Between the Trump campaign and Russia’s “information war” I have begun to feel like I’m stumbling around blindly in a torpor, trying to understand the grave phenomenon that seems to be unfolding before our eyes. As a history buff I’m always cautious about doom-saying and lamenting the supposed “decay” of civilization. I’m fully aware that every age had its prophets of doom who warned that their current younger generation would surely be the last, just as I am aware that on the whole, humans live longer, better, more satisfying lives than in any other period of history. On the other hand, unlike the overly-optimistic liberal establishment I am not so naive as to think that progress is an uninterrupted, irreversible process. Or to put it in layman’s terms: Yes, we can totally fuck everything up.
What phenomenon am I speaking of? Well Peter Pomerantsev calls it “post-fact.” Rather appropriate term, I think. I’ve noticed a growing trend whereby a person is presented with irrefutable evidence that something did or didn’t happen, and yet this makes literally no impact on their beliefs or behavior. Now in case this sounds normal, let me tell you now that it isn’t. There definitely seems to have been a change, a growing trend.
Take politicians’ lies, for example. It seems like in the not-too-distant past, most political lying was what they call spin, or being “economical with the truth.” This would seem logical in an era of the internet and ubiquitous recording, because if you tell an outright falsehood someone would easily catch you. Observing the Bush administration and Fox News’ antics at the time, it seemed like the trend was getting away from factual arguments and into opinion and things which couldn’t easily be disputed or verified. For example, maybe Saddam didn’t actually have WMDs, but how could you be sure he wouldn’t get them eventually? Realistically speaking that claim is highly unlikely, but virtually impossible to disprove. And as you’re trying to make the case against that unlikely hypothetical scenario, your opponent would have moved onto some other topic, such as Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against Kurds.
To be sure, this is not ideal. It was downright annoying, to say the least. But now something’s different. It’s evolved. See the politician-style rhetoric starts with a conscious realization that objective truth exists, but it might not be on your side. Therefore what you do is grease yourself down and be as slippery as possible. You know that if you get pinned down, you’ll end up saying something that is verifiable, and if someone checks you’ll be found out. This new lying isn’t even lying, insofar as those telling the lies appear to sincerely believe in them. These untruths are stated confidently, in strong declarative sentences as though they were self-evident facts. It matters not how blatantly they are contradicted by material reality. It doesn’t matter if this person is opining on a topic they’ve never even heard of until recently. Once they find the talking point that fits in with their world view, it is “fact.”
It seems I cannot stress enough how insane this is. Imagine we’re co-workers and you catch me eating your lunch in the company break room. Next to me is the paper bag you put it in. It has your name written on it, on both sides, with big black letters. You point out that it’s yours and I, still chewing part of your pretentious gourmet artisanal sandwich, confidently tell you that you are mistaken. Not only do I insist it is mine, but I begin bringing up all kinds of other topics that have nothing to do with the ownership of the food in question. “Someone once ate my lunch from the fridge! Why don’t you talk about them? Some co-workers have shared food with me in the past!” Some of these things could be facts, but they have absolutely nothing to do with the bottom line, which is that I stole your goddamned lunch. My basic line stays the same: “No, it’s not yours. It’s mine. It was always mine. Your name is not Bill. I am Bill. You are Jim.”
Or suppose we change the scenario a bit. You’re upset because you heard your significant other was making out with another co-worker at a party. I tell you that this is physically impossible, because I was at the party from beginning to end and saw neither your significant other nor the person they were supposedly flirting with. In fact, that particular person was on vacation in another country at the time. I can’t speak for the fidelity of your partner, but it is literally impossible that they did what you think. This never happened. Now one would think that, assuming you had no other reasons to suspect such behavior from your partner, at the very least you would probably rethink the dramatic confrontation you had planned for later that night. If anything, you might want to confront the person who told you that yarn in the first place. Put simply- you would modify your behavior according to the facts you have received.
If you’re a Trump supporter, Putin fanboy, conspiracy theorist, or quite possibly all three, maybe you wouldn’t. At least you wouldn’t if you applied the same approach to reality you use online and in political matters to your everyday life. I wonder how such people would react if someone sold them an obviously broken product and claimed it was functioning perfectly. I wonder because again and again I see people like this confronted with concrete facts, sometimes provided by myself, and it has no effect on them whatsoever. They just double down until you basically have to block them because they begin to look as though they’re trying to convince themselves more than anyone else. I guess it takes effort to maintain the fantasy. As one writer put it: They don’t believe in these things because they’re stupid, they become stupid because they believe in these things.
Again, someone might say, with a fair bit of evidence, that this kind of thinking has always been around. That may be the case, but I think that there might be a qualitative difference simply because we live in the information age of the internet and mass media. As others have pointed out in regards to the internet, it creates the ability to construct one’s own echo chamber. Over the years I’ve also personally witnessed another strange phenomenon, whereby people seem to be playing a sort of real-life role playing game in internet discussions. Rather than debating with other people like themselves, they apparently see their opponents as representatives of their chosen enemy. Neo-Nazis will accuse you of being a Jew. 9/11 truthers accuse you of being a government shill. Anti-GMO people say you work for Monsanto or “Big Pharma.” Kremlin supporters say you work for the CIA or State Department, and Ukrainian nationalists and cheerleaders accuse you of being a “Kremlin troll.” Nobody can simply disagree with them. Nobody could possibly have more access to the facts or expertise on the topic than them. So the only explanation must be that they are some kind of evil agent, deliberately spreading disinformation on the internet.
