Combat capitalist ‘truth decay’ with publicly-funded news media
Stock markets and news markets: Social media algorithms are geared toward putting ads in front of users, which means profits for the big tech companies. The result is a distorted media environment that neglects real people's lives in favor of celebrity gossip and sensationalized news. | AP

There has been a lot of talk arising from Barack Obama’s recent 60 Minutes interview about what he called “truth decay.” The former president was referring to Trump and his movement’s incessant lying about all matters, including the election results and their possible long-term consequences. “Our democracy seems to be teetering on the brink of a crisis,” Obama said. He continued, “It has now become a contest where issues, facts, policies per se don’t matter as much as identity and wanting to beat the other guy…that’s taken priority.”

Obama also added Facebook to the list of culprits and the role of its algorithms, which edit what people see.

And he’s right. Facebook and other social media algorithms are driven by ad buying: The more clicks a post has, the more ads people see, the more ads, the higher the profit. Incendiary posts, those that peddle lies and misinformation, often top the list. And Facebook loves it because they’re making cash money!

But this is not the only factor.

It wasn’t so long ago (maybe 10 years?) when it was reported that lots of folks were turning to Comedy Central and similar cable shows for news. Why? People were turned off by the big media corporations and how they were handling the news.

Commercialization of news programming was at work, along with the rise of what was called “infotainment” in the drive to increase profits. News about people’s lives, work, and problems was replaced by celebrity gossip and other inane BS about “crime” (read between the lines) while corporate crime went ignored. Folks got turned off and tuned out.

Of course, all this was preceded by Big Lie anti-communism—a billion-dollar industry aimed at discrediting socialism and its attempts in the USSR, Eastern Europe, China, and Cuba. Here, conservatives and liberals alike joined in the defamation of working-class progress. They told some whoppers, and it seemed that the bigger the lies were, the more people that believed it. The 100-million-people-killed-by-communism Big Lie is a case in point.

With the end of the Cold War, some of that was abated or perhaps redirected at a new enemy—Islam—though the GOP has revived it over the last couple of years in an effort to annihilate consciousness of and confidence in the socialist moment. Regrettably, but not surprisingly, some centrist Democrats are joining the choir again in an attempt to explain away current losses.

Of course, there’s always been an element of incredulity in the working-class public about the news. I remember my buddy’s mom’s complete rejection of the moon landing back in the day. I told her that was silly. But oh my goodness, why did I say that? Furious, she threatened to tell my father. (I wish she had, as dad was quite a science buff himself.)

With the rise of social media and the collapse of local and regional news organizations, that attitude toward science and news is now magnified a zillion times among big sections of the public. And monopolization of the news media has added to the distrust.

It’s not just Trump and his disinformation machine that’s the problem, it’s the whole world of for-profit news media. | People’s World

As the Netflix documentary Social Dilemma reveals, people are now subjected to very different groups of information, different “realities” based on the algorithm’s sorting of information.

Of course, that’s only one part of the picture. Another is the proliferation of news sources, blogs, and citizen journalists, a positive development that oftentimes beats the capitalist media to the punch. But there’s an obvious downside as well: We’re in a real crisis now, and the U.S. will soon have one-half million dead from COVID as a result.

Indeed, a common news narrative, as in the days of the big three news networks and a few dominant newspapers, is a thing of the past.

So yeah. Trump’s played a big role, but the capitalist mass media eco-system itself laid the groundwork.

The result: a profound crisis of the capitalist state and government. A crisis of confidence and belief. With half the voting population believing the vote was stolen, the very fabric of government is fraying, and what bourgeois political science calls the social contract threatens to tear apart.

What should be done about it? How about public funding of local and independent news? Another modest reform might be at minimum to give equal time to labor and people’s news coverage. Many retrenching news outlets have permanently laid off labor reporters, thereby gutting trade union coverage.

But why not end all advertising as the main source of revenue for publishing outlets? Yes, publicly fund the whole damn thing!

In the meantime, there is a need to go back to basics. Wasn’t it the Dutch philosopher Spinoza who argued that the criterion of truth is practice, a formula later adopted by Marx and Engels? Form a hypothesis, test it, examine the data, draw conclusions. Rinse and repeat. And then add an element of struggle.

In the face of “we-have-our-own-facts” GOP propaganda, social practice—that is, news reporting and analysis allied with real people’s experiences—must become the basis of social truth. Verify, then trust.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.

Like free stuff? So do we. Here at People’s World, we believe strongly in the mission of keeping the labor and democratic movements informed so they are prepared for the struggle. But we need your help. While our content is free for readers (something we are proud of) it takes money — a lot of it — to produce and cover the stories you see in our pages. Only you, our readers and supporters, can keep us going. Only you can make sure we keep the news that matters free of paywalls and advertisements. If you enjoy reading People’s World and the stories we bring you, support our work by becoming a $5 monthly sustainer today.


Joe Sims
Joe Sims

Joe Sims is co-chair of the Communist Party USA. He is also a senior editor of People's World and loves biking.