Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Informational Toxins

There are dueling articles in Business Insider this week. The first, by Oliver Darcy and Pamela Engel points out that if the GOP is to survive it has to do something about conservative media. It notes that any autopsy of 2016 (assuming, as looks likely, that Trump loses . . . bigly) must include a duel with the right-wing media that has used a number of pervasive falsehoods to entrance the electorate in malignant ways.

The second is an editorial by Josh Barro (who recently renounced his GOP membership) that says conservative media is only a symptom of the problem. The real problem, he says, is that the GOP donor class created a food-chain of think-tanks and policy-wonks that supported strategic un-truths that would sell donor-class benefits (low taxes on the rich) to the masses. Having ingested those lies, they are now beholden to a foundation of falsehoods which the right-wing media builds on.

The Omnivore loves Barro--but he is wrong here. He isn't wrong about the facts--no--but he's wrong about the root of the diagnosis. The Left has plenty of people selling various degrees of socialism with actual working test cases (the blasted wastelands of Canada and Sweden, for example) and yet Bernie Sanders lost pretty decisively. Why?

Toxic Information

Toxic Information is information that is (a) false, (b) emotionally coded so that you believe it, and (c) has an implicit call-to-action that is self-harming. An example of non-toxic false information is the belief that the moon-landing was faked. People believe this--but there's usually no way to act on it. Maybe you attend some conventions which are the conspiracy-theory equivalent of a guys bowling league.

The converse is the belief that vaccines cause autism which imperils your children and other children. One is just wrong. The other is outright dangerous.

A belief that lower taxes on the rich will stimulate economic growth doesn't impact your day-to-day life very much. A belief that black men are actively hunting police officers all across the nation may. The Omnivore started seeing informational toxins in the 2008 presidential campaign where Sarah Palin told audiences that Obama "palled around with terrorists." The image that this created in the right was absolutely incendiary and because it came in a vector that voters trusted (approved sources like Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and so on) it bypassed critical faculties and left a flash-shock after-image of Obama as a literal saboteur of America.

When Obama won, it only got worse.

It was very, very profitable. It was profitable for advertisers who sold visions of apocalypse to people who felt disenfranchised by the election of someone who, in other times, would have been seen as a very moderate Republican (bailing out the banks and big industry, stepping up the drone wars, deporting thousands of illegal immigrants). Instead, the message that was sold--by people whom the right had given its trust to--was one of decline, disaster, and despair.

It sold a lot of gold certificates, freeze dried food, and an entire 'Freedom Caucus.' It created a complex ecosystem in media, advertising, and political policy. All of it carried an underlying emotional position: You are being robbed.

The web accelerated for everyone what Talk Radio had only been able to accomplish in the older AM-listening demographic. It allowed for the lightning-fast spread of stories that were too (emotionally) good to fact check. Obama was issuing executive orders to take over America. He was firing generals who would obstruct his coup. Military exercises were a cover for the coming imposition of martial law.

The problem wasn't that these were outrageous--UFO abductions were pretty outrageous--the problem was that when people believed them they acted in ways that had direct practical consequences (they elected conspiratorialists who actively played into these delusions, bought gold and freeze dried food, believed that the slaughter of first-graders was either a hoax or an administration attempt at imposing gun control). These lies mattered.

The Needle and The Vein

The Internet (especially social media) is the needle. The emotional wound that the collective right has suffered is the vein into which the toxin is shot. The Omnivore knows cardiologists who can't tell real news from fake news and post racist lies from white power organizations unwittingly (despite, they, themselves, having brown skin). The jokes about racist behavior being due to economic insecurity are pithy because the underscore the point that a major driver of the behavior we see isn't just about a bad economy or economic inequality--it's about anger that the lies validate.

Ultimately the carrier signal for this anger--the result of a narcissistic wound inflicted by an electorate that told a bunch of voters your feelings don't matter--a line used now by the alt-right who don't recognize the irony of its slogan--is conspiracy theory.

Conspiracy theory is a fluid belief that all truth is ultimately subjective: there are no authorities. Nobody is ever cynical enough. In the world of conspiracy theory UN military vehicles are streaming across the border and nefarious Democrats are importing ISIS assassins to kill Americans for no reason whatsoever.

In this world The Media is controlled by a pyramid of unseen forces that dictate the behavior down to individual cub reporters to craft massive hoax-lies wherein nobody talks because of absolute fear of retribution. When you feel wounded and have no clear person to blame for it, conspiracy theory makes a perfect balm.