That, I think, is the factor that wasn’t present in past societies. Sure, there were plenty of political parties that demonized their enemies and may have offered their members some kind of adventure to spice up their dull lives, but these movements existed in the real world. You had to join them, interact with their members, learn their ideology, and engage in activism. If you were trying to recruit someone on the street and they said they weren’t quite sure about some of your claims, you couldn’t just point your finger at them and start screaming “SHILL!” The internet makes this all too possible.
In the same vein, if you joined one of these organizations in the past, you usually had to face the consequences of your actions and statements. If you engaged in long rambling speeches about things that never happened you’d be dismissed as a crank and become a public laughing stock. Or if you engaged in a public debate with someone far more knowledgeable and experienced on the topic at hand, you would be easily embarrassed. As soon as you get stumped on a few basic questions the audience would see through you, and you’d know it too.
None of this is the case online. Online you’re a revolutionary fighting for Western civilization against the “Cultural Marxist social justice warriors.” You’re an “anti-imperialist” waging war on American hegemony and globalization. You’re standing up to Putin’s “neo-Soviet Union” and his legion of “trolls,” i.e. anyone who disagrees with your claims or fails to present information that falls in line with the fantasy narrative you’ve created. It’s so much more exciting than reality!
Recently I’ve taken up reading Matt Taibbi’s book The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion, and I can’t recommend it enough from what I’ve read so far. In the introduction, Taibbi speaks of millions of Americans so befuddled and burnt out by politics that they seem to check out of reality altogether and construct their own alternative realities. Against this backdrop he documents the corruption and cynicism within the US government, and while those who have checked out of politics see themselves as some kind of “resistance” to the system, in actuality their abdication of their civic responsibility means the system has even more freedom to be as corrupt as it can. As you read his words you think about how accurately this describes 2016, and then you have to remind yourself that this book was published in 2008. In other words, we’ve exceeded the level of insanity we describe.
I wish I could offer some kind of solution here, but my usual recommendations probably wouldn’t even cut it if they were implemented. What’s the use of teaching people critical thinking skills when they’ve long since graduated school and quite possibly suspect that the very concept of critical thinking is some kind of Marxist mind-control plot? Who would the teachers be? Who’s to say they won’t claim the teachers are shills for Monsanto or the US government? What about fact-checking projects like Stopfake or Politifact? These won’t sway the alternative reality crowd one bit. The former will be labeled a US government front and the latter is probably controlled by Soros or the Illuminati.
It seems to me in the short term, the only possible solution is to just shut these people down and block them out. I’m not talking about censorship; I’m talking about individuals. In the past I’ve tended to disagree with those who say you should never debate conspiracy theorists, Holocaust deniers, creationists, etc. I tend to disagree. These debates help sharpen one’s own knowledge and rhetorical skills, and they also show audiences that those on the side of truth can stand up to challenges. This, however, refers to actual debates- rules, standards, perhaps a moderator, and an agreement on basic facts of the matter.
Maybe the best response to bold, declarative statements devoid of any supporting evidence and arbitrary dismissals of contrary evidence is to simply say: “Sorry, but that’s incorrect,” and move on. I mean do we seriously need to sit down and “debate” as to whether or not the Earth is a flat disk? “No, the Earth is not a flat disk. No, sorry, but the sun is not a giant space-whale testicle floating in space. That’s wrong, you moron.” Or more relevant: “What’s that? You’ve never been to Russia or Ukraine and yet you’re going to lecture me on these topics and tell me what sources are reliable or unreliable because you have an internet connection? No, sorry. You are wrong. Your opinion is frivolous and does not matter. Come back when you’ve put in the time and the work.”
Of course this only works for individuals and it is still a stop-gap. After all, the real work is for governments. Based on my own experience and what Taibbi and others have written, what I see is extreme alienation of large swathes of the population in industrialized countries. They’re suffering from things they don’t understand and can’t easily see, so they make up their own villains. This is why I keep saying that the real response to this so-called Russian “information war” must first start at home. Take care of your own people first and you will deny bad actors (including home-grown ones) from leading them astray. Whereas the Russian foreign-language media basically says “Yes, we’re bad, but everybody’s bad so don’t judge us,” the Western, especially publicly-funded media ought to be saying, “Yeah, things are really bad, here’s what you can do about it, here’s what others have done about it.” People often use fantasy as an escape from unpleasant reality, therefore we need to somehow make reality more appealing.
UPDATE: If you want to see an example of how unpleasant reality makes people receptive to bullshit, take a look at an excerpt from this article:
“During a discussion on the links between Brexit-backers and the Trumpian proletariat, NPR’s economics reporter Adam Davidson offered the following explanation for right-wing populism’s current appeal:
I know Hillary Clinton’s economic team fairly well, and I’m very impressed by them. They really are top-notch economists and economic policy thinkers. They don’t have anything for a 55-year-old laid-off factory worker in Michigan or northeastern Pennsylvania. Or whatever. They don’t have anything to offer them. And so I think it’s intuitively understandable that a screaming, loud, wrong answer is more compelling than a calm, reasonable, accurate, right answer: Your life is going to be worse for the rest of your life — but don’t worry, these hipsters in Brooklyn are doing much better.
[…] The threshold for wages has gone up. There was a long period in the 20th century where, simply being willing to go to a building reliably everyday for eight hours or 12 hours and do what you’re told was worth a lot. […] And you didn’t need to read, you didn’t need to write, you didn’t need to have any kind of education. Those jobs are all but fully gone. […] So in this country, we don’t have demand for the high-school-only graduates and the high-school dropouts we have, and that’s a big population. Something like 80 million people.”