The Covington saga isn’t fake news, strictly speaking. The events on the Mall really happened; what’s more, the surrounding story raises many questions of broad, genuine interest. How much should we hold teen-agers accountable for their political views? Would a group of nonwhite demonstrators have been permitted to behave as the Covington boys did? What is the moral status of Catholicism, and of socially conservative religious institutions generally? (What if the boys had been students at a Jewish or Muslim school?) How reactive should journalists be? These subjects are interesting to debate, as are the reputations of Sandmann and Phillips. All of this lends the Covington video a kind of moral momentum. As more people weigh in, the momentum builds.
It would be wrong, however, to take the moral interest of the Covington video at face value. To the extent that the video raises interesting questions, it does so in a particular way. A reality-television show such as TLC’s “90 Day Fiancé,” which follows lovelorn Americans as they try to spark romance with green-card-hungry foreigners, also raises many interesting questions about global inequality, immigration policy, and the transactional aspects of our intimate relationships. But it does so within the frame of reality TV—which has its own mercantile, aesthetic, and ideological biases—and it would be unwise to take the insights gained from it and apply them, uncritically, to the rest of life. Viral video is similarly enframed. Just as a reality show will receive production funding only if it ticks certain boxes (Is it sexy? Suspenseful? Hobbesian?), so a video will only go viral if it meets certain requirements (Is it inflammatory? Ambiguous? Does it contain a clickable still image? Are its characters “punchable”?). Those qualities alone, moreover, don’t guarantee virality: often, memes go viral with the help of bots and algorithms. Virality is only sometimes an “organic” phenomenon. For these reasons, it’s equally unwise to use viral video as an occasion for debating serious questions: the viral frame has a distorting effect. (One might legitimately ask whether all-male schools are good or bad for their students—but the Covington video would be a bad place from which to start that inquiry.) The conundrum, though, is that, once serious questions are raised, it’s hard—and perhaps even wrong—not to debate them. It’s in this sense that episodes like Covington are a trap.
The media theorist who best described this problem is Daniel Boorstin, whose book “The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America,” from 1962, traces the inner logic of artificially generated newsworthiness. A “pseudo-event,” in Boorstin’s telling, is any happening that exists primarily so that it can be reported upon and debated. A lavish party held to celebrate the fiftieth birthday of a fashion label is a pseudo-event, because the party exists only so that photographs of it can be circulated. Boorstin’s more surprising claim is that many serious and genuinely interesting news stories are also based around pseudo-events. Suppose, he writes, that a reporter asks a government official about a sensitive subject and receives an answer, then asks another official the same question and receives a different one. A story can now be written about the rift between the officials. The rift exists only because the reporter asked the questions that he did. Still, now that it’s been articulated, the officials’ difference of opinion is genuinely newsworthy: a topic of discussion has been created on-demand. By this method, Boorstin writes, a news outlet can create a “uniform news stream” of “new-fangled content,” all worthy of readers’ time. Similarly, a politician can stay in the news by staging pseudo-events—leaks, press conferences, and the like—which are both newsworthy and made to order. Newsworthiness, it turns out, doesn’t have to flow from the intrinsic qualities of events themselves. It can also be created by someone who knows how to “embroider and dramatize experience in an interesting way.” Social-media platforms, of course, are specifically designed to encourage such embroidery and dramatization.
The danger of this system, Boorstin observes, is that “pseudo-events spawn other pseudo-events in geometric progression.” When a Republican congressman faults Barack Obama for not using the term “radical Islamic terrorism,” that’s a pseudo-event. Obama now has no choice but to explain himself—and when he defends his refusal to use that phrase, he succeeds only in adding another link to the pseudo-event chain. Pseudo-events multiply, spreading over the media landscape and outnumbering real events, many of which occur locally, and are of less dramatic interest. Boorstin predicts a future in which pseudo-events make up the preponderance of what we call political life. “The life in America which I have described,” he concludes, “is a spectator sport in which we ourselves make the props and are the sole performers.” One can’t ignore the performance, because what people say matters. At the same time, society pays a cost: its attention is artificially directed in some directions rather than others. Its image of itself is made to shift.
There was a time, in the early days of social media, when mainstream news outlets reported on what happened online as though it weren’t quite real. Newscasts and newspaper articles would describe debates among bloggers and social-media users from a distance, as discursive curiosities. Concepts such as “hashtag activism” suggested a divide between online culture and “real” culture. Critics of this trope pointed out that the people engaged in online debates weren’t basement-dwelling shut-ins but citizens expressing their opinions. Many belonged to groups that were underrepresented in the media; barred from articulating their views in the opinion pages, they did so on the Web. In fact, the critics argued, the online world was the real world. At the very least, it was more real, or more unfiltered, than the walled gardens maintained by the editors and writers at newspapers and magazines.
Today, the picture looks quite different. Late last year, in New York magazine, Max Read, a former editor-in-chief of Gawker, published an article called “How Much of the Internet Is Fake? Turns Out, a Lot of It, Actually.” It’s a catalogue of the fabrications—fake readers, reviewers, personas, messages, images, videos, companies, social-media users, and so on—that have come to characterize online life. Some of the Internet’s fakeness stems from malign manipulation, as when a manufacturer pays for fake reviews of its products on Amazon. But much of it flows from the simple fact that Web sites must sort and classify the vast amounts of content they contain. It’s possible that the total corpus of all the tweets in the world is a reasonable facsimile of what’s on our collective mind. But we see only a curated collection of those tweets; the ones that float to the top have been through a sorting mechanism, and that sorting mechanism favors virality. In theory, we could ignore the viral stories. But, as soon as they are noticed and talked about, viral stories become pseudo-events, gaining in newsworthiness as the debate around them thickens. A real conversation ensues, but it is often Seinfeldian: captivating, but based on nothing. When the dramaturgical or rhetorical interest of a debate exceeds the interest of the real events that inspired it, that debate becomes a fantasy—an occasion for dramatizing our values, rather than testing them against the real world. This, in turn, makes our values feel hollow.
Could the “agenda-setting effect” of social media be resisted? Some platforms, such as Reddit and Hacker News, allow users to “upvote” what they find interesting while “downvoting” content that they feel isn’t worthy of other users’ attention. In theory, an upvote-downvote scheme gives users, rather than an algorithm, the power to promote and demote content; it is antiviral. Twitter works differently. Because it has no downvote function, the only way to criticize a tweet is, essentially, to retweet it. As a result, controversial tweets grow in popularity; the most popular tweets, in turn, are promoted by Twitter’s algorithms, so that they appear in users’ feeds more frequently. Whereas voting-based platforms employ something like a democratic logic, virality-based platforms are winner-take-all. It’s possible that, if journalists thought more about the structures of the platforms they frequent, they could choose more democratic ones, making themselves less manipulable.
Still, there is no such thing as a perfect social-media platform. People upvote and downvote in herds, and for silly reasons. Bots can vote, too. We may need to change the way we think. Instead of seeing virality as a genuine signifier of newsworthiness, we need to see it for what it is—a product. Covington is the kind of product our social-media platforms sell to us. Perhaps we should be warier consumers.