Fact-checking the president:  A study in post-truth

“What is truth?” Pontius Pilate asked, and famously did not hang around for an answer.  Lately I have been asking, Pilate-like, about “post-truth” – and the answers, if they exist, are also hard to get at.

Post-truth is an old label that was revived by the political and media elites to explain what they considered to be the disasters of 2016:  the British vote to leave the EU and the election of Donald Trump.  On this account, the two outcomes could only be achieved through a massive distortion of reality.  The elites, who had once decided such things on sheer authority, simply could not believe that any sane person, while in possession of the truth, would vote for Brexit or Trump.  Hence, post-truth.  A reasonably intelligent exposition of this argument can be found in Matthew d’Ancona’s book, whose title says it all:  Post-truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back.

That is not my interpretations of the events of 2016 – and it is not what I mean by post-truth.  In a recent essay for The Bridge, I offered my take on the matter:  “Post-truth, as I define it, signifies a moment of endlessly divergent perspectives on every subject or event, without an authority in the room to settle the matter.”  The elites once mediated between the public and reality.  They were the authority that settled the matter.  But truth is a function of trust, and the public’s trust in the elites evaporated long ago.  Truth has fractured or unbundled, and is now up for grabs.  I wrote:

A telling symptom is that we no longer care to persuade.  We aim to impose our facts and annihilate theirs:  a process closer to intellectual holy war than to critical thinking.

On the same day those words appeared, a perfect mini-melodrama of post-truth in action played out on the information sphere.

It began, as so many things do, with Donald Trump, who happened to cut loose with a tweet in which he expressed in vehement language his opposition to mail-in ballots.  Since the Trumpian Twitter style is typically over the top, this was not in any way a notable effusion.  However, a large blue exclamation mark, enclosed in a circle, suddenly materialized at the bottom of the presidential tweet, enjoining the reader to “Get the facts about mail-in ballots.”

The president had just been fact-checked by Twitter.

“Fact-checking” in the post-truth era is a dicey proposition.  On whose authority do you rest your judgments?  The old-time news media still believes it possesses authority, but that’s a case of senile dementia.  The news dithered away the public’s trust decades ago.  Unfortunately, as a result of recent history the social media platforms are by now even less trusted than the news – and Twitter, with its sudden manias and cancel mobs, is probably at the bottom of the heap.

Twitter introduced the fact-checking feature in response to the pandemic crisis, a moment of transfiguration for the big digital platforms.  They became, so to speak, institutionalized.  For reasons of health and safety, all searches about the virus were referred to established health bureaucracies like the WHO and the CDC.  Crackpot conspiracies were thus weeded out – but so were merely eccentric or uncredentialed opinions.  The same institutional third-party approach was used in fact-checking the president – the first time, as far as I know, that the feature was expanded to politics.

If Trump supporters were to demand, “Why should I believe you, Twitter?” the answer would be “Because experts.”  But in a zero-trust society, this explanation is self-refuting.  For much of the public, “expert” translates into “self-serving elite” – in effect, the enemy.

Concerns about this line of reasoning may have motivated Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to wade into this unenticing bog.  Zuckerberg, of course, is the brontosaurus in the room when it comes to social media – his slightest twitch gets our attention.  In an interview with Fox News, he took President Trump, who had been fulminating threats of government action against Twitter, gently to task.  “I think a government choosing to censor a platform because they’re worried about censorship doesn’t exactly strike me as the right reflex here,” he said.  But he also made an emphatic distinction between social media and Platonic truth: “I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online.  Private companies probably shouldn’t do that, especially these platform companies…”

Zuckerberg seemed to be playing the part of Pontius Pilate, but that really wasn’t the case.  His mind works like an engineering wonk’s rather than a philosopher’s, and he was reacting to a practical problem:  given that millions of users, being human, constantly speak falsely online, what capacity or authority does Facebook have to call them out?  A selective approach, like Twitter’s, would immediately strike the public as arbitrary or biased.  Pointers to some third-party judge would only dodge the question of why this fact had been checked, and not another.  A world of infinite fact-checking – of fact-checking the fact-checkers and those who fact-check them – loomed as the last stage of post-truth.  In a Facebook post, Zuckerberg identified with those who were criticizing the president’s statements, but then added:

People can agree or disagree on where we should draw the line, but I hope they understand our overall philosophy is that it is better to have this discussion out in the open, especially when the stakes are so high.

