Free societies around the world are in grave danger. Dictators and autocrats have long replaced facts with propaganda. But today the leaders of several important democracies, bending social media to their ends, have singled out the press as an enemy of the state and poisoned civic discourse with falsehoods. Elections are swayed, governments felled, conflict and even genocide is fueled by campaigns of misinformation. Information warfare has become as powerful as the gun. In our own country, millions of Americans can no longer distinguish facts from fiction.

It wasn’t always so. As recently as the 1990s, Democrats and Republicans, young and old, believed largely the same set of facts--then argued and debated with their neighbors to create a better American future. Certainly the arguments were heated and passionate, but they were largely based on a shared reality believed by politicians and voters alike.

Several factors converged over two decades to destroy many Americans' belief in professional journalists reporting the facts: in 1987 the FCC revoked the Fairness Doctrine, sparking the birth of conservative talk radio; 1991 saw the birth of the World Wide Web, a bottomless source of unfiltered, free information ready to be passed on to others; in 1996, the nakedly partisan Fox News, and its rival, MSNBC, were launched; conspiracist Alex Jones radio show was syndicated nationally in 2001; 2004 witnessed the birth of Facebook and the explosion of an unregulated social media that would become the primary source of information for many. Almost simultaneously, thousands of newspapers began to close across the country. 

Here at home today, The Washington Post reports that our president, who popularized “fake news” accusations now in vogue amongst autocrats and strongmen--and declared journalists “enemies of the people”--has made more than 20,000 false or misleading statements while in office. He has repeatedly denounced credible news outlets staffed by professional journalists, editors and fact checkers, while pledging support for notorious conspiracy websites such as Infowars. President Trump’s Twitter feed, reaching 87 million, is a sea of misinformation and outright lies. Still, it is important to remember that our leader is a product of our disinformation landscape, and not the cause.

Social media, while a blessing in many ways, has become a digital firehose of misinformation. A recent MIT study reveals that lies travel six times faster than facts on the internet. Clicks equal profits for nearly everything on the web. Every minute we stay online, a corporation makes money. Sophisticated algorithms funnel to us a steady stream of the intriguing, the disturbing, the sexual and the violent. (The profit model has created an unintentional byproduct: internet addiction, depression and even suicide are skyrocketing amongst our youth.) 

Millions of Americans today believe conspiracy theories of the most outrageous sort--of large numbers of Washington politicians said to be Satanic blood-drinking pedophiles, operating from the basement of a pizza parlor. (It turns out the pizza parlor in question has no basement.) The gullible then forward on this propaganda to hundreds, or thousands, with just a keystroke. Contrast this with the 1990s, when one would clip an article from Newsweek, or the local newspaper, then travel to the post office to mail it to a friend.

While misinformation spreads across the internet, traditional media outlets, including more than 2,000 newspapers—staffed by trained professionals held accountable to a code of ethics—are dying at an extraordinary rate. Who is left to be the watchdog over the nation’s statehouses, city commissions and school boards? Corruption thrives best where no one is paying attention. Conspiracies rise as media literacy falls.

Cable news channels--each of them immensely profitable--spend virtually nothing on news gathering and yet have millions to pay celebrity hosts who stake out inflexible ideological positions, preaching them as the new civic gospel. Their profits are tied to ratings, and their ratings are too often tied to stoking fear and outrage.

Sophisticated, well-funded and often invisible influences are distorting public discourse, and the very future of American democracy. Understanding these forces is a first step toward returning our citizens to fact-based conversations and safeguarding our future. We hope this exhibition contributes to that cause. 

Text written by Michael Kamber / Bronx Documentary Center.

This exhibition was curated by Michael Kamber and Cynthia Rivera.

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