Can the Conspiracy Culture Be Rolled Back?
In Bernard Goldberg’s “Off the Cuff” audio commentary this week, he talked about our country’s growing belief in outlandish conspiracy theories — especially of the political nature, and especially among those on the right. There’s been plenty of evidence confirming this trend, some of which was presented by the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan in a piece earlier this month that Bernie cited.
In her column (which I highly recommend), Noonan gets into the core causes of people’s susceptibility to even the most absurd conspiratorial nonsense: loneliness, the desire to join an intimate community, a desperate need for answers in confusing times, etc.
Few things amplify and advance such sentiment, especially in the Internet age, like influential figures with huge platforms injecting the imaginative schemes directly into our culture. And it's safe to say that the most prominent American political conspiracy theorist in recent years, who has the faith and devotion of many on the political right, is Donald Trump. As evidenced by what happened on January 6th, and the various polls showing how many righties still believe that the 2020 election was stolen, he’s also been the most consequential.
There are many societal concerns that come with this brand of misinformation and neurotic speculation, but the largest one is violence. In sane times, a deadly insurrection attempt at the U.S. Capitol would compel peddlers of such recklessness to knock it off, or at least tone things down. But Trump (the de facto leader of the Republican Party) is still loudly pushing his “rigged election” lies, people like Michael Flynn are talking about a military coup to reinstate the former president, and in a recent Ipsos poll that Noonan cited in her piece, 28% of Republicans say that they believe American patriots may have to resort to violence to save our country from itself. (That’s four times the number of Democrats who said the same thing).
In an article last week for Reuters, Linda So detailed how election officials who Trump baselessly cast as corrupt and villainous for “allowing” Biden to win, are a living (along with their families) in constant fear of being assaulted and even killed by the former president’s supporters. In the case of Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s family, incidents have included countless death threats, a home break-in, and a far-right “Stop the Steal” militia group showing up at their house.
Republican congressman Peter Meijer has said that somewhere between 60 and 80 fellow GOPers in the House privately agreed with him that Trump should have been impeached for his provocation of the attempted insurrection at the Capitol, but wouldn’t put their vote behind the effort due to safety concerns for them and their families. Others in Congress have confirmed Meijer’s claim.
Again, as Bernie pointed out, the problem is by no means exclusive to the right. But at this point in time, that's where it's finding its greatest (and loudest) acceptance.
Not all that long ago, many on the political right took a good amount of satisfaction in echoing Ben Shapiro’s famous line, “Facts don’t care about your feelings.” I’ve used it myself a number of times over the years. It was, after all, an effective denunciation of sentiments held by many on the political left, highlighting liberals’ adherence to unsupported narratives and political correctness over demonstrable realities.
But the high-ground is gone. Feelings have trumped facts to a significant degree on the right. When the truth is too unbearable, far too many people are inclined to dismiss it and replace it with an alternate reality.
Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution refers to this mindset as “emotional safetyism” — the notion that we have “a right not to be traumatized by the ideas we encounter.” Rauch recently appeared on Jonah Goldberg’s podcast to talk about the growing resistance to truth in our country, and the methods and tools that have facilitated it.
Unsurprisingly, one of those tools is social media, which Rauch calls “hostile to truth” because the platforms are primarily advertising vehicles designed to “capture people’s attention regardless of truth value.”
“What captures people’s attention, and is cheap to produce,” says Rauch, “is outrage and fakery.”
I’ve long contended that social media is whatever people choose to make of it. For some, it’s simply a way of expressing silly quips about every-day life to friends and family. Others use it to brag about their achievements, vacations, wealth, etc. But Rauch is right in that it's also a place where outrage and falsehoods run rampant. And a lot of people benefit personally (including financially and politically) from the attention created by it.
By people, I’m not talking about your crazy uncle, former co-worker, or otherwise normal-seeming friend who spends countless hours on Facebook sharing memes about Dr. Fauci being a sinister puppet-master, Joe Biden being a pedophile, or the Covid vaccines turning us all into mindless government-controlled drones. Such individuals may feel important or super-clever dispensing such nonsense, but they’re more of a symptom than the cause.
I’m talking about those of public stature who’ve built and maintain constituencies off of fueling grievances, like some on cable news. In fact, Tucker Carlson, the host of cable news’s highest rated show, has had a banner year in the conspiracy realm, floating the idea just this week that the FBI organized the January 6th attack.
What I found particularly interesting about Rauch’s thesis were the disinformation methods he described, which he calls “information warfare techniques” and covers at length in his new book, The Constitution of Knowledge. They’ve been used throughout history, and thus aren’t anything new, but it was instructive to take a step back and look at them analytically.
He spoke about “familiarity heuristic,” the concept that the more often one hears something, the more likely one is to believe it’s true (even when it’s demonstrably false).
He talked about the exploitation of tribalism by creating a false consensus. This is done to make reasonable views seem like fringe ones, and fringe ones appear to be a prevailing mindset. This puts pressure on people to shelve their reasoned doubts and go along with the perceived harmony.
Rauch said that the “fire hose of falsehood” technique has been Donald Trump’s preference. It relies on limited attention spans, in which so much noisy misinformation is pushed out to the public on a regular basis that the average Joe doesn’t know what in the hell to believe. In such cases, the object isn’t so much to persuade anyone as it is to confuse — to get people to doubt everything. I wrote about this method back in 2017, though I didn’t know at the time that it had an actual term with Russian origins. Rauch argues that the technique opens the door to cultic leaders and demagogues, and has been at the very heart of the “Stop to Steal” campaign, where lots of unsupported and outlandish theories — many of which outright contradict each other — have been used to stoke the mistaken belief that nobody truly knows what happened with the last election.
“All of these tactics are well-known tactics,” said Rauch. “What’s new is their application on a large scale in American politics…”
Rauch is concerned that the political environment these information warfare techniques have left us in make it nearly impossible to have healthy, reality-based debates. And if the problem worsens, it could even lead to civil war.
So, what’s the solution? How can our nation turn things around?
Rauch believes the answer is in institutional guardrails, and their ability to lead the reality-based community by employing countermeasures to help people understand that they are being manipulated.
It's a fine idea, and he offered a few examples of non-ideological institutions that he believes have made progress on the front. But I don’t have a lot of faith that the tide can be turned until political institutions and news-media organizations start taking their roles more seriously.
As I wrote in my last column, our country’s major political parties are weaker than they’ve ever been. They no longer shape their members to espouse and promote principles and qualities that advance the defined interests of the institution itself. Instead, they’re prone to hostile takeovers by populist demagogues who couldn’t care less about such things, and would rather use the institution to command personal servility.
Right now, the aforementioned institutional guardrails are missing — at least in politics, and the same is true of many media institutions. Viewership, listenership, and readership are all that matter to a lot of these organizations. The truth and reasoned commentary, not so much.
While there are honest fact-checkers and thought leaders out there (including on the right) who put forth a sincere effort to cut through the craziness, their numbers are too few. And in many cases, the institutions that helped shape them have been so badly compromised that there'll be fewer and fewer individuals to one day take their place.
I'd like to believe that the political pendulum will swing things back into a more truth-friendly environment, but right now, it doesn't appear as though the necessary foundation exists.
Note from John: I've been writing a weekly non-political newsletter since October, covering topics like art, music, humor, travel, society and culture. I've been surprised by, and thankful for, how many people have been signing up for it. If it sounds interesting to you, I'd love for you to subscribe (it's free).