One of the best sessions of SXSW Interactive 2017 took place on Day Five – our last day at the conference. Yasmin Green, director of research and development for Jigsaw (a Google Alphabet incubator project), took to the SXSW keynote stage after displaying a slide that read, “This keynote is fake news.” An intriguing opening. And, as it turns out, the session was precisely about fake news.
Green’s Jigsaw project seeks a technological solution to the issues of disinformation online. The approach her group is creating does not attempt to block disinformation, but to place it in a context of counter-information. As I understand it, if a person is understood within the browser to be visiting multiple sites known for disinformation in the forms of propaganda, radicalizing content or hate-oriented messaging, the browser responds by placing counter-messaging around the page. By this method, the interface offers an alternative perspective to that being displayed for the viewer. So, Green knows a thing or two about “fake news” and disinformation.
However, in lieu of a keynote address, Green brought out two individuals (unannounced as part of her talk) who unwittingly got into the business of publishing fake news. The first gentleman, Jestin Coler, launched the National Report site as a serious looking way to pan the alt-right press. He and his collaborators wrote completely fake articles about the political climate surrounding the 2016 elections that played to the alt-right base. They routinely took great joy in publishing what they felt were incredibly outlandish stories that, somewhat to their surprise, were shared virally on social media channels by people on the right side of the American political spectrum. Coler spoke of the joy of watching his Google Analytics stats on the site soar. The more outlandish and ridiculous the headline and the content, the better the story played among the alt-right base. But yet, not a bit of the news featured on the National Reporter was true. I remember reading several National Report articles that showed up with serious attribution on my Facebook feed during the election and thinking afterward, “These people have lost their minds.” Thankfully, I never shared any of the articles that I read,..at least as far as I can remember.
Green also brought attorney Jeffrey Marty onto the stage. Marty launched a social media platform for the representative of the 15th congressional district of Georgia, ardent Tea Party Republican Representative Steven Smith. To those in the know, there are only 14 congressional districts in Georgia. So, the entire persona was fake. Smith routinely praised the passage of his bill, the Carnival Safety Act of 2011, that had brought so many good things to his constituents in Georgia. As the 2016 election heated up, people began to take serious issue with the congressional representative from Georgia. As Marty and his colleague wrote fake content for Smith and engaged with all manner of opponents, his following grew exponentially. While Marty is a strong libertarian, he used the character he created to explore the problems with the entrenched parties in Washington on both sides of the aisle, but particularly the Democratic Party.
While each of these enterprises grew out of spirit of lampooning the current American political landscape, things took a more serious turn as the election cycle continued. The publisher of the National Report decided one day (literally in one day) to create a new, local paper called the Denver Guardian. The Guardian was another hyper alt-right paper but on a more local scale. The opening article of the Denver Guardian, which was made to look and sound like a legitimate local Denver online publication, declared that an FBI agent was found dead and the Clintons were involved in his murder. This fake news story on a site that had been in operation for just one day went viral, as you would expect in a news culture during a very contentious election, garnering over 1.6 million views…three days before the general election. The question hanging in the air over the SXSW crowd was to what degree did this fake news story impact those who walked into the polls on Election Day?
The @RepStevenSmith parody account was outed pretty early in its history when award-winning CNN international correspondent Christine Amanpour took issue with something the fake congressman posted on social media. Not realizing it was a fake account, Amanpour went after Steven Smith and the account owners engaged her in conversation. It was at that point when Marty realized that while the platform was fake, he was involved in something serious. The platform was labeled fake by many authorities, but as Marty continued to develop the character people thought the representative was real. As the 2016 campaign heated up, so did public conversation with Georgia’s 15th district representative. On July 18, 2016, Marty decided to go public about his authorship of the fake persona. While not bearing the same level of potential consequences as the Denver Guardian article, this fake social platform also demonstrated the genuine issue with disinformation parading as truth.
