Democracy After Truth

Issue Date July 2024
Volume 35
Issue 3
Page Numbers 160–64
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The Death of Truth: How Social Media and the Internet Gave Snake Oil Salesmen and Demagogues the Weapons They Needed to Destroy Trust and Polarize the World — and What We Can Do. By Steven Brill. New York: Knopf, 2024. 336 pp.

Invisible Rulers: The People Who Turn Lies into Reality. By Renée DiResta. New York: PublicAffairs, 2024. 448 pp.

Steven Brill’s new book, The Death of Truth, offers a sobering account of how America’s media and political systems went wrong. His essential thesis can be condensed as follows: Things were basically fine, but then the social-media platforms came along and ruined everything. The phenomena he describes are urgent and serious, but I am not so sure that he has correctly diagnosed the underlying problem.

In Brill’s telling, there was a time when people respected institutional norms and the rule of law. Politicians were held in check by watchful news organizations. The media industry held itself to a high standard of objective reporting, imparting relevant facts to an attentive citizenry which, in turn, held public officials to account.

About the Author

David Karpf is an associate professor in the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs. He is the author of two books on digital politics, along with a weekly Substack newsletter called “The Future, Now and Then.”

View all work by David Karpf

But then social-media platforms inserted themselves into the agora. Advances in digital-advertising technology let Google, Facebook, and Twitter (now X) bankrupt the news media by intercepting practically all the advertising revenues that funded journalism. Advances in algorithmic curation sent people down partisan rabbit holes, undermining the shared objective truths that are the bedrock of an accountable civil society. And section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (1996) meant the platforms were not held to the same standard of truthfulness and accuracy as the traditional media they were displacing.

We are living amidst the results now: Antivaxxers revel in social-media fame by spreading lies and inuendo about covid-19 czar Anthony Fauci. Grassroots conservatives have become convinced of the “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was stolen, so much so that hundreds of them participated in an assault on the seat of government, driven into a frenzy by the anger and mis- and disinformation they ingest on social media. And with advances in generative artificial intelligence (AI), the situation is poised to get much worse. We will soon be awash in synthetic media, wherein you cannot trust the words you read or hear or the people you see, because they could be artificially generated for power and profit. Truth itself is dying; the big-tech platforms are killing it.

Brill is an old-school journalist — a deep believer in the critical role played by the fourth estate, and in the sacred duty of journalists to prize objective facts over partisan politics. He is also a cofounder of the well-respected media-monitoring service NewsGuard. Through his admirable work with that organization, he has devoted himself for the past six years to combating fake news and political propaganda. He can tell that something has gone askew in our political system, and this book articulates his commitment to fixing it.

I am a professor of strategic political communication. I study how campaigns, organizations, and political elites make use of digital technologies to build and exert power. Prior to joining academia, I worked in social-movement politics. I suppose I am less attached than Brill to the ideal of just-the-facts objective journalism as a lynchpin of civil society. I say this not to defend Facebook or Google — Brill is clearly right that these companies have been vectors for and accelerants of strategic disinformation campaigns — but to flag that the pre–social-media decades were not nearly as stable as he suggests. The social-media platforms are not the primary villains of the tale we are living through. They are mere members of an ensemble cast, engaged in a grand misadventure, accepting not nearly enough responsibility for the harms they engender in pursuit of profit.

There is an especially revealing passage in chapter 11 (“Down the Rabbit Hole”) of Brill’s book. The chapter explores what drove some of the January 6th rioters to attack the Capitol. Brill writes:

Compare 2020 with the last contested presidential election, the Bush v. Gore fight, which happened in a pre–social-media, pre–hyper-polarization age. People on both sides protested, but they did not try to block the process. Neither side was lured into believing that sinister forces were arrayed against them — that their opponents were evil and had stolen the election. The 2000 battle was bitterly fought — in the courts. And then it was over.

He is certainly right that no Gore supporters attacked the Capitol in January 2001. But it seems he is recalling November 2000 through rose-tinted glasses. It is plainly false to claim that neither side tried “to block the process.” Brill was a proper newsman in November 2000. Surely, he must recall the Brooks Brothers Riot.