It is a testament to the murkiness of this particular discussion that Mark Zuckerberg emerged from it as the voice of wisdom.

Predictably, he was punished for it.  Elizabeth Warren, senator and former Democratic Party presidential candidate, attacked Zuckerberg in a full-Trumpian mode tweet for “going on Fox News – a hate-for-profit machine that gives a megaphone to racists and conspiracy theorists – to talk about how social media platforms should essentially allow politicians to lie without consequences.”

The war of fact against fact must inevitably devolve into a war of source against source.  If Warren had her way, Fox News would be cast out to a spectral netherworld of hateful lies, consumed only by the politically damned.  Zuckerberg stood condemned by association.  Yet Warren was by no means the first or the worst to seek an informational lockdown that identified gang mentality with the struggle between good and evil.  President Trump is probably world champion in the game of media demonization:  CNN for him is always “fake news,” and its reporters are always targets of exorcism and banishment.

Increasingly, the post-truth landscape has come to resemble a science fiction nightmare.  In a fractured universe, multiple “spheres of truth” reach blindly for domination – but when they collide, every claim for every truth is nullified, and nothing is validated.

The story ends where it began:  with Donald Trump.  Two days after the fact-checking flap, he hurled a thunderbolt of an executive order at the social media companies, threatening to revoke their “Section 230(c)” protection against legal liability.  Historians may some day assess this to be one of the prime documents of the post-truth era.  Trump portrays the platforms much like Warren portrayed Fox News:  as moral and political abominations that exist to torment honest folk.  The language is unusual for government but 100 percent Donald Trump:

Twitter now selectively decides to place a warning label on certain tweets in a manner that clearly reflects political bias.  As has been reported, Twitter seems never to have placed such a label on another politician’s tweet.  As recently as last week, Representative Adam Schiff was continuing to mislead his followers by peddling the long-disproved Russian Collusion Hoax, and Twitter did not flag those tweets.  Unsurprisingly, its officer in charge of so-called ‘Site Integrity’ has flaunted his political bias in his own tweets.

In all likelihood, nothing will come of this.  That’s another feature of our baffling times:  the noise is deafening, the achievement nil.  The president has given his supporters what they wanted.  He has gotten what he wanted out of it, too – loads of attention, with everyone screaming about Section 230(c), something most of us had never heard of a week ago.  I think it would be safe to parse the executive order as a gigantic troll by a master of the art form.

Twitter immediately doubled down by blocking comments to a Trump tweet on the disturbances in Minneapolis, also flagged with a statement that it “violated the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence.”  That took the dispute to another level.  President Trump is the top law enforcement officer in the country.  He holds in his hands the monopoly of legal violence, so far as the Federal government is concerned.  On what authority can Twitter condemn the sheriff for violence?

All that, on one side of the question.  On the other, there’s the president’s inimitable online rhetoric:

***

Having finished my work as an analyst, I would like nothing better than to tiptoe away from this dreary neighborhood.  To linger here is to risk being sucked down into the sound and fury emanating from the labyrinth of post-truth.  Yet I can’t walk away.  None of us can walk away.  That’s true in a literal sense, because the structure of post-truth resembles a series of ever-narrowing circles, so that we always find ourselves back where we began, only with less to say.  But it’s true also in an imperative sense.  If we are ever to find our way out of the labyrinth – if we are to have any hope of restoring authority and recovering the truth – we must make very clear where we stand.

