The president tweeted something either awful or idiotic and it didn’t really register until the timeline started filling up with people responding and meta-responding to the thing the president had tweeted: Was he tweeting the bad thing to purposely get everyone to respond, to amplify his message? Was he—did you—should—?
What can be done about the production and consumption of agitating junk content online? The Washington Post wisely didn’t try to answer that question; it just profiled two ends—or three ends, or three nodes along the loop-without-end—of the agitation-production process. Eli Saslow went to Maine to watch a spiteful, unhappy man make himself feel superior by churning out “parody” news stories on Facebook that people around the country insist on believing are real, and then Saslow went to Nevada to watch a spiteful, unhappy woman make herself feel superior by reading and sharing and believing the Maine man’s bogus news. The third end or node in the process was the original creator mocking the people who’d believed the things he worked so diligently to share with them.
It’s hard to say which of them is more trapped. The Nevada woman has abandoned her hobbies and drawn her blinds so that her world narrows down to being mad at things on her computer. The Maine man keeps making dumber and dumber parodies, out of hostility to his audience and incredulity that people refuse to grasp that they’re not real. Their political identity labels—the Maine man considers himself a “liberal,” and the Nevada woman considers herself a “conservative”—have grimly diverged from any political theories that might have shared those names, into a mutual radical illiberalism.
Even if their political positions are nothing but opposite sides in a fight, that doesn’t explain the Maine man’s compulsion to keep posting. It’s not as if he’s advancing his side’s cause:
What Blair wasn’t sure he had ever done was change a single person’s mind. The people he fooled often came back to the page, and he continued to feed them the kind of viral content that boosted his readership and his bank account: invented stories about Colin Kaepernick, kneeling NFL players, imams, Black Lives Matter protesters, immigrants, George Soros, the Clinton Foundation, Michelle and Malia Obama. He had begun to include more obvious disclaimers at the top of every post and to intentionally misspell several words in order to highlight the idiocy of his work, but still traffic continued to climb. Sometimes he wondered: Rather than…awakening people to reality, was he pushing them further from it?
He does make money doing it, although in the mode of every story about anyone gaming our ruinous systems for profit, the Post lapsed from its otherwise clear-eyed reporting to describe the money in the most unhelpful way possible. “In a good month, the advertising revenue from his website earned him as much as $15,000,” the story said. How many months are good months? What does he earn as little as, in a bad month?
On these figures—the as-much-as number, the up-to number, the good-month number—a whole realm of American self-deception has been built up and sprawled out. If all the months were good months, he’d be making $180,000. He’s basically nearly making $200,000, if the months all stay good and get a little better. Quarter million, practically. He’s a successful entrepreneur.