We’re nearly two years into the #FakeNews era of American Politics. The electorate is more divided than any time in my memory over the past 40+ years. We have a President, whose relationship with objective truth is more off than on.
In the wake of this wave of wild conspiracy theory and blatant speculation, an industry has been risen from the ashes of the 2016 election: Profit driven fake news.
The #FakeNews Industry
A few days ago, the Washington Post had a story about one such proprietor of #FakeNews. This was the story of Maine “blogger” Christopher Blair.
Blair runs a website, that spouts all kinds of fake stories daily seeking one thing: to shame and profit from its visitors.
Blair’s site is pretty clear that it is intended to be satire. He even provides a definition of satire on his site’s “About Us” page. At the top of the page the subhead reads, “Information You Probably Shouldn’t Trust”. At the bottom it says “Copyright 2018 Paid Liberal Trolls of America”.
One would think that this would be enough to keep people from falling for his bullshit stories. But Blair has a loyal following of over 200,000 followers on Facebook and, according to the WaPo article, has made over $15,000 on his site (I don’t know if that’s a monthly figure or year to date, the article isn’t clear).
From reading the comments on several of his social media postings its apparent to me that this is a vehicle for ridicule more than anything else. Blair and his followers who are in on the joke ridicule the more gullible folks.
Blair trades in good old fashioned shame. He doesn’t shame the politicians, crackpots, and sideshow clowns who really started this devolution some 20+ years ago, but rather, their victims…the people who believe their bullshit.
They Want To Believe
At this point, you should meet the second person interviewed in the Washington Post article: 76 year old Shirley Chapian.
Chapian is retired. She lives in a trailer in Pahrump, NV.
Based on the reporting, Chapian seems isolated. Her family doesn’t live nearby. There’s no mention of her getting out into the community with friends.
Chapian spends a lot of time on Facebook…and a lot of time reading Christopher Blair’s “satire”, as well as several other sites spouting wild takes on “news” for fun an profit.
Ms. Chapian is a lifelong Republican, but that’s not really the point. In fact, it doesn’t really matter what her politics are. She’s been sucked into the vacuum of the #FakeNews industry. It has changed her perspective on the world. Maybe it has confirmed some of her biases. Maybe it even provides some kind of real-life interactive drama that folks used to get from daytime soaps like “The Young and the Restless”.
Either way, Chapian is caught in a web of deceit…whether it be Blair’s satire, or Alex Jones’ full-throated batshittery.
Chapian is of an age that she could be one of my parents, an Aunt or Uncle, or a member of my extended family of in-laws.
For some reason, I came away from reading this article feeling bad for Ms. Chapian. I don’t feel sorry for her. I identify with the real isolation she lives with. She’s seeking of some kind of connection out there in the ether of the internet.
I found myself wanting to take her for a coffee or something. Just to talk to her. To give her some kind of real connection outside the glow of her computer screen.
Mostly, I found myself disgusted with Blair’s tactic.
Shaming Isn’t Productive
Generally, I’m a big fan of satire. I believe it has an important role to play in the national discussion of just about anything. But satire has limits. At some point it crosses the line from satire to bullying. For my money, Blair’s writing crosses that line.
Satire directed at folks who seemingly act against their own best interests is a time honored tradition, satire also fails to understand all the things that underpin that decision.
Satire, when done poorly, can also turn to bullying. Using a satirical article to then shame people for “falling for it” seems a counterproductive way to get your point across.
Truth be told, changing people’s minds is really hard. People feel real pain and fear when their opinions are challenged. Several psychological studies have shown that using shame to change minds results in people doubling down on those opinions.
So how do you go about changing someone’s mind? As this 2010 article from Psychology Today points out, you show them that you care about them…rather than seeking to shame them.
This is more difficult in a world where people have retreated to comfortable battlements of self-affirming opinion.
Its an investment of time and effort that may not pay off.
But ultimately, showing someone you disagree with that you care about them, even if you don’t like how they feel about things is the most productive way to change the hearts and minds.
If we want to really combat the advent of myth-making profiting on isolation, further isolating those individuals through shame isn’t the way to do it.
That doesn’t mean every case is equal. But it does mean that if someone you care about is falling into this pit of deception, there are only a few ways to combat it. Showing that you care is the first step.
This may sound all touchy-feely, but people are primarily emotional, not rational. We’re not robots. People don’t process data free of the filters we’ve erected around ourselves. We filter data through the lens of perception that was instilled in us through our family and friends over the years.
We seek reinforcement of those perceptions, because they are comfortable. Showing you care is a way to break down those walls and open people up to the possibility of another way of looking at things.
Its a long and difficult process. It doesn’t always work. There are a lot of things that can get in the way of the process. This includes sites like Blair’s, who use shame for fun and profit. That counterproductive fun and profit ultimately make showing someone you care even more difficult.
Ultimately, this is about understanding the limits of reason and the depth of people’s humanity. We are all inexorably flawed individuals seeking approval and confirmation of the world as we see it. But we’re also capable of change. That change is only possible by opening yourself up and showing your own humanity…your own vulnerability…and that you care about others…even those whose ideas about the world are diametrically opposed to your own.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Many folks will be confronted with a family member who has fallen into the breach of false narrative. I know from experience its hard to keep from doubling down. Maybe its better to just stop for a second. Breathe. Think about how you can start chipping away at the foundations of misinformation by showing your crazy Uncle (or whomever) that you love them… that they’re important to you.
Maybe then you can find a way to chip away at the things that divide you. It may not change how they vote, or even how they feel, but maybe, just maybe over time it can make a difference in their lives and help them move past the base manipulation they succumbed to.