Fake Rhetoric

In recent months, there has been a lot of talk about fake news.  From my very casual encounters with the term, I find a central notion that fake news is a product of the modern social media technologies, or that social media enables more rapid production, spreading, and discovering of stories that otherwise would not have been so widely known.   Attempts to define fake news include the idea of deliberated crafted stories that are designed to become popular while spreading deliberate falsehoods.   However, most of the time, it seems to me that we use the term to describe stories that run against the popular consensus within sub-groups of like-minded people, or so-called echo-chambers.

I don’t have a problem with fake news because I don’t really make a distinction between fake and real when it comes to modern narratives.   Everything I read now has elements of creative writing, especially when it comes to expressing a key point.    All assertions of fact that the author wants me to accept are presented creatively.   I don’t have a problem with that because I treat all assertions a data points.   My interest is in exploring what can be learned from the multiple narratives.   This modern data-driven perspective finds authority in the unintentional patterns between narratives instead of authority of a particular author or community.

I am not concerned about fake news, even if it is the most extreme case of deliberate telling of falsities.   In fact, I prefer the modern world to the more tightly edited communications I experienced in my youth.  I enjoy being exposed to fake news and then exercising my mind to consider the option that it may be correct.   This occurs in all areas of modern debate, but an extreme example is the flat earth theory.   I am very impressed with how far some have gone to develop and defend the flat-earth hypothesis to explain modern observations and to challenge round-earth theories.   The flat earth theories presented in a persuasive mode is more entertaining to me than the most outlandish science fiction written solely to entertain.    The entertainment is the effort to present as strong an argument as possible with the intent to persuade rather than to entertain.

Modern social media makes possible the rapid spread of abundant fake news.  I’m happy with that.   The real problem with social media world is that it killed rhetoric, persuasion and argumentation.

The easy access to nearly free publication platforms allows anyone to gain and retain an audience.   Popularity and audience reach is available to anyone with the energy to produce regular installments of relatively consistent content.   People subscribe, follow, or friend feeds that produce content that matches their style and their views.   Each content producer can achieve a regular audience without the need to adjust the content to conform to standards of a larger group such as editors or publishers.

The regular production of consistent content builds over time an argument in the sense that the subscribed audience increasingly becomes persuaded to accept the world view of the content creator.   This is often not a planned and intentional argument.  Instead it is a repetitive presentation of a consistent world view of a particular person, especially if that person has a stable view point that is robust against criticism.   As the popularity of the content creator increases, the acquired audience provides additional support to resist disagreements or even dismiss them out of hand.

I describe these content creators as independent in that they are platforms with the full creative and editorial authority vested in a single person.   When these creators achieve a certain level of popularity suggested by large subscriber counts or daily views, the creator can perpetuate his content perpetually especially if he can monetize his presence to provide the primary source of income.

There is such a large number of popular content creators, that many of them have conflicting views.   In the past, this would present the opportunity for classical debate, but such debates are impossible in the social media era.

My first disappointing discovery was in the response-video trend in YouTube.   Here is one content creator copying the content of another, slicing it into segments and interjecting contrary commentary of one form or another.   I admit that these can be entertaining.  Part of the entertainment is the appearance of a debate, but in one where you know from the start who is going to win.

The very first response comment exposes the product as a fake debate.   In a real debate, the other speaker would adjust the subsequent presentation to respond to the comment.  Instead we are treated with a continuation of an argument that is farcical because it is clear the presenter is ignorant of the criticism, let alone the strength of that criticism in undermining his point.   The response continues to quickly make the original presentation appear ridiculous to the point of labeling the response as destroying the original.  A real debate would not proceed in the same way, the first presenter would respond to the criticism either by offering a rebuttal or conceding that the point in order to proceed to a more productive debate.

There are of course many challenges to real moderated debates.  Frequently these are dismissed as pointless, and I tend to agree although for different reasons.

As mentioned earlier, the popular content creator has a self-sustaining user base and within that audience, he is speaking a truth that no longer needs defending.   For these creators, any challenge to debate that content is dismissed as futile because for them the debate has already be settled.   They make the analogy of arguing their point against detractors is as unnecessary as defending a round-earth in a solar system from a flat earth theorist.

I agree with the assessment that the debate is futile because within the support community the debate is settled.   Everyone who disagrees is either ignorant, game-playing, or evil.

Occasionally some of the more academically trained will agree to a classical styled debate with a neutral moderator and a mixed audience.   In many cases, I feel that they enter such debate out of a sense of obligation to abide by the traditions taught in classrooms or read in literature.   Even if one is convinced he is right, there remains the prestige of demonstrating the skill of a classical debate.

Frequently the modern debates present the appearance of the classical debate but it comes across as an act, as if performing a play about a debate.   Rarely do I see a debate where the debaters seem to be sincerely engaged in the debate.

Many debates come out as almost as hollow at the spliced response-video where the arguers hardly acknowledge the points of the other, and even the counter-arguments are presented out of order, to be saved only if the performance were edited and re-arranged.  More frequently both participants can claim winning the debate because both have spent the entire debate arguing two completely different topics, like one person arguing about the flatness of earth, and the other about how gravity works.   Both can claim to have won their argument and their community would applaud them for destroying the other.   As a show, it was entertaining, but as a debate it was futile.

Sometimes there is a solid debate.  Both participants are sincere in their participation of the argument, responding with counter arguments, and addressing the most charitable interpretation of their opponent with the best counter arguments.   The debate itself may even convince one of the participants to change his mind, or at least convince the audience to change their mind to grant the other as the clear winner of the debate.

The modern problem is what occurs after this more proper debate is done.   Both of the debaters have established platforms that require regular updates of consistent content.   There may be a couple days following the debate where the person would review the debate.  Eventually, though the channel must continue and that channel is defined by regular installments of a consistent content.   The individualized platforms of social media demand that the person return to the point of view he lost during the debate.   Within a few days or weeks, the channel resumes as if the debate never occurred.  It has to.

I propose a solution to have real debates in the social media age.   To restore the sense of winning or losing a debate, the conclusion of the debate should require the termination of the losing side’s social media platform.   He is of course free to set up a new platform, but he has to forfeit the presence, the platform design, the avatar, the screen name.

We could restore debates by an analog to a fight to the death.   The defeated in the debate would have to kill his presence in social media and then build a new presence with a new identity.  Lacking such finality in a debate allows a person to return to the established fortress of his channel with its established subscriber base, and within weeks resume content as if the debate never occurred.


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