There was a collective belief we were all going nuts, and the going theory was that we were supposed to ignore it.
Almost every journalist I knew was getting inundated with weird, draconian insults, clearly dredged up from Google Translate, in the weeks before the 2016 election. People had a rough idea that Barbara from Oklahoma who loved her American footballs and hamsburger was probably some guy in another country, but there was no proof—in part because this kind of reporting did not yet truly exist.
Tracing these bogus Twitter accounts, which would beg us to cover Hillary Clinton’s obvious Satanism, was largely viewed as amplification of the gutter and beneath the dignity of the journalistic profession—and anyway, they were thought to be the work of rogue pranksters. Not a sprawling, multimillion-dollar, hostile foreign influence campaign that eventually would whip up enough noise, even Sean Hannity was forced to cover it.
It’s easy to forget this, because the week before the 2016 election was like falling asleep with a blaring tornado siren located six feet from your face every night, but Sean Hannity did cover it. Three days before the election, Hannity and Drudge cited Wikileaks in claiming that Hillary Clinton was involved in a “bizarre occult ritual” with the performance artist Marina Abramovic. Three days. Spurred in part by Russia’s influence campaign, it was the top trend on Twitter with less than 100 hours to go before polls opened.
It was everywhere. And its origins were, at the time, barely covered by the media.
Except, of course, at The Daily Beast, which realized before anyone else that this wacky nonsense by Russian millennials pretending to be Ethyl the racist grandma from Wisconsin, run-of-the-mill grifters, and the recently created profession of full-time YouTube conspiracy theorists, was actually a national security problem.
The Beast was in a unique position to pull it off.
On the disinformation beat, which is what it’s now called, it’s not that there are no stupid questions. There are only stupid questions. This was wonderful news for both me (not that smart), and the Beast, where pretense is disqualifying.
My job, at one point, was presenting exceedingly brain-dead internet content to increasingly accomplished people. Walking over to a guy who won a Pulitzer Prize to show him a Christmas sweater made by Russia’s troll farm featuring the phrase “Dear Cops, Don’t Shoot—SUCK” on it was, by the fall of 2017, a normal thing.
The collective belief now is that we were indeed all going instantly nuts in 2016, and it’s imperative we figure out who exploited our extremely vulnerable spaces to make that happen—and how.
The big old newspapers a few dozen blocks up the street have only recently started realizing that this behavior is not only worth covering, but it will be a big part of our future.
And it will. People who have been reading the Beast over the last few years can see the shape of politics in the next few decades, and realize it’ll be melded by the code in the screaming bright rectangles in our pockets more than anything else.
Algorithms of social networks, teeming with supplement grifters and relatively unperturbed hostile state actors bent on division, have taught themselves to frack and exploit American political chasms. It’s not going to get better, and it won’t be for lack of trying.
Many social media companies have been scootering through their offices, high-fiving the Frankenstein monsters they’ve created.
Once they were forced to come to terms with the idea that the same monster they so dutifully fed with garbage to sustain their businesses might in fact be swallowing democracies and burping out extremists, they were already three years behind.
They should be lauded for finally trying, which Facebook truly has been in recent weeks. But other platforms, notably Twitter and YouTube, continue to feed the beast, while bragging about their monster’s strictly enforced bedtime and three-strikes policy for casual racism.
This is going to dramatically shape politics in ways that were previously unheard of, and it will not be a party-line phenomenon. It will divide the electorate into groups who rely on empirical data and information from accountable news organizations, and skeptics of all stripes who have fallen down algorithmic rabbit holes based on inflammatory language and feel-good conjecture.
Studies show YouTube algorithms have already widened the net of extremists, especially among kids. This will invariably begin to erode party lines and create new ones entirely.
Eventually, those on the left who discover their kid has lupus and make a beeline to the chiropractor to get the toxins out are going to realize they have a lot more in common with Alex Jones than they do the Democratic Party.
Next time you’re in a coffee shop, watch what the babies are doing while the parents are wondering aloud to one another how the world went haywire. They’re watching a YouTube video of a dinosaur, or a princess, or a spaceship going to the moon.
How many autoplayed videos do you really think it would take to learn that the dinosaurs never existed, the moon is inside the flat Earth, and that the princess was up to all of it?
And do you really think the baby is going to unlearn that?
The only way to combat this garbage is to keep an eye on it. Both the kid with the iPad, and the people trying to manipulate the kid with the iPad—either to foment the information war, or to sell you some Brain Force Plus.
Trust places like The Daily Beast to do it. For better or for worse, we went nuts before anybody else.