Eric Karjaluoto

Well Played… Now What?

TL;DR: Trump weaponized the term fake news. In doing so, he undermined important notions like investigation, reason, and factuality. This is a problem that startup founders ought to solve.

It strikes me that Trump exhibited a stroke of brilliance by co-opting the term “fake news”. In just two words, he was able to cast doubt on all journalists—while assigning credibility to another side.

This “other side” wasn’t an alternative viewpoint, though. It didn’t have to investigate, report, or show sources. It was memes, clickbait, and conspiracy theories. It was Alex Jones ranting about gay frogs. 🏳️‍🌈🐸

You already know this. So, repeating it might be unnecessary. Nevertheless, it’s so commonplace that we’re starting to consider it normal. For this reason, it’s worth added reflection.

Yesterday I spotted something curious. You might have seen it too. It’s a photo of Kissinger with a “quote” in which he supposedly talks about vaccination as a grand means of controlling the populace.

This is obviously nonsense—yet the poster did something smart in the description. They added the text: “Cue the liberal fact-checking naysayers.”

This is another trump card. It invalidates any potential fact-checking, reason, or investigation. It’s a wildly efficient device. It’s just a pity it’s so dangerous. It’ll sow further mistrust, stoke fears, and neuter questioning of similar fictions.

I’m not defending all established media, or, the “mainstream media” as some call it. Let’s be honest, though. That’s also a weaponized term.

I look at all journalism as a collection of viewpoints or snapshots. Few are completely accurate—but some are certainly more so than others. The more outlandish the story is, the more likely I am to look at sources and counterpoints. This helps me ascertain credibility.

Do I trust every journalist or piece I read? Heck no! But, I can ask questions about the publisher’s history and the journalist’s possible bias. I also recognize that a reputation stands for something. A credible journalist is less likely to sacrifice theirs over a fabricated tale than a Macedonian teenager at a click-farm.

That said, Trump and his strategists figured out what good startup founders know: convenience > accuracy. Fact-checking takes effort—and few wish to do that work. It’s easier to spot a tantalizing meme, get angry, and comment on the world “going to hell in a hand-basket”.

Trump cemented the fake news mechanism by using the term fake news to describe actual news. In doing so he gave some people license to ignore facts. He emboldened the ill-informed to prioritize their fears over the perspectives of subject-matter experts. He tore at the foundations of reason. In turn, some don’t know who to trust. As a result, we now see lies and mistruths treated with the same reverence as facts.

So, while I applaud the effectiveness of Trump’s game-playing tactic, I’m dismayed by the collateral damage. One man’s desire to be the king of the hill dovetailed with a tipping point of social technology. This (along with other factors) upended a great deal of sensible thinking and civil discussion.

The result? People actually believing 5G is a path to mind control. Some fighting for their “freedom” to spread/contract life-threatening illnesses. Panic about new world orders, reptilian bloodlines in presidents, and Pizzagate.

And if you challenge these individuals on such wackiness? They’ll respond that you’re part of the herd. You can’t “think critically”. You’re another chump who bought into… that’s right: fake news.

Those of us who work in tech are always looking for problems to solve—and this is a juicy one. We must calm the waters and create a path back to reason.

I don’t know how we do this, and I doubt that I’m the one to fight this fight. That said, it’s a problem that keeps me up at night. It’s also one of the most pressing ones of our generation.

Are we up for the challenge?

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  • SusanRApril 21, 2020 4:39 pm

    This is actually a cult tactic. Let's name it for what it is. Trump has his own cult. 

  • David CoatesApril 21, 2020 9:15 pm

    I think Eric has it right, as stated in "The Great Hack" by Brittany Kaiser - it's weaponized communications. It's far bigger than a cult, it's wartime propaganda for the new age. It's really scary stuff and as we know, it's not just Trump practicing it, although he certainly owns "fake news". Makes me want to go off grid. 

  • Adam LernerApril 26, 2020 4:27 pm

    I think the path back to reason is that we need to increasingly consume media in spaces that are independent of advertising revenue, and choose to read the (perhaps dull) articles where journalists take the time to fact check the stories and speeches of others. The media game has been played on two fronts: 1) exponential growth added to the subscriber bases and readership as we turn to trusted, authoritative source (i.e. The New York Times), and 2) virality as metric for the stories that we should pay attention to, which become authoritative because of the attention given to them. Neither are desirable long term solutions, but both are based on the mechanisms behind how the majority of people choose to consume news – on social media platforms. As you said, convenience is a huge factor in what and where people choose to read, but it is also about entertainment value and seeing our values fed back to us in the form of zippy headlines. So can technologists through artificial intelligence or designers through redirecting attention short circuit the part of the brain that takes us into the rabbit hole? Probably. But that could be just as scary as our currently reality. 

  • Mark VanderKlippApril 29, 2020 2:45 pm

    "That said, Trump and his strategists figured out what good startup founders know: convenience > accuracy. Fact-checking takes effort—and few wish to do that work. It’s easier to spot a tantalizing meme, get angry, and comment on the world “going to hell in a hand-basket”.

    The genius of Republican strategy is that it takes advantage of Americans' intellectual laziness and preference for tribal outrage over careful consideration of facts.