Be Like Batman. Always ask, ‘Who Benefits?

“Identity Crisis” is not a great DC Comics event series. Honestly, every time I think about that story, two things come to mind. The infamous quote of “The rape pages are in,” and a Batman quote that I swear I saw used in a different, better series. Or maybe that’s just my brain trying to distance the fantastic Batman quote from an otherwise bad story that was done to show how “cool” and “edgy” DC was trying to be back then.

Listen, I love DC. I don’t like that the post Rebirth “Green Arrow” comic (and “Flash,” for that matter) don’t closely reflect the CW shows. Or that DC just hasn’t created a spinoff line like Marvel used to have (the Ultimate Universe) for fans of the Arrowverse to read more stories set in the world they know from television, but the comics publisher is much better today than they were in the early ‘00s.

Shit, of all the comics I picked up last week, only two were Marvel, “Captain America” and “Guardians of the Galaxy”; And just one of those two I plan to stick with (Captain America). The rest? They were all related to the “Dark Knights Metal” event that’s currently going on and “Batman: White Knight.” White Knight, which in its second issue may have done my favorite thing ever with Harley Quinn, explaining away how she transitioned from a nuanced character with an average body to a blonde cheerleader with huge breasts and nothing to her besides a psychotic streak. (Spoiler Alert: At one point, the real Harley left, and this other one showed up. The Joker being the Joker, didn’t notice, which is an excellent piece of character work in itself because it tells you everything you need to know about how the Joker treats Harley Quinn if you’ve never read Batman.)

I think everything that needs to be said about “the rape pages are in” was told in the past eleven years since it was first uttered. The comics industry, while still not perfect, has made great strides since then. DC Comics especially. So I want to acknowledge that whole deal because we live in a world of deeply flawed people. None of us are perfect, and none of us should strive to be perfect because perfect is boring. I used to be a huge Bill Cosby fan, but I can’t listen to “To Russell, My Brother, Whom I slept With” at all without thinking of what an asshole Cosby is alleged to have been. Ditto with “House of Cards” and Kevin Spacey, although in that case, “House of Cards” got terrible after its second season anyway. If Netflix were smart, they’d just scrap whatever season six was and let the show die.

That said, “Identity Crisis” did give us this great line from Batman, and it’s one that I think we should talk about because that line has never been more relevant. When it was first said, in 2004, it came a year after the American government lied about the possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction by Saddam Hussein and went to war anyway leading to the death of over 4,000 American soldiers for what amounts to nothing. (Whether or not the invasion of Iraq created Isis is a longer story, and not one I’m qualified to discuss. I know comic books. I know marketing. And I know a thing or two about the Internet, but that’s about it.) What was that Batman line? “Who Benefits?”

Who Benefits?

Over the course of “Identity Crisis,” the Justice League is trying to figure out who killed Sue Dibny, one half of the crime-solving husband and wife duo with her husband, Ralph. If you watch the “Flash” on the CW, you were just introduced to Ralph this past week as the newest member of Team Flash. I’m not going to get much deeper into the story because it’s not great, but in trying to figure out who the killer is, Batman suggests to the other members of the Justice League that they ask a simple question, “Who benefits?”

Think about the world we live in for a second. People walk around saying Facebook has 1.1 billion users, even though tech companies lie all the time about user numbers, and even Facebook this week quietly pointed out that 270 million of those 1.1 billion accounts are fake.

Facebook says one thing, my fellow journalists report it as true (not because we’re lazy but because we typically work for assholes who only care about pageviews and quantity), and then people walk around going, “Wow. Facebook has 1.1 billion users!” It’s not true, but it’s said with the kind of firmness and commitment that goes into saying something that is. And a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth. (Same deal with your own thoughts becoming reality. If you keep saying to yourself that you suck at something, you’re going to suck at it because belief is a powerful thing.)

We have a lot of names for this. Post-Truth is one I see a lot, but that’s crap. I have faith in you. You are a smart, rational person who works hard, doesn’t do anything shady (like treat members of the opposite sex like objects), and tries to do their best with what you are given. So, I don’t buy into this whole deal where you can’t trust anyone or anything anymore. Mainly because getting to the truth is pretty simple. All you have to do is repeat what Batman said, “Who benefits?”

Who benefits when Facebook says it has 1.1 billion users? It’s shareholders. The people employed by Facebook. The people with business relationships with Facebook.

Who doesn’t benefit? Advertisers and agencies who think they’re doing what’s best for their business or clients by spending money on Facebook instead of spending money on a print publication like the recently deceased print edition of “Teen Vogue.” People who think social media is a mandatory part of marketing and promoting yourself today. The media because the media has had an unhealthy obsession with tech and social media dating back to 1994. The politicians who think Facebook cost themselves the 2016 presidential election.

It’s in Facebook’s financial interest to lie to you. They benefit.

So should you trust them?

Hell no. Facebook benefits financially by deceiving everyone as to how big the platform is and how many users it has.

