Susan Swan on the fraudsters who dominate our news

We’ve never had the ability before to create and sustain such powerful alternate realities in human societies



For most of us, the possibility of being scammed is only an email or phone call away. 

Who hasn’t heard a stranger’s warning voice on the other end of the phone, asking for our personal information because our bank account or credit card has been compromised? Or been bothered by the bogus email threatening to expose our addiction to online porn unless we pay a bitcoin ransom?

Fraudsters dominate our news. Some of them even run large countries. 

In 2016, Americans elected a president who specializes in fraudulent statements and engages in business practices that have been described as unethical and illegal. But the more he lies, the more loudly his supporters applaud him.

I came of age in the 60s. Like many young people, I fought for women’s rights and for the U.S. to get out of Vietnam.

Back then I believed we were changing the world. But the world today isn’t the progressive place we hoped to build. In my lifetime, we’ve moved from the age of protest to the age of fraud. How can fraudsters think what they do is okay? 

Media baron Conrad Black was in the news recently after being pardoned by Donald Trump for serving time for fraud in a U.S. prison. Florian Homm, a German investment banker, experienced a religious conversion in an Italian jail after he was sent there for fraud. Bruno Iksil, known as the London Whale, gambled away $6.2 billion USD for JPMorgan Chase & Company and allegedly tried to cover up the losses. He was never charged.

A common feature in most of these stories is the insistence of innocence by the accused. Black maintains that the American case against him was “nonsense.” 

Trump, for his part, has never owned up to any of his wrongdoing. 

Thanks to the internet, individuals are able to build narratives that support their position. They are helped by the nature of algorithms, which form the basis of social media platforms like Facebook and Google, and which give people news that is popular rather than what is factually true and important. 

It’s no accident that the American president is fond of Twitter. Although it’s a form of publishing, Twitter users feel free to say whatever they want. Until recently, that was true for hate groups on Facebook and hostile foreign infiltrators trying to influence elections in Western countries. Canada is following the EU and attempting to regulate social media platforms and enforce some accountability.

But then there’s the rise of right-wing media like Fox News and Breitbart News, which are free to lobby in a hyper-partisan way with little regard for truth. 

Historically, most North American newspapers started out as political organs for one party or another, but none was able to successfully create a representation of unreality the way Fox News has.

The world the internet has fabricated with live news feeds, interactive art, gene maps and virtual reality are more than just a response to our society. According to some philosophers, they are new cultural creations. We’ve never had the ability before to create and sustain such powerful alternate realities in human societies. These new cultural creations foster the development of communities which feel free to invent their own narratives that don’t much respect factual truth. 

There is little accountability inside these new communities only the pressure to command attention, which is done by promoting outrageous accusations or recklessly distorted claims.

We live in a period of unfettered capitalism in which recent innovations in technology have also led to preposterous income inequality. It’s an era when many people work without benefits or the prospect of a pension, and often struggle to make a living wage. There are times, in fact, when the gig economy seems like just another gigantic scam.

Susan Swan’s latest novel, The Dead Celebrities Club, a tale of predatory capitalism and fraud, was published this spring.

@nowtoronto

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