Once you have swallowed conspiracy theory everything else goes straight into your belief system without being filtered through your cognitive defense systems first.

Right-wing media monetized conspiracy theory like never before. Republican political strategy husbanded it and encouraged it towards their own ends. Now it is a distributed system. There is no longer just one or two message-makers at the top (remember the "Apologize to Rush Limbaugh phase in the 2012 election?) but legions. Now they aren't just selling a single, unified party line but each competing viciously for a piece of the lucrative pie.

The medium is no longer the message--there is no message beyond Give Us Money and Burn It Down. They're going to burn as much as they can before the money runs out.


  1. The immediate problem, for the GOP base and for all the rest of us too, is that the money has already run out. Our economy is cannibalizing itself and there's not much left but phony wealth hallucinated into existence by financial chicanery at the Treasury and the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.

    We've essentially strip-mined our own future, piling debt upon debt, and it won't be possible to duck the bill for much longer. What happens when QE and all the other voodoo no longer serves to keep the economy afloat?

    Nothing good.

    Conspiracy theories won't be much comfort then, either.

    -- Ω

  2. Omega symbol guy- that's all just more toxic information being spewed by the very sources being criticized in the article, exactly for the reasons criticized. We have a LONG way to go before we're in the economic situation of any country that has actually fallen apart, and the vast majority of the economy is not voodoo at all. Net worth is assets minus debt- and the US government has a fucking ridiculous value in assets, land, natural resources, technology, and so on, many many times the value of our debt. If there is an apocalypse coming, it's because of needless panic, not actual danger.

    1. And that's why our civilization will collapse, because of precisely that mindset. When people assume that "too terrible to contemplate" implies "cannot happen", they tend to get blindsided by reality. I can't make precise predictions: a lot depends on how people behave in the coming years (the operative alternatives being the "hard landing" scenario and the "slow decline"). Either way, our way of life has no future because when the energy (read: cheap oil) is gone, we have no Plan B. We never did.

      I can tie this back to the topic at hand by noting that an unease along these lines appears to be driving some of the uglier politics we've seen recently: fear of not having enough, of being caught standing when the music stops. Things like xenophobia, scapegoating of minorities, etc. tend to worsen in proportion to economic insecurity.

      The sad fact is that, by any rational measurement, the USA is flat-ass broke - the sheer size of our economy has protected us thus far, for our creditors simply can't afford to call in their debts. And, truth be told, most of them are no better.

      There's an old joke about how if you owe a bank $10,000, you're in trouble - but if you owe them $10M, they're in trouble.

      "...reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled." -- Richard P. Feynman, Rogers Commission report (1986). "Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident". p. 72.

      -- Ω

    2. Notice how you have failed to address a single point, and instead have substituted your own instead of anything I said.

      I did NOT claim that it was too terrible to contemplate a collapse, I gave actual reasons why it won't happen, based off of actual history and economics.

      I do agree that fear of a collapse is driving irrational behavior- but dude, it is driving YOUR irrational behavior here. You clearly would rather live in this collapse fantasy than actually grasp the relevant information all around you- we don't NEED to pay back all of the money we owe, at worst we need to make sure we can pay the interest, which is still easily doable. Pretending we're going to collapse because we have a lot of debt outstanding is like feeling you're at the verge of personal bankruptcy because you can't pay the entire cost of your mortgage and car loan all at once in a single paycheck. You're not supposed to, and no one is asking you to, it's a non-problem.

  3. You may of course believe what you wish. It's clear to me that you do not comprehend what's about to happen, and instead take refuge in exactly the sort of irrationality of which you accuse others. I have no desire to address what you think are your "points"; you weren't paying attention, so your response is entirely orthogonal to what I had to say. "Actual history and economics", you say. Which of history's mightiest empires exist today? What happened to them, and why? Those are questions worth asking. I fear you're engaging in a sort of denial known as exceptionalism: "It can't happen here/now."

    Well, the frightening truth is that everyone says that. We're no different, and no better.

    Note also that everything may appear fine - especially in the USA, where our "leaders" have gotten very good at concealing the truth - until it isn't. This unfortunately has the effect of making the eventual collapse more sudden and severe than it would be if people had an honest accounting of their situation with adequate time to prepare.

    If you wanted a conversation, I'd be more than willing to oblige you, but you don't. "There are none so blind as those who will not see."

    Anyway, I learned long ago not to feed the trolls.

    Be happy, if you can.

    -- Ω