Can presidents be fact-checked?  If a president walks into someone’s home to give a speech, the owner can correct him whenever he feels the urge.  President Trump chooses to express himself on Twitter, which is the home of CEO Jack Dorsey.  If Dorsey wants to fact-check him, it’s his prerogative.

Should presidents be fact-checked?  That has happened since the first days of our republic.  Presidents are citizens, not kings.  Political conflicts at the highest level are about the interpretation of reality.  If presidents were not contradicted about the facts of the world, we would be in China or North Korea, where truth is dictated by political power.

But in the present case, under conditions of post-truth, an extra burden of responsibility is placed on any digital platform that conducts a large volume of political discussion for a democratic society.  I believe shouldering that responsibility is how you start to earn authority and credibility.  It’s how you break out of the cave into the clear light of day.

My assumption is that Trump was fact-checked and blocked because his words triggered some algorithm in Twitter.  The company has confirmed that “internal systems”  rang the warning bells.  In my essay at The Bridge, I observed that these algorithms work against the grain of the democratic process, and cannot help but taint the information they touch with their own illegitimacy.

With regards to information, democracy is about giving accounts.  Presidents, for example, give accounts of their policies and are held accountable for them by voters.  Yet that is precisely the opposite of how algorithms behave.  Algorithms are proprietary secrets.  On principle, they never give accounts of how they handle information and thus can never be held accountable.

So here is where I stand on the matter of Trump and Twitter.  Twitter was perfectly within its rights to fact-check the president.  However, that placed Dorsey and his platform under an obligation:  they now had a responsibility to offer reasons – to give an account.  They need to say “We applied to this case the following principles, which are transparent, and we can show that in every case these principles have been applied uniformly and fairly.”  Zuckerberg has given an account of why Facebook went in the opposite direction. Whatever one thinks of Trump’s position, he has given an extensive account of it in the executive order.  Neither Dorsey nor anyone else from Twitter, to my knowledge, have troubled to account for their decision.

There is still time.

Blocking the president was a foolish mistake.  Jeff Jarvis is right:  we come together in an open information system, and the attempt to flag or fence offending pieces of it to create a pure “sphere of truth” is wrongheaded and probably doomed to failure.  Mark Zuckerberg was right, too:  the only hope we have to get at some semblance of the truth is by hashing out our differences in the open, where all can see.

And as I finally tiptoe off to a happier place, it’s good to remind myself of a couple of incontrovertible facts.  Donald Trump profits immensely from Twitter, which allows him to speak directly to his supporters and enrage his opposition.  Twitter profits immensely from Donald Trump, who brings in 80 million followers and makes news on the platform on an hourly basis.  That was true before this episode – and even more so after.

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5 Responses to Fact-checking the president:  A study in post-truth

  1. For such reasons as you so well argue, efforts to turn off debate, declare that “the debate is over”, and other efforts to silence people, demonstrate that the First Amendment turned out to be very necessary after all. And it needs to be defended with every generation. Thank you for your timely commentary.

  2. Gaston Alamachère says:

    Could it be that this is an information war between infuriated radicals and conservative minorities?

  3. mikemontchalin says:

    Why anyone would accept Trump as the authority on vote-by-mail is beyond me. And Twitter’s fact-check looks more like censorship than fact checking.

    CDC and WHO have already lost all credibility.

    It seems Lancet and “peer review” have also lost credibility.

    It may be that we will have to go with open-source and Individual Reputation.

  4. Philip Sells says:

    Hello! It’s an interesting thing you point out, that arguments about truth come down to arguments about sources in the end. It’s similar to a thought I’ve had over the years – that all argument is essentially argument from authority, either your own (if you saw thing X yourself) or that of someone else (if you did not). I arrived at this in the context of scientific research, but it probably applies elsewhere as well. What do you think? It’s not necessarily identical to your formulation, so might be interesting to compare/contrast.

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