We’re well into the backlash cycle of the post-election outrage over “fake news,” as commentator after commentator calls this phrase into question and celebrates the fall of the gatekeeper media. Taking a phrase from Tom Wolfe, Matthew Continetti at the conservative Commentary argues that “the press… is a Victorian Gentleman, the arbiter of manners and fashion, the judge of right conduct and good breeding.” We should not lament this gentleman’s loss of a “liberal, affluent, entitled cocoon.” He had long ago “changed his job description and went from telling his readers what had happened to telling them what to think.”
Likewise, The Intercept has shown how fake news panic produced a “McCarthyite Blacklist” of independent organizations lumped together by “shoddy, slothful journalistic tactics” of the kind used by “smear artists” and peddlers of disinformation. Politics aside, what we should at least gather from this firestorm is that the story of “fake news”—or of deliberate hoaxes, lies, and propaganda—is much older than the Internet, though the speed at which it spreads has increased exponentially with the dominance of social media. We’re left wondering how we might reclaim some orientation toward the truth in any media. If everything is potentially fake news, what can we trust?
With the professional vetting of information in crisis, we are thrown back on the popularization of Darwinism advanced by “British defender of capitalism” Herbert Spencer, who—writes Timothy Snyder in his New York Times bestseller Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning—described the market as “an ecosphere where the strongest and best survived.” In our information ecosystem, “strongest and best” is often determined not by natural forces, nor by expert adjudication of merit, but by algorithms… and cash. And as journalists at The Independent and elsewhere discovered last week, Google’s algorithms have decided that the best, most helpful answer to the question “did the holocaust happen?” comes from neo-Nazi hate site Stormfront, in a piece glibly titled “Top 10 reasons why the Holocaust didn’t happen.”
It should go without saying—and yet it must be said—that no serious historian of the period considers the systematic mass murder of millions of Jews and other “undesirables” to be an open historical question. The horror of the 30s and 40s, writes the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, is “one of the best documented events in history” and denials and distortions of these events “are generally motivated by hatred of Jews.” (See their video explaining denialism at the top.) There’s no question that’s the motive in Google’s top search result for Holocaust denialism. Google admits as much, writing this past Monday, “We are saddened to see that hate organizations still exist. The fact that hate sites appear in search results does not mean that Google endorses these views.”
And yet, writes Carole Cadwalladr at The Guardian, the search engine giant also “confirmed it would not remove the result.” Cadwalladr details how she displaced the top result herself “with the only language that Google understands: money.” Lilian Black, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, compared the tech giant’s response to “saying we know that the trains are running into Birkenau, but we’re not responsible for what’s happening at the end of it.” But they should bear some responsibility. Google, she says, shapes “people’s thinking… Can’t they see where this leads? And to have a huge worldwide organization refusing to acknowledge this. That’s what they think their role is? To be a bystander?”
The question forces us to confront not only the role of the press but also the role of the new gatekeepers, Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc., who have displaced Victorian systems of managing information and knowledge. The loss of status among academics and professional journalists and editors may have salutary effects, such as a democratization of media and the emergence of credible voices previously confined to the margins. But what can be done about the corresponding rise in deliberate misinformation published by hate groups and propaganda organizations? Moral considerations carry no weight when the figurative “marketplace of ideas” is reduced to the literal market.
Danny Sullivan, a search engine expert Cadwalladr cites, suggests that the reason the Stormfront result rose to the top of Google’s search may be nothing more than populism for profit: “Google has changed its algorithm to reward popular results over authoritative ones. For the reason that it makes Google more money.” The rising popularity of hate sites presents a growth opportunity for Google and its competitors. Meanwhile, racist hate groups spread their messages unimpeded, ordinary citizens are badly misinformed, and so-called “self-radicalized” individuals like mass killer Dylann Roof and Tommy Mair—who murdered British MP Jo Cox this past summer—continue to find the “strongest and best” cases for their homicidal designs, no matter that so much of the information they consume is not only fake, but designedly, malevolently false.