At the risk of losing street cred as a tough-as-nails tech pundit, I’ll confess that I couldn’t muster much outrage when Facebook declined last week to delete a video doctored to make Nancy Pelosi look like a drunken mess.
Sure, there’s a good argument that Facebook should have taken down the fake, as YouTube did. But what the company did do — label the clip as misinformation and limit its virality so that very few people got to see it — struck me as a reasonable effort to quash the lie, especially since I worry about Facebook’s overreach. Demanding that Facebook remove posts that cross some hard-to-define line may end up dragooning lots of legitimate political speech into its memory hole. Such a policy would also enrich Mark Zuckerberg with the last thing we should want him to have: more power over what we read, watch, listen to and think about.
Mostly, though, I felt indifferent to the debate. Whatever Facebook decides to do with this weird little video is a big meh, because if you were to rank the monsters of misinformation that American society now faces, amateurishly doctored viral videos would clock in as mere houseflies in our midst. Worry about them, sure, but not at the risk of overlooking a more clear and present danger, the million-pound, forked-tongue colossus that is Fox News and the far-flung, cross-platform lie machine that it commands.
And that’s exactly what happened last week. In going after Facebook, many observers forgot about Rupert Murdoch’s empire, whose Fox Business spinoff aired a similarly misleading Pelosi hit job on “Lou Dobbs Tonight.” This was upside down. While newfangled digital manipulations should raise some concern, they are still emerging, long-range threats, and social networks are at least experimenting with ways to mitigate their negative effect on society. But we don’t have much hope nor many good ideas for limiting the lies of old-media outlets like Fox News, which still commands the complete and slavish attention of tens of millions of Americans every night, polluting the public square with big and small lies that often ricochet across every platform, from cable to YouTube to Facebook to Google, drowning us all in a never-ending flood of fakery.
Indeed, what was remarkable about Fox’s Pelosi video was its very ordinariness. Instead of slowing down Pelosi’s speech, Fox Business misleadingly spliced together lots of small sections of a recent news conference to make it look as if Pelosi stammered worse than Porky Pig.
Fox’s editing technique was not novel; this sort of montage is a common feature on Fox and much of cable news. The clip was aired with all the trappings of serious TV journalism. After showing the video, a Fox pundit, Greg Jarrett, and Ed Rollins, the longtime Republican political consultant, concern-trolled about how Pelosi, who “could not put a subject with a predicate in the same sentence,” was “getting worn down” by the demands of her “very big job.”
While Facebook moved quickly to limit the spread of the doctored Pelosi clip, Fox is neither apologizing for airing its montage nor taking it down, because this sort of manipulated video fits within the network’s ethical bounds.
And Fox has apparently persuaded us all to live with its lying, too. Even though it was the Fox Business clip, not the amateur Facebook segment, that President Donald Trump tweeted to his millions of followers, it was somehow Facebook, Twitter and the digital world that came in for the biggest scolding from press critics.
I understand the fear about digital fakery. But to focus on Facebook instead of Fox News is to mistake the symptom for the disease.
The disease is an entrenched, well-funded, decades-in-the-making, right-wing propaganda network, one that exists to turn faintly sourced rumors into full-blown, politically convenient narratives. The propaganda network’s tentacles now infiltrate every form of media — magazines, books, talk radio, social networks — but it still finds its most profitable and effective outlet in the Murdochs’ cable empire.
And it is devastatingly effective: Just about every political lie that has dominated American discourse in the past two decades — the Swift Boaters and the birthers, death panels, the idea that immigrants in the country illegally pose an existential threat but climate change does not — depended, for its mainstream dissemination, on the Fox News machine.
This makes sense when you look into the scholarship on misinformation. As Brendan Nyhan of the University of Michigan has pointed out, while it’s reasonable to worry about lies online, what we should really be up in arms about are the lies of “elites” — politicians, anchors, pundits and their spin doctors — who transform latent misinformation into comprehensive narratives of untruth.
Not that this is a comforting thought; in fact, it makes the whole problem a bit hopeless, because what are we going to do about Fox News? Aside from Elizabeth Warren — who has a plan to limit the power of Fox — few on the left bother anymore to even mention the scourge it poses.
But we should not grow inured to this. Because if we give up expecting truth from Fox, there’s little point expecting it on Facebook, either.