Let’s try another one.

Trump and his friends say the new tax cuts will create jobs and be a win for the dying American middle class.

Who benefits? The billionaires.

Who doesn’t? Pretty much everyone else.

(I’m actually for some of the tax cuts, like ending the Estate Tax, but the idea of cutting taxes for the rich and raising them on the middle class and poor is insane to me. Especially when there’s less and less of a middle class to speak of and fewer and fewer jobs because of advances in robotics and artificial intelligence. Unless all those robots at the Foxconn plant in Wisconsin are going to pay taxes, it’s hard to fathom where exactly the money is going to come from to make up the difference of what will be lost by tax cuts for the wealthy. This is a dumb 20th Century action getting enacted in a 21st Century world.)

So are Trump and his friends telling you the truth? Hell no.

You can find examples like this everywhere. That’s the bad news. The good news is that by asking a simple question, “Who benefits?” whenever someone makes a claim, you’ll be able to decipher most of the bullshit and cut it from your life.

Who Do You Trust?

The thing about trust is that it’s not binary. It’s a lot like influence. The thing that bothers me about all the influencer talk out there is that, while yes there are influencers, their influence is entirely dependent on domain and context. So, a YouTube star may be an influencer on YouTube to their audience (or, so you hope anyway), but that same YouTube star, when riding a city bus or going to the grocery store, has no more influence than anyone else in the store. Influence is situational. It exists, but it doesn’t exist in the way that we think it does on the Internet. It’s true offline too. Your priest may be influential in church, but change the domain, and the context with your priest walking around the Las Vegas strip, and that influence is gone.

Trust is the same sort of deal, and it’s something that comes up again and again in popular self-help books. George S. Clason’s “Richest Man in Babylon,” which came out in 1926, made a point to tell you to get information from people who are competent in the area you need your information from. So you may want to go to me for marketing advice, but you should not come to me for dating and relationship advice because I’m divorced and most of my relationships start out white-hot but then fizzle fast.

In “The Richest Man in Babylon” Clason uses the example of not getting advice on expensive jewels from people who make bricks. Is that to say ALL brickmakers are ignorant about jewels? No. There could be one or two who are excellent amateurs in the field, but as a good rule to live by, brickmakers aren’t the first ones you want to go to for jewelry advice.

You figure out, and decide on, who and what to trust every day. And sometimes, you develop shortcuts. Your friends aren’t going to fuck you, so you’re going to believe your friends for most things. In fact, the majority of word of mouth marketing occurs offline, usually among your friends and family. So, you trust your friends and family when they recommend things all the time, whether or not you realize it. But if your family is anything like my family, you definitely should not trust them for something like career advice. You should go to an expert. Preferably one that doesn’t have a whole bunch of things to sell you, but honestly, everyone has something to sell you today. The trick is to take the advice you need and leave the rest behind. (And of the advice you do take, verify it with some other sources.)

What about the media? Well, fun fact, the Associated Press used to be a bit of a cartel, and at one point the AP was actively pushing for one presidential candidate over another. In fact, this whole idea of trusting the media was more of a temporary, post-Yellow Journalism pre-Corporate ownership bubble that lasted from the 1890s to the 1990s. (There’s a similar argument to be made about privacy. Privacy as a concept was not really a thing until the 18th or 19th Century and, arguably, died in the 20th Century with the passing of the Espionage Act in 1917. So it could be that our concept of privacy and a fair and just media was just a temporary blip in the grand scheme of things. I hope not.)

For this reason, you should question everything you read or hear in the news. Some places are better than others (I get my American news from the CBC and BBC for example, but I also really like NPR), but they’ve all got their own biases. For example, “The New York Times” was in the bag for Clinton in the last election, like a lot of us, but for them to run around and tell you they’re all about the truth now is kind of disingenuous. Remember that whole weapon of Mass Destruction thing? That myth spread, in part, through The New York Times.

This isn’t a Democrat or Republican thing either.Under President Obama, the tech companies (Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) got away with murder and escaped all sorts of needed regulation because the Democrats have always been close to the tech companies going back to Bill Clinton’s run for a second term in the White House. The Digital Millenium Copyright Act, which is what a lot of places like YouTube hid behind when their employees were pirating and uploading stuff from other places, came during the Clinton administration. A lot of that regulation Facebook and the other social networks would have faced, I believe anyway, could have prevented the fake news and Russian influence issue we’re dealing with today.

So in order to figure out who you should trust, you should first ask who benefits. Then, take that information and see if you can verify it from a couple of other places. Like the astronomer, Carl Sagan once pointed out, “Whenever possible, there must be independent confirmation of the facts.” That lack of independent confirmation is what’s led to a lot of the issues we face today as a society.

That’s ok. We’ve acknowledged the problem. The important thing now is to take steps, every day, to solve it. And we can solve this problem by being just a bit more like Batman.

Photo Credit: Marco Verch on Flickr