On Reddit AMA (“ask me anything”) forums, a popular inside joke question is: “Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or 1 horse-sized duck?” Redditor Reaverax even asked President Obama this question in an AMA on August 29, 2012. I’ve never done a Reddit AMA, but if someone asked me, I’d respond: as fearsome as a horse sized duck would be, the swarm of 100 duck-sized horses is probably the more worrisome opponent, especially if they know how to team up.
Think about taking on an angry falcon with a baseball bat. Nerve wracking, sure — but you’ve got a chance if you can land a swing or two. Now think about taking on a swarm of bees with a baseball bat. You’re toast.
I heard on a public radio interview yesterday that Putin controls essentially all the media outlets in Russia, and that’s how he convinces the majority of Russians that he is working in their interest (even though he and his oligarchs are robbing the country blind). The TV, the radio, and the newspapers all put out the official line from the government every day. The one outlet he can’t control is the internet, because it is so decentralized. But in that case, Putin’s administration just puts out so much nonsense (“fake news”) that it’s almost impossible to ferret out the truth from the lies.
That’s the challenge of our modern media landscape: defeating the swarm of bees with a baseball bat. If Churchill was right about the truth putting its pants on (as I discussed yesterday), the pace of the internet makes it impossible for the truth to catch up. Once stakeholders in civil society forfeit their commitment to the truth, then there’s a green light to release as many bees as you can to promote your side. And if your opponent is lying to mobilize their supporters, there’s a strong temptation to do the same so you can counter their energy. It may even seem foolish and naive not to.
But on the receiving end, how can we as individuals make our way through this blizzard of alternative facts? I saw a post on Quora today asking how people can still support this administration with all the scandals and revelations coming out on a daily basis. Those interested in exacerbating social conflict in the U.S. don’t have to write provocative content themselves — instead, they just have to find content that achieves their ends and then they promote that content. It may be that there aren’t really that many people in the U.S. who believe that the FBI is corrupt and compromised. But if there’s one person claiming that on social media, savvy players can promote the sentiment with re-tweets and search engine optimization, and boom: it’s at the top of everyone’s news feed the next morning. Next thing you know, parties who might have had a gut instinct along those lines feel vindicated, and they may feel motivated enough to start echoing the sentiment through their own channels.
When you’re caught in a blizzard it’s easy to get disoriented. You can’t tell you’re right from left. Once you lose a sense of which way is north you won’t be able to find it again. We need a GPS to help us get through the storm — a trusted foundation that we can utilize to reorient ourselves when we get confused, just like using instruments instead of visual cues to pilot a plane through a white out blizzard.