He’s exactly right when he observes that the Right is better at it than the left — “see Matt Drudge, aggregation; Rush Limbaugh, talk radio; Sarah Palin, Twitter” — and that the policing of disinformation should serve as a strong model of journalism. But when he observes that “recent disturbances in politics and the media feel like symptoms of a larger epistemological, even civilizational, rot” it’s worth remembering that feelings, ahem, aren’t facts.
What is unique, and uniquely concerning, about digital media is the speed with which properly packaged (dis)information can spread and how hard it is for fact and reason to catch up. Sarah Palin quickly adopted Twitter perhaps because it enabled her to blast forth dramatic proclamations that, given the 140-character limit, she couldn’t be expected to explain or defend. Henceforth, election-changing controversies will be ginned up with simple, misleading phrases such as death panels or Ground Zero mosque. The fact that the Islamic cultural center in question is being built two blocks away from Ground Zero is immaterial, because laborious explanations of the truth—or even relentless mockery by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert—cannot stop the meme from propagating like a contagious disease. Palin’s handlers like to refer to “the message” (“As the message continues to succeed, the messenger will continue to be attacked,” etc.), which is prima facie incontestable because it is not an argument. Once the meme is out there, it’s very hard to quash. No amount of evidence will stop a certain segment of the public from believing that Obama is a Muslim or foreign-born, in part because GOP leaders continue to stoke such ideas, as Newt Gingrich did with his grotesque references on September 11 to the president’s “Kenyan, anticolonial behavior.”
Truth Lies Here, Michael Hirschorn/The Atlantic Online. Well worth reading.