Since the Campaign of ’16 came to its jarring conclusion, there has been much discussion of how the Internