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Panic! on the Internet

How fake news and fearmongering defined 2016

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

I consider myself a concerned citizen, an alert reader, and an internet native. I am a savvy modern woman with an eye for bullshit, an ear for irony, and no time for tricks. I assume that every compelling viral pic is Photoshopped and am proud to decode even the most cryptic of petty subtweets. I frequently think, while reading a story, “OK, so who wanted this leaked?” in the jaded manner of someone about to take an enormous drag of a cigarette in some dive bar scene in a film. A cool thing I do sometimes is comment on friends’ Facebook posts: “Actually, that’s been debunked.” But if I have learned anything lately, it’s that I know so much less than I want to, and that I control so much less than I think.

This year, the line between reality and spectacle has been scratched out and redrawn. It’s no longer obvious what’s true and what’s THE SHOCKING TRUTH, who’s the person and who’s the persona, what’s real and what’s reality (genre). We elected, as president, a guy who once unsuccessfully tried to trademark the catchphrase “You’re fired!” and who all but live-tweets Saturday Night Live. We watched a documentary on a disgraced politician who lost the grip on his physical life.

We were surprised to learn that even Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks, the information-should-be-free endeavor that always fronted as kind of radically nihilist, had a party preference after all. On the same day last week in this cursed year of our lord, Bill Gates and Kanye West took separate meetings in Trump Tower. And so it barely even felt surprising, last week, when at the Washington, D.C., premiere of his new movie Fences, Denzel Washington lectured red carpet reporters on the state of the media, a crossover moment that felt like the new normal.

“If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed,” Washington said, sounding just slightly unhinged, like a Jay Pharoah impression of himself. “If you do read it, you’re misinformed.”

Online you can find claims that Mark Twain originally said this, and also that he didn’t, which is fitting. Either way, Washington was only repeating, with his own theatrical flair, what a large swath of people have come to believe: You can’t trust the news anymore, you have to think and research for yourself, and we’re not actually in this together. It is the rallying cry of a world losing trust, a society living in a constant state of low-grade panic. Even this 2014 reminder that the world is not falling apart is starting to lose its mildly cheering effectiveness. Because sometimes it feels like my little world might be.

There are a number of time-tested ways to make people freak out. Mention that a bank might be low on cash, and a line will form down the street. Nothing like a good old-fashioned bank run to get the blood going! (There should be a Westworld plot where Teddy frets about the liquidity of his life savings.) When it comes to moral panics, few people are capable of organizing at the grassroots level like a concerned mom and dad, particularly if they voted for Reagan. A fearmongering article about a new designer drug/video game/sex act that is popular with the teens should rile them up quite nicely.

Or there’s always dressing up as a clown and lurking in the woods with a machete, which, as we learned again and again this fall, is always good for some evening news coverage (and/or some nostalgic interviews with O.G. viral clowns). Or, speaking of viral, try hoarding cases of Purell, saying the words “highly contagious” or “outbreak,” and watching the profits roll in. It doesn’t even have to be Ebola, SARS, H1N1 — even rumors of an unusually aggressive flu will do.

I say all of this as if I’m immune to it, which couldn’t be further from the truth. If there is a story about a bath salts epidemic, I will immediately click. Living through the Great Recession was a valuable lesson that market panic is no joke. All the mad-clown content hooked me for days. And even though I had enough sense to suspect that there wasn’t much substance behind it, a small part of me was reminded of the frightening collective of troll-people in the novel The Postmortal. The concept of semi-professional shit-stirrers felt prescient.

That wasn’t the first time this year that a real-life situation reminded me of science fiction, either. In the months leading up to the Rio Olympics, the mounting concern over the Zika virus started to have the alarming feel of the opening credits to a bio-thriller like Children of Men. In early 2015, people in some areas in Brazil began coming down with a rashy illness that would be later identified as Zika, a virus mostly spread by mosquitos and linked to some horrifying birth defects in newborns. By January of this year, some countries were asking their citizens not to reproduce. (In El Salvador, the government told couples to avoid getting pregnant until 2018.)

By May, a group of 150 doctors, bioethicists, and professors had signed an impassioned doomsday letter to the World Health Organization asking that the Olympics be either moved out of Rio or postponed, “in the name of public health.” (The WHO declined this request.) More than a dozen of the world’s best golfers, including big names like Jason Day and Jordan Spieth, withdrew from Olympic competition. When Spieth avoided saying the word “Zika” in his press conference following his announcement, it only made the virus loom larger. A few weeks before the games, Hope Solo made waves and pissed off locals with two social media posts showing off her bug spray arsenal.

The more we learned about Zika, the less clear the situation became. An entire generation of South Florida–based mothers-in-law, mine included, battled competing impulses to pester their brood to come visit and to warn them to stay far, far away. But while Zika was and remains a legitimate public health concern — and one that isn’t going away soon — in hindsight, a good deal of the coverage and perception of it this year was probably not done for the scientific mission of educating the public.

Instead, the combination of the Olympics and a mostly unknown virus (with truly heartbreaking effects) was a surefire way to keep us fearful, and to keep us watching the news.

I have been reading a little bit about panic lately, ever since I finally determined that it’s what I’ve been feeling for years. Panic can be large-scale, societal, with a spread that feeds off perceptions and assimilations and network effects. But more often it’s personal: just me and my reptilian brain. I always had assumed the shortness of breath, the lightheadedness, the heat flashes, and the dry heaving were all just routine manifestations of generalized stress or nervousness; normal happenings for a caffeinated writer on deadline. So I took some comfort in reading about some of the early ideas about panic: Hey, it turns out 19th-century Germans felt this way, too!

A few evocative terms come up in the literature. My favorite is “Platzschwindel,” which translates roughly to place-dizziness. There’s a whole category of observational medical writing from the late 1880s and early 1890s that seems to describe obsessive-compulsive habits, but has a name for the condition that is impossible to forget: “The Insanity of Doubt.” (“The thoughts become morbid,” goes one description in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, “with a tendency to inquire into the reason for every trifle.”) A word I had heard before is “agoraphobia” (fear of a marketplace, basically) but I was wrong in assuming it just meant fear of large places or crowds.

The idea of agoraphobia is more so the fear of fear: being so anxious that certain places or things will trigger a panic attack that even the thought of being there becomes, in itself, paralyzing. A note on a 2002 article in the journal Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, addressed the rise of the concept:

While it may feel bleak to contemplate our latter-day version of this phenomenon, it’s hard to ignore the fact that it sounds like the synopsis of a Black Mirror episode. Those chaotic public spaces filled with aggressive cheesemongers and carriage wheels rolling over foot? Those are the internet. Those busy town squares that have never felt more crowded or more alone? That’s life online.

Earlier this fall, my jaw dropped as I read a story, on the Baltimore Gazette website, about a woman who had been breastfeeding her child at a bus stop when a police officer told her to cover up. The resulting argument escalated, according to the story, and the woman was shot dead. My mind raced: How hadn’t I heard this? That poor, sweet baby! What the hell was wrong with this country? When I Googled the story, it wasn’t out of skepticism or to fact-check it. It was to immerse myself in learning more. Finding out it was entirely fake was one of the most humiliating things that’s happened to me online.

Much has been made about the rise of fake news, which appears in all sorts of forms, from the unapologetically untrue facts in the president-elect’s tweets to the Clinton conspiracy theories that crop up on websites with names like News Mutiny and RedFlag News and algorithm their way around Facebook. A recent NPR interview with Jestin Coler, the 40-year-old proprietor of a vast fake-news network of profitable sites, like the National Report and the Denver Guardian, revealed that while most of his work was meant to be consumed and shared by conservatives, he was a Democrat himself.

“The whole idea from the start,” Coler told NPR, “was to build a site that could kind of infiltrate the echo chambers of the alt-right, publish blatantly or fictional stories and then be able to publicly denounce those stories and point out the fact that they were fiction.” (This reminded me of an article I’d read suggesting that the famous “panic” resulting from Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast was overblown — by newspapers who sought to “discredit radio as a source of news” and “[sensationalize] the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted.”)

But not all fake news is aimed at the birther-truther crowd. Not only was the breastfeeding death story fake, it wasn’t even new. Two years earlier, according to the online fact-or-fiction compendium Snopes, a version of the same story had appeared on Coler’s own National Report website. The only difference was the location: The 2014 story was based in New York, while this newest piece, “written” for a publication that last existed just after the Civil War, was based in Atlanta. A spokesman from the Atlanta Police Department told me in an email that the APD acted swiftly to deal with what he termed “disinformation.” (Between this and Denzel’s rant, I hadn’t realized that the word information could have so many prefixes.) “Even though that article was absurd,” he said, “some persons may still read it and take it as fact.” I was one of those persons.

It seems ridiculous in hindsight. The Baltimore Gazette’s website is still online, but seems to have been almost entirely scrubbed of content. But the piece fooled me because it spoke directly to my own personal triggers: my stridency on behalf of nursing mothers, my privileged empathy, and my willingness to be outraged.

And this issue isn’t limited to blatantly fake news. Mainstream publications are devoted to breaking news, but it also behooves them to attract, develop, and maintain an audience. Sometimes that means paying extra attention to a flashy story of interest — say, Zika at the Olympics. Sometimes it means that the speed and abandon with which like-minded, well-meaning people tend to share stories can have unintended effects — as they did recently when a genuinely disturbing tidbit about the movie Last Tango in Paris warped into an inaccurate rallying cry, as Lindsay Zoladz unpacked on The Ringer last week. They’re the same forces that made me lap up anything Zika-related, however overwrought, for months.

This year has been filled with those unknown unknowns that Donald Rumsfeld used to go on about, and it has made me reconsider much of what I thought I knew. It’s unsettling to me that I can be so easily manipulated; it makes me newly anxious about ensuring that it won’t happen again. It feels as though all my years of engagement have done nothing but provide unseen forces the data to make me a more vulnerable mark. I feel that insanity of doubt, and that fear of fear, that makes me want to avoid the marketplace altogether. It’s enough to make me long for simpler news, like about those murderous clowns.