The Real Problem is Not Misinformation

As progressives, journalists, and media scholars attempt to account for the role of media in the Trump victory, opinions seem to have coalesced around one culprit: misinformation. New media scholar Zeynep Tufekci provides the most informed and nuanced version of this narrative in her critique of Facebook’s failure to screen fake news stories and its algorithmic filtering of political views into red and blue silos. Variations on this view can be found everywhere from think pieces to journalistic lists of fake news sites to an interview with President Obama, in which he decried a media ecosystem in which “everything is true and nothing is true.” The discussion has even had tangible effects on the way Facebook handles news.

But while misinformation is a problem, I would suggest that it is more a symptom than the disease. The misinformation thesis seems to assume that if only people had access to correct information, they would make better political choices. Yet as anyone who has tried to use factual analysis in a political debate on Twitter, Facebook, or the comments section of their local newspaper can attest, people rarely go online to gather political information for processing as the raw material of dispassionate reason.

The quick consensus around the “online misinformation” theory suggests a lingering and dangerous mismatch between our conceptions of new media users as political subjects and the reality. Early in the personal computer era, J. David Bolter noted how the computer was reshaping the thinking of humanist scholars, “giving us a new definition of man [sic], as an ‘information processor’” (1984:13). But while new media architectures are built for efficient information processing, new media users are not. Instead, we tend to interact with information the way a single-celled organism engages the medium it inhabits, feeding on that which supports our sense of self and recoiling from what we think threatens us—using media to manage our affective relations to others and the world. To understand what ails our digitally mediated democracy we will need to embrace an affective conception of political subjects and their media use.

I’ll offer myself as an example: In the pre-dawn hours of November 9th I awoke in a state of anxiety. Momentarily, my mind cast about in the darkness, trying to identify the cause of my concern. Then I remembered that I had gone to bed all but certain of Donald Trump’s election as president. I felt my hand reach out for its constant companion, my smartphone, to check the threat. As a newsfeed headline confirmed the grim truth, an intensity surged through me and my thoughts bounded through a series of apocalyptic scenarios. I felt physically unwell. It took me an hour to calm myself enough to sleep again.

The subject I embodied in that dark hour was a far cry from the rational humanist subject our liberal democracy is predicated on. Nor were my embodied thoughts and racing heart reducible to the symbolic logic of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the Enlightenment grandfather of binary code. And yet these rationalist conceptions of citizens and media users are embedded in the “garbage in, garbage out” belief that bad online information elected Donald Trump. In truth, his election and my distress both had more to do with the transmission of affect than the transmission of information. Both were primed by months of obsessive pre-election media engagement with digital feeds designed to monetize affectivity. And judging from the words and faces of friends and colleagues, my bout of Trump-related affective disorder was mild.

In other words, this election is a jarring reminder of a well-worn Foucauldian truth: the rational, autonomous, disciplined subject of liberal democracy is a prescription not a description. It is a difficult role to play, even for us alleged exemplars of the type—those of us who best identify with the part. Now consider those who do not identify with the class markers of this type of selfhood. Many Trump followers are sick of the respectability politics of informed citizenship, often correctly believing that it hasn’t paid off for them.

People gravitated to Trump because of the way he made them feel: recognized, respected, enraged, empowered, liberated, secure, superior. In this regard, Trump’s indifference to truth was a feature, not a bug, because it allowed him to say anything that would generate the affects his followers so desired. Rational argument was not exactly the centerpiece of a Trump rally—people liked how he spoke. They flocked to him because he was a master builder of affective spaces. Reporters wrote of the electric, overpowering atmosphere of these events.

If Trump’s rallies operated according to affective dynamics, should we assume that online spaces work differently? Trump supporters did not vote for him because they were misinformed online—rather, they consumed and circulated misinformation because they loved Trump, because it was an enormously pleasurable thing to do, and because they imagined (correctly) that it drove the educated classes crazy. Like the rest of us, they deployed their abilities to reason and select information in accord with their affective investments, worldview, and sense of self. For better and for worse, digital technologies are rechanneling and amplifying these aspects of human nature that we all recognize, but have a difficult time integrating into our “infocentric” research models.

Successful app developers and advertisers don’t equate the nature of their users with the systems architectures that support their businesses—instead they monetize the fact that cognition is always affective. It is essential that we identify and challenge digital designs and practices that amplify harmful affective potentials. In recent years, a number of scholars have analyzed the affective dynamics of digital media—Melissa Gregg, Jodi Dean, Natasha Dow Schull, and Zizi Papcharissi, to name a few—yet affect still seems to play a quirky sidekick role in new media studies. For democracy’s sake, one hopes that scholars, journalists, and progressive activists will invest as deeply in understanding affect as do the capitalists who develop the platforms they use and study.

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