Information is power, but disinformation is also power. We've learned this the hard way over the past 18 months.
Not so long ago, we read newspapers and watched the national television news to gain our information. We all got our news from what was meant to be one of the cornerstones of our democracy — the free press. That's no longer the case.
Facebook, Twitter, and other social media have changed everything. Facebook, in particular, has become a central focal point for information — and disinformation — distribution. And it's how we — you and me and most everyone you know — built Facebook and made Mark Zuckerberg rich and powerful. He owes everything to us and the content we provide.
That's because Facebook needs "content" like a zombie needs brains. It survives and grows by providing a constant stream of information. When you go to your Facebook page, there's always something new. And that's because millions of people, here and around the globe, helpfully feed Facebook with fresh content.
Sure, there are your vacation pictures and ubiquitous videos of frisky cats and cute goats, but much of that content consists of links to news articles and opinion pieces.
The problem is that it's all presented like a veggie platter at your office party — a news story from The Washington Post, a video from Alex Jones, a Breitbart "expose," a Flyer editor's column — it's all just consumable content to Facebook, a way to keep you coming back for more. Content is king.
But if content is king, those who present the content are the king-makers, the ultimate arbiters of what the public consumes as "news." And what we've learned the hard way is that our new content distribution systems can be gamed. They can be gamed by Facebook algorithms that ensure you see ads that tempt you over and over to buy that pair of Timberlands you looked at on Zappos.com. And they can be gamed by bad actors who buy information about your interests and opinions and target you with content that shapes your worldview, that drives and reinforces your political disposition just as effectively as Zappo's can shape your desire to buy those Timberlands.
These days, the truth is just another product. It's available, but it's queued up in your Facebook feed next to all the other products: lies, disinformation, propaganda, huckster schemes, and cat videos.
This is a dangerous and vulnerable situation for a democratic republic that relies on an informed public to set the course for its leaders. It's exacerbated by the decline of the country's traditional bastions of reliable information — its daily newspapers. With few exceptions, our great city newspapers have shrunk to shells of their former glory days; they have fewer reporters, fewer pages, and fewer subscribers.
How many Harvey Weinsteins and Roy Moores are out there? If not for the New York Times and Washington Post, we wouldn't have learned of either man's sordid past. However flawed those newspapers are, they are essential to our democracy.
Without the free press, propaganda becomes easier. Lies can be repeated without fear of rebuttal. Agendas that serve only to further empower the already powerful are easier to get away with.
For example, polling tells us that 77 percent of Americans wanted net neutrality, but the powerful didn't want it, so it went away. A great majority of Americans were opposed to the GOP tax plan, but we got it anyway, because the corporations who own Congress wanted it. Most Americans do not want to see the Affordable Care Act destroyed, but millions of Americans are about to lose health insurance or pay much higher premiums. The vast majority of Americans want stricter gun laws, but the NRA doesn't and the NRA controls Congress.
If the will of the people can be so easily ignored, the system is broken. If we the people don't control our own Congress, we've lost our country. I believe we're at a tipping point, here on the precipice of 2018. Great crises loom. The current situation — with a president who appears to be mentally unfit for the office and a Congressional majority that appears to have sold its soul for manna — can't be allowed to stand. We all need to seek the truth — and speak the truth to power. The future of our country lies in the balance. Happy New Year. Saddle up.