Tailoring political propaganda to exploit the rawest and most polarisable emotions of voters was a technique that was then adopted and applied with ruthless success by the nativist right in both the US and Britain. But the background of digital manipulations goes much deeper than initially suspected. Tom Baldwin’s account of the abusive relationship with the truth in media and politics is lucid, punchy and often funny.
Let’s begin with the parable of the triple-breasted woman. A couple of years in advance of Donald Trump’s arrival at the White House and before the term “fake news” had caught on, a Florida woman calling herself Jasmine Tridevil made headlines around the world by posting pictures of herself with a third breast. Claiming she had undergone this unusual implant surgery in the hope of landing a reality TV show, her story was propagated by a spectrum of media including New York magazine, BuzzFeed, the New York Post, the Toronto Sun, Fox News, CBS Tampa, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Telegraph.
As you will have surmised, the story was an invention by a woman whose website boasted that it was the “provider of internet hoaxes”. Tom Baldwin remarks: “The reason why so many respectable news organisations would run it anyway is because it was flying around the internet and the prospect of a few hundred thousand clicks was too tempting to waste time with checks.” This is one of many arresting examples that he cites in support of his contention that the battle for our eyeballs has debased a click-chasing media and led to even worse from vote-chasing politicians.
An increasingly abusive relationship with the truth in both the media and politics, spreading public distrust of democratic institutions and the polarisation of large segments of the electorate, all this was apparent “long before Mark Zuckerberg had left high school and Vladimir Putin entered the Kremlin”. The digital revolution was the accelerant of baleful forces that were already in existence.
Two of the unwitting creators of a toxic new world were liberal American presidents. It was Bill Clinton, dazzled by and credulous about the T-shirted wonder nerds of Silicon Valley, who signed into law the Telecommunications Act 1996. That blandly entitled legislation included a guarantee that the internet would be unfettered by any regulation. Crucially, section 230 declared that tech platforms were not responsible for any material that appeared on them. It was a law which made the internet lawless. Baldwin, a neat phrase-maker, observes that “the information superhighway became a mixture of Wacky Races and Fury Road”. Thus Clinton allowed the tech titans to escape any of the responsibilities of conventional publishers and helped create the conditions in which his wife, Hillary, would later lose the presidency to Trump.
In common with many who write on this subject, Baldwin doesn’t offer much by way of a confidence-inspiring cure. His strongest recommendation is that the wild west of the internet needs more robust policing. In non-fake news which broke too late for this book, Britain’s information commissioner has just imposed a £500,000 fine on Facebook for its role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The maximum penalty available to the commissioner, this is barely a key scratch on the Zuckerberg juggernaut. Facebook will shrug at a fine that represents less than seven minutes of its annual revenues.