Welcome to the post-fact world, where Information Debris has replaced real information.
Think of the "news" we've recently heard about. Government sponsored "death squads" to kill grannies; internment camps to indoctrinate kids with socialist dogma; accusations that the Bush administration not only planned 9/11 but blew up adjacent buildings; claims that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, not the US.
These ideas were culled not from mailings from extremist groups or the creepy websites of the lunatic fringe. They were discussed by the mainstream media in forums that have millions of viewers and readers.
Fairly recently, the news media could have been described as a "Panama Canal" structure. All along its banks, multiple gatekeepers eyeballed the flow of information, opening the sluice gates for material that conformed to standards of evidence, the lack of libel or outright theft.
Today, the applicable model is the Great Johnstown Flood. Run for the hills, boys, the dam has burst. Consumers of news struggling to stay afloat may grab onto all sort of peculiar items: tweets, e mails, facebook items, blog entries, You Tube videos and on-camera tirades from apoplectic cable hosts. We used to talk about a "news cycle"--now, there is a news deluge, constantly flowing, much of it of dubious validity. The more lurid, the more absurd, the more frightening a bit of information seems to be, the more traction it gets. Information Debris has replaced information.
To be sure, this is not entirely a new phenomenon in American history. The yellow press of the 19th century thrived on crime, sex and scandal. But never before has there been so much junk, flowing so fast, through so many venues. And never before have the gatekeepers of the media been so easily bypassed by the tsunami of information rushing past them. Information Debris bobs up and down, having been ripped away from the original structures of which it was once a part.
Information Debris is to factual information as 'Truthiness" is to truth. A core bit of reality gets mashed together with fantasy, lies, political spin and sheer ignorance, and a new factoid is created. The "granny death squads" are a good example. Originally, the health care bill contained a provision that would have paid doctors for consulting with patients and their families about end of life care. A sensible, non-controversial idea, one would have thought. But when it got mashed up with spin and lies, it morphed into Nazi-like squads of government bureaucrats in hobnailed boots fanning out to find grannies and granddads to pop off by canceling their health care.
The idea is so nuts that in the past, it would have been reported on in the mainstream press only with a laugh, or as an example of extremist nonsense. But Sarah Palin posted on her Facebook page that, "Obama's 'death panel' " would decide whether her parents or her son Trig, who has Down syndrome, were "worthy of health care." Conservative pundits Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck chimed in, saying, yes, indeed, there would be death panels. Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade said, "there's provisions in there that seniors in the last lap of their life will be sitting there going to a panel possibly discussing what the best thing for them is."
And then hosts on news shows on mainstream media, including CNN and ABC, started asking questions of newsmakers about what they thought of the "death panels. "
A bit of Information Debris had progressed from the conservative fringe to the mainstream nearly overnight, with barely a nod to such things as fact, evidence or reporting.
Much Information Debris comes from the right, but the left can also produce it. On ABC's "The View," Rosie O'Donnell went on at length about the "fact" that the Bush administration had planted bombs in buildings near the World Trade Center.
The problem with Information Debris is twofold: First, it subverts the factual information that is necessary in a democracy to govern rationally, and Second) in a hyper- competitive media world, it often elevates the trivial and the sensational over what's really important.
As Susan Jacoby writes in The Age of Unreason, "Americans are in serious intellectual trouble -- in danger of losing our hard-won cultural capital to a virulent mixture of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism and low expectations."
Ironically, the two great "Dystopias" of the 20th century offer opposite scenarios of how freedom can be lost. In Orwell's 1984, it is Big Brother that beats people into submission. But in Huxley's Brave New World, the citizens cheerfully give up their rights while getting high on a drug called soma and indulging in free sex and shopping sprees. Sound familiar?
One of the challenges we face today is how to preserve our "cultural capital" of evidence-based rational thought before everything we read and see is Information Debris. It's one reason we have to save newspapers, whether they are on actual paper, online, or beamed directly into your brain waves. We need gatekeepers more than ever.
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