By Patrick Blanchfield
Since the election, you’ve probably seen, heard, or read someone wringing their hands over the proliferation of “fake news.” The argument goes like this: fraudulent headlines and bogus stories are manufactured by cynical operators, spreading like wildfire via social media, and our capacity for informed decision-making, so vital to the welfare of our democracy, suffers as a result. If you believed that the Pope has endorsed Donald Trump, for example, you might have given him your vote; if you believe actors are being bussed in and paid to protest the election results, you might view all such dissent as in bad faith. And so forth.
Clearly, fake news is a problem. Perhaps you should consider avoiding the “news” from sites on aggregated lists like this one – at least if your news feed isn’t full of dubious headlines from still other sites telling you that those lists are also fake. And provided, of course, that the gatekeepers you turn to for such lists aren’t themselves operating with their own agendas.
But you know what’s also a problem, alongside – and, I think, just as much as – “fake news”? Bullshit news: “news” that grabs your attention, your clicks, and your outrage, sapping public energy and awareness. Bullshit news is news that screams “NEWS!” in inverse proportion to how much it actually matters – and that, not coincidentally, pulls your eyes away from news that does.
Let’s consider some examples. Weekend before last, you doubtless saw the stop-the-presses news that Mike Pence was booed by the audience at a weekend showing of Hamilton, and then addressed by cast members (remember?). This likely dominated your newsfeed in no small part because Donald Trump promptly spent much of the subsequent weekend tweeting about it. Meanwhile, in the glut of hashtag campaigns, thinkpieces, and impassioned defenses of the theater, free speech, and the truly political act that is dropping a thousand bucks for a ticket to a hip-hop musical celebrating the glorious promise of American democracy, what got lost in the shuffle was the nontrivial fact that our present-elect settled a massive lawsuit for running a massive con job that shamelessly bilked thousands of people out of their life savings. Of course, this was not a coincidence. The coverage analytics couldn’t be clearer on that score: the Trump University settlement was gaining momentum, and presto, Trump began tweeting about Hamilton, and that was that. In other words: the Hamilton story was bullshit news, but we ate it up, spent a weekend in high dudgeon, and then patted ourselves on the back for doing it. And now, this past weekend, just as The New York Times released a devastatingly thorough assessment of the Trump Organization’s myriad foreign entanglements, Trump took to Twitter and unleashed a firestorm by ludicrously claiming to have been stabbed in the back by fraud during an election that he won.
We need to realize now that this is how things are going to play out going forward: bullshit headlines, however grotesque and disturbing they may be, will serve to distract our attention from far more damaging matters. Precisely when we need to pay attention the most, to respond in sustained and focused ways, we’ll instead get served up some quick, tempting hit of bullshit – just enough to get our outrage fix, an opportunity to make some witty puns, to find solidarity in retweets, memes, and quick chuckles, and then move on to the next episode.
Fake news and bullshit news operate in tandem. Fake news may appeal to paranoiac, reactionary “low information” types, but bullshit news is catnip for outraged, ostensibly savvy liberals at the end of their tethers. On some level, it’s understandable. The past eighteen months have left us enervated and frayed, reacting reflexively, signal-boosting everything that’s come across our feeds in the buildup to a climactic showdown at the ballot box.
But that showdown is over now – and we’re entering a new phase. Before, it was a scramble, a sprint; now we’re in a marathon that’s all about judiciously consuming information and weighing priorities. Over the four years to come, remember this: Trump operates on the belief that “the American public has a two-to-three week attention span.” Trump still has some scores of lawsuits pending against him, and his administration’s conflicts of interest are only going to get more flagrant, too. Yet if we get thrown each time he does something vulgar and gobsmacking, none of these things will matter. In an ideal world, our attention bandwidth would be unlimited. In the real world, though, our susceptibility to novelty and outrage translates into shabby tradeoffs, particularly when issues demand longer-term follow-through. It’s hard to wrap our heads around a White House Chief Strategist who allegedly muses about the genetic superiority of various people and whose worldview basically boils down to a Decline of the West space opera – and so we’ll drown in endless chatter about some “new” twenty-something reactionary small-fry goose-stepping in a DC hotel basement instead (even though, as Kelly Baker argues, they’re not “new” at all). But we have to resist that temptation and buck the cycle.
Because if there’s one thing that Trump, bullshitter extraordinaire, can weather and outlast, it’s bullshit. Even worse: he thrives on it. Compare your sick burn or witty meme responding to Trump’s latest outrage to posting a dogshaming photo on Instagram. Odds are your pup, blissfully unaware of the social media exposure, will just piss on your couch again, because that’s what dogs do. Trump, though, revels in that limelight and embraces your umbrage, gleefully promising to do even worse next time – and playing up the spectacle of your distress and mockery over his bullshit as proof to his followers that you’re an oversensitive and feckless tool. He’s like a dog that pisses on your couch while snapping a selfie and tagging you in it. Shaming the shameless is a fool’s errand.
Here’s the bottom line. The danger of focusing attention on the latest installments of a demagogue’s florid personality politics is that that fixation directly serves their interests. Whether such is their conscious intention or not is immaterial – as is the question of whether Trump specifically is a puppet master or a hapless savant. What matters is that our focusing on such distractions leaves deeper structures of politics unnoticed, and more troubling developments proceed unremarked. So: reject the fake news, but also, please, resist the bullshit. We may all be lying in the gutter of our information silos, but if we can’t keep our eyes on the bigger picture, we’re done.
In the Godforsaken Wilderness is a blog being written by Patrick Blanchfield in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. You can read past posts here.
Patrick Blanchfield is the Henry R. Luce Initiative in Religion in International Affairs Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Center for Religion and Media at NYU. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Emory University and is a graduate of the Emory University Psychoanalytic Institute. He writes about US culture, guns, and politics at carteblanchfield.com and is on Twitter as @patblanchfield.