The most uncomfortable moments during this presentation were when we all found ourselves laughing at some of the stories the two people told about their fake news platforms. By intent, both were playing in the genre of comedy akin to something like The Onion. However, neither presented themselves as anything other than a serious representation of what they proclaimed to be. So we found ourselves often laughing and cringing at the same time. I think the message sunk in. News is a public service done for the public good. Genuinely fake news, when not clearly done in a way that it is understood as comedy/satire, erodes confidence in all news. With myriad online news platforms vying for attention that trust is currently extremely disaggregated. When online news outlets prioritize content by reader-response, the result is information silos where distrust of the Other is bred, and ratings demand that distrust of others tie viewers to the “true” perspective on the news.
At last check, the entirety of Green’s session remains online and is available for viewing. It is worthwhile: https://www.sxsw.com/news/2017/interactive-keynote-yasmin-green-2017-sxsw-conference-video/. While not a direct admonition, Green called out the SXSW Interactive audience and put the spotlight on our shared responsibility to ensure an open and free news environment that maintains integrity in its journalistic task.
The theme of responsibility also ran through the closing keynote of SXSW Interactive, which is always delivered by Austin-native, cyberpunk novelist and creative futurist, Bruce Sterling. Sterling’s closing address, as he indicated, serves as a kind of “moral thermometer” for the Interactive portion of the festival and is an annual act of “ritual purgation.” Having now heard six or seven of his closing talks, I can attest that his sessions regularly serve as a form of purgation that honestly and often prophetically contextualizes the moment in time where SXSW Interactive finds itself. This year was no exception.
Sterling understands that the SXSW crowd believes it has fallen into some sort of dystopia. With a Red State agenda being rolled out in America, the tech industry is waking up to the realization that it is no longer the nation’s official future. Instead, during what several at the festival called “the interregnum,” the fortunes of America will be found in oil and the military industrial complex. IT will either be an enabler of these industries or possibly just an interesting sidelight. Given the shifting social-political landscape that will likely have most of the world’s capital in the hands of the 1%, Sterling played into the apocalyptic imaginations many have entertained for this Berlusconi-esque era of “The Donald.” He did this through the lens of an important question: What will the 47% of people displaced by a forever disrupted technology-driven economy do in this era? Or rather, what will the powers that be do with the mass unemployed and technically irrelevant? Offering possible scenarios that ranged from being moved onto reservations like Native Americans at worst to people becoming spiritual mendicants in search of enlightenment at best (and taking swipes at the Academy and retirement villages along the way), Sterling brought an uncomfortable silence to the SXSW crowd.
The silence, however, was intended to be instructive. An examination of history demonstrates that when life and culture is disrupted, people adapt. No matter how we believe (or realize) the ground beneath our feet has shifted, people always have, and always will adapt. But that is not how the SXSW Interactive types are responding to what is perceived as an era of absolute crisis. As opposed to engaging the future, people are abstracting. People are abstracting, first, by building androids that are seemingly intended to replace humanity. Second, people are abstracting by medicating themselves against reality. But no matter how authentically we seek to create androids, at they end of the day they cannot be human. “A robot can play a great game of Go,” Sterling said, “…but when they win…they don’t take any joy at it.” And no matter how drunk or medicated against reality we are, the moment will pass and we will sober up.
Sterling closed by issuing a call to break through our current state of “moral cowardice,” to “be sober now,” so that we can be the “pioneer[s] of the situation that everybody will be in later when they wake up.” With that, Sterling marched off the SXSW stage to “go and write a book,” which is always a pioneering, creative task that, if done well, requires a deep sense of sobriety and wakefulness. A task that, in fact, requires great responsibility to one’s context and the story that is narrated both in and for that context.
Times that challenge us and that appear uncertain demand that we remember who we are and are responsible to the holistic vision of ourselves that we receive through our personal and collective memories of the past. If we refuse to be responsible, we lack substance and are lost to the perceived (and in this case actual) race of history and culture. Sterling’s call to authenticity and genuine responsibility is prophetic – as always – for our time and will hopefully call the SXSW Interactive crowd to rise to the significant challenges ahead – that is, once they get a handle on what he was talking about. [NB: I’m not being arrogant in this claim, I had to review my notes on his talk several times to capture this summary. Take a listen and you’ll understand: http://boingboing.net/2017/03/18/ive-seen-the-future-baby-it-is.html].