middle East. Syria is in a significant geo-political and humanitarian crises, one which potentially could have been avoided. We have an opioid epidemic in the United States which, combined with overly critical pressure on police has led to spiked crime rates, police deaths, and outright challenging of fundamental  law and order in our society not seen since the late 1960’s. The presidential election was certainly the worst one in recent memory, and I’ve been thru seven I can remember.

On the less serious side of things, we’ve seen Star-pocalypse, a Gorilla get shot at the Zoo, and a collective diatribe of imagined slights fly across the internets.

Most of us want to be knowledgeable on the things we place value on, whether it’s politics, or sports, or a given social cause. It’s what causes us to consume broadcast media and surf the world wide web. Unfortunately through all of what has happened this past year we are also seeing the negative effect social media is having on the world stage; despite all their potential, in reality sites like Facebook and Twitter have turned the information superhighway into a misinformation express lane. The resurgence of mass propaganda, collectively known as “fake news”, has serious repercussions for a society whose collective attention spans seem to be rapidly diminishing.

SIDE BAR – Please fucking stop calling it “fake news.” It’s not fake news, it’s propaganda.

Here, look:

Propaganda:(n) information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view
We already have a damned word for it in the English language. Stop fucking making shit up, media. Please if you are reading this and you see someone use the term, immediately correct them. I’d consider it a personal favor.
SIDE SIDE BAR – So while looking up the exact definition of Propaganda, I discovered there is also a second definition:
Propaganda:
(n) a committee of cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church responsible for foreign missions, founded in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV.
Who knew? There’s a joke there somewhere…
Pope Francis
“Wait, what did HuffPost say about me?”
There we go, knew it.
We can identify a lot that was bad about 2016. Trump-mania, Clintonian corruption, rising murder rates, and the vitriol on the interwebs.
Even with those factors, to me, their were two things we collectively missed the bus on in 2016: objective reasoning, and looking on the brightside of things.
1. Don’t Let the Truth Get in the Way of a Good Narrative

Propaganda has been around as long as writing (and probably longer). Leaders, vested interest, and nation states have always sought to influence public opinion. Propaganda does have an altruistic side. For example, Rosie the Riveter, Uncle Sam, and War Bond drives rallied the American public to support the Allied cause against Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany.

More often though it’s the worst kind of misinformation. Countries like North Korea have such advanced propaganda campaigns that most of the population treats their leader as a God on earth, heaven sent to keep the rest of the savage world at bay. They actually believe the rest of the world is in some dystopian state, and only the actions of The Supreme Leader can save them.

Now THAT is fake news. The absolute control of information North Korea has in it’s own borders is collectively keeping 25 million people in the dark (2014 estimate). By that measure, we should be pretty damned satisfied with the sheer amount of information out there, right?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t really seem to be working out that way. Propaganda on the internet, particularly as shared on social media, has become so pervasive that it upturns understood norms of news reporting. Yes, particular networks may be conservative or liberal leaning, but as a whole there is a systems of checks that makes sure they get the story right, most of the time, even with a given slant. Online Propaganda doesn’t care about getting the story right. As long as there is one element of a truth somewhere in the article, the conclusions don’t have to have a basis in truth, or really any connection to the facts at all.

In this guy’s opinion, the most egregious example of this didn’t actually occur in 2016, but rather in 2015 with a pervasive conspiracy called Jade Helm. Basically, Jade Helm was a US military exercise held in the American southwest, and Texas in particular. Now most of us that are prior service know that military exercises are held across the country ALL THE TIME because we have bases – surprise! – all over the country and – surprise! – Soldiers need to train. It’s kinda, ya know, a big part of the job.

Somehow, however, the internet got ahold of this and turned a military exercise into an obvious precursor to martial law being declared in the United States, with gun-owners being rounded up by the Chinese(?) somehow, who were of course in league with ISIS. The right leaning propaganda source “All News Pipeline” was the first to start the rumor, and post by post it gained ground quickly, eventually causing even policy actors to buy into it.

Joseph Goebbels would be proud.

I shit you not, people actually believed this crap. The Governor of Texas even deployed the Texas National Guard to “monitor” the situation. Seriously, here’s the link to it on Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jade_Helm_15_conspiracy_theories

Jade Helm serves as an important watershed moment. Despite officials from the military and government reassuring people, and main stream media not giving it any serious attention, people chose to believe whatever they wanted to hear online. It’s the perfect example of a lack of objective reasoning. Why bother at looking at other possibilities or facts when the possibility of government takeover feeds so nicely into people’s fear and hate?

The left is no better. The actions of even legitimate media sources on the Black Lives Matter movement and it’s subsequent War on Police will likely go down as one of it’s most biased moments. This isn’t to say there can be legitimate questions of police use of force – there can and should be. The issue here is that first media sources, and then propaganda sources began to automatically place blame with the officers regardless of objective facts. The fact that the subject of a shooting had a prior criminal record, was acting in a manner conducive to criminal activity, and was stopped by an officer in a high crime areas were irrelevant to a 5 second clip posted on the internet. The officer was the white oppressor; the subject a victimized minority.

This propaganda had direct effects on our American streets. Violent protests, increased attacks on police, and most recently the kidnapping and torture of a disabled person in Chicago all occurred due to a population being radicalized on the internet to resist and even hate authority and unintentionally, people of different color. Again, online propaganda fed into people’s feeling of victimization, fear, and hate.

 

2. What to do about it.

 

I could go on and on in length about propaganda on the internet, but the most important part to remember is that it targets your core values and beliefs and tries to put the impression that those beliefs are in grave, imminent danger. We are the internet. If we want the internet to be the repository of propaganda, media trolls, and half-thought angry outbursts, then that’s what it will be . On the other hand, if we want it to be a repository of factual information, respectful debate, and a place to maintain friendships, then it will be that. Maybe, it will end up being a  little bit of both. Regardless, one thing we can all agree on what the internet will always have…

Porn. The internet will always have porn.

In any event, the internet is what we make of it. If you are tired of the propaganda (like I am), then do your part. Here’s how:

  • Fact Check: If you read that juicy bit that has proof that Donald Trump is truly a lizard man from Mars sent to help finance the Olympus Mons Hotel, do a little fact checking first. Google legitimate news sources about the story. If a friend challenges you on the story, give their view some thought. They are after all your friend, no matter how wrong they may be.
  • Wait for the story to develop for a day or so: Any good Soldier knowns the first report back from the battlefield is going to be limited and lacking details. Don’t rush to fill them in, and don’t let the talking heads fill them in for you. Obama may be personally parachuting into your house on inauguration day to take all your guns…but probably not.
  • Tell a better story: It’s called Social Media for a reason. Don’t just populate your feed with news stories. Throw a puppy tripping over it’s own ears in their somewhere, too. Tell people about all the great things going on in your life. My feed was filled for weeks of my trip to Scotland and Ireland this year, and I hope to do more positive posts this year. On that note…
  • Focus on the positive: Of all the famous people we lost this past year, to me the most influential was John Glenn. Rather than lamenting the loss of an American icon and hero, I thought it better to celebrate the mans life and accomplishments, so I read a series of articles about his life and watched a documentary on the Space Race. Cause why not?

None of us are perfect, but I do believe the less we act as trolls on the internet, the more of our humanity will shine through online.

The Oatmeal cartoon I mentioned at the beginning of the blog had a corollary the next day: the figure representing 2016 took a marker, scratched out 2016, and wrote 2017, saying “No, I live here now.”

The message to me was the problems we faced in 2016 will be there for us in 2017. Our mindset will determine how we handle it as a society.

Happy Surfing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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