The spread of inexpensive technologies, particularly hardware and software packages, have created the conditions of possibility for an information-based civil war in the United States. It sounds nonsensical, but is it? The us versus them mentality has a deep-rooted history in the United States, stretching back to the country’s founding. (Just look to the U.S. Declaration of Independence if you don’t believe me.) In heterogeneous nation-states like the U.S., new developments in computer and information technology, could lead to serious internal conflicts, if left unchecked.
He [the king] has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions. –U.S. Declaration of Independence
The information civil war, some might call it, has started rearing its ugly head. We saw this with the post-2016 election, with various groups fighting back and forth over Russians meddling in American elections, among other things. What the 2016 election brought to the forefront is not necessarily a genie we want out of the bottle, per se. The election, with Russian meddling, showed just how vulnerable our society is when it comes to the consumption of information. With the advent of deepfake technologies, fake news outlets, and the ubiquity of social media and cheap Web hosting, our information consumption can be used against us, and quite easily.
A 2018 study by Vosoughi, Roy, and Aral found that fake news penetrated social media networks faster and deeper than the genuine truth. In the same study, Vosoughi, Roy, and Aral pointed out that “False news can drive the misallocation of resources during terror attacks and natural disasters, the misalignment of business investments, and misinformed elections.” The implications of this study cannot be understated. Information is a double-edged weapon that can be used to inform and destroy or mislead.
It doesn’t help that politicians, like President Donald Trump, have used the term fake news loosely, making it a popular catchphrase. Older individuals, particularly those over the age of sixty-five, are likely to spread misinformation or fake news on platforms like Facebook. This suggests there is a very real information consumption and dissemination problem in the United States, if not globally, particularly among our nation’s most vulnerable citizens.
So why the talk about civil war? Well, I’m glad you asked. During the 2016 election, fake news outlets produced inflammatory articles suggesting that if Hillary Clinton was elected, the United States would be headed toward disaster, war with Russia, or, very possibly, civil war.
In fact, during the last election, and even before the election, right-wing extremist groups and militias declared they would resist the U.S. government if their rights were infringed upon. Much of what was fueling this sentiment, appears in part, to be misinformation on the part of those involved in such groups. Right-wing extremists and militias suggest that their constitutional rights are at risk, particularly their Second Amendment rights.
I teach political science at my local community college, and the arguments concerning the Second Amendment aren’t anything new or really that imaginative. Nevertheless, in my political science classes, students repeatedly articulate the line that Democrats are running the country into the ground, hoping to take everyone’s guns away. The problem with such arguments comes down to a logical fallacy, something we, in the business of rhetoric, another thing I teach, like to call the slippery slope fallacy. It ignores the information, specifically facts, available to the person making the argument in question. In other words, the right-wing extremists and militias forget that the United States has an incredibly powerful pro-gun lobby in the U.S. Congress, along with relatively lax laws concerning gun purchasing and ownership.
Civil wars happen, according to The Logic of American Politics, because of fundamental breakdowns in the ability to handle collective action problems, especially at the national level. The information civil war will happen because we cannot collectively bring ourselves to confront the new technologies, hardware and software, that make disinformation, fake news, deepfakes, and the like, able to propagate themselves so easily on the Web.
For a sneak-peek into what could happen, if we’re not vigilant, Bruce Sterling’s Distraction (1998) offers a rather grim picture of our future-present. In Distraction, weaponized information and its consumption disrupt American society, tearing it apart, making the nation seem as if it’s on the verge of total collapse. If we’re not careful, that could be the reality we live.
What can we do? There will need to be a fundamental shift in how we educate both young and older generations when it comes to media consumption. In other words, our nation’s most vulnerable populations will likely need help differentiating fake news from legitimate news Websites, among other things. Moreover, there will need to be a serious push, incentive-wise, to encourage social media platforms to root out fake news and disinformation campaigns, while ensuring these platforms are real bastions of free speech on the Web. Furthermore, organizations, like our nation’s news agencies, need to be held to a higher journalistic standard, in order to keep disinformation off Websites, screens, and airwaves. Politicians, too, must be held accountable for their statements, even people like Trump. Doing so, will, hopefully, mitigate the harmful effects that come with unscrupulous media consumption. If we succeed, we could, very well, ensure the survival of a cohesive and prosperous society. If we fail, we all know where that road leads us.