On 22 November 2000, several dozen protesters entered the Steven B. Clark Government Center in Miami, Florida. They were there to disrupt the recount proceedings, banging on doors and threatening government officials. Their goal was, quite precisely, to block the recount process — to prevent public officials from completing the arduous task of manually recounting the votes in a timely manner. These protesters were successful. Weeks later, the Supreme Court would declare in Bush v. Gore that there simply was not enough time remaining to count all the Florida votes and award the presidency to whoever had received a ballot majority. George W. Bush was appointed president through judicial fiat, and Gore acceded. A landmark postelection study by the National Opinion Research Center would later conclude that, had the manual recount been completed, Al Gore would have been declared the victor.

The Brooks Brothers Riot was organized by conservative political operative Roger Stone. The rioters were Republican political operatives, many of whom would go on to hold positions of power within the party network. Stone himself became a key advisor to Donald Trump two decades later and played a significant role in his attempt to overturn the 2020 election. We do not know precisely how significant Stone’s role was, because he stonewalled the January 6th Committee by repeatedly invoking his fifth-amendment right against self-incrimination.

In Brill’s telling, the U.S. political system worked just fine until social media came along, bankrupted and hamstrung proper reporting outlets, and began injecting partisan vitriol into the veins of a susceptible public. In his rendering, 2000 was the before-times, when the system worked.

Brill’s yearning for the good old days of yore consistently detracts from what is otherwise an interesting and provocative book. He is at his best when explaining the origins of section 230, how programmatic advertising works, and NewsGuard’s efforts to patch up the failing marketplace for media literacy. But the book is bogged down by frustrating asides, where he flaunts his commitment to objectivity by offering “both sides” examples.

As it happens, another book released in June, Renée DiResta’s Invisible Rulers: The People Who Turn Lies into Reality, covers similar terrain as Brill’s The Death of Truth. DiResta is the research manager of the Stanford Internet Observatory, and an accomplished analyst of digital misinformation campaigns. DiResta receives several salutary mentions in Brill’s book — she is one of the “good guys,” holding the platforms to account — and has faced the same partisan attacks on her research from the same strategic actors.

The incidental timing is fortuitous and instructive. I found DiResta’s to be the stronger offering. What separates the two books is that, where Brill judges social-media platforms against the cherished bygone ideals of objective journalism, DiResta looks at them through the lenses of power and propaganda. Her book reveals much more of the underlying political economy of viral media. In the introduction, for instance, she walks the reader through the example of “Guitar Guy,” a YouTuber who starts out streaming guitar performances, eventually realizes from YouTube’s creator metrics that his audience increases when he talks about his covid-vaccine skepticism, and then proceeds to give the audience what it craves. It is a tight explanation of how the supply side of social media is shaped by demand, inscrutable algorithmic platform biases, and analytics-based feedback loops.

DiResta provides a much more detailed analysis of events such as the January 6 attack, examining how Stone and his co-conspirators spread the #StopTheSteal narrative, while also examining the ways that Facebook could have done more to reduce the velocity of these messages. She does not let the platforms off the hook, but nor does she award them too great a share of the blame.

What is clear from both books is that the media system has been destabilized, and there is no easy solution on the horizon. Synthetic media, produced through generative AI, are making it cheaper than ever to produce strategic deceptive content. What little revenue news organizations had been receiving from digital advertising is now imperiled, as the big-tech companies integrate (clunky, error-ridden, hallucinatory) AI into all their products. And where these companies have, until recently, treated viral disinformation at least partly as a problem to be solved, they are treating generative AI as a race to be won. Things are bound to get worse before they get better.

The social-media platforms are not the heroes of this story. If we are to maintain a barely functional democracy, it will not be on the basis of their largesse. But nor are they the primary villains. Donald Trump, not Mark Zuckerberg, is most responsible for spreading the Big Lie. Misinformation is a genuine problem, but it can also be a scapegoat that obscures the other, larger problems that beset our democracy. Roger Stone and his peers spent decades learning how to exploit the biases and weaknesses of mainstream reporting outlets. They have adapted their techniques to fit a changing media system. We will not salvage democracy by pretending those biases and weaknesses never existed in the first place.

If there is reason for hope right now, it rests on the sheer instability of our present media and political systems. The center cannot hold. I do not know what comes next, but I am rather certain it will not simply be more of the same. There is both opportunity and risk in change. We can hold the platforms and the politicians accountable. Both of these books are filled with detailed proposals for how we can better regulate the tech platforms. We must not be paralyzed by the troubling dynamics that beset our society today. We have room to work toward something better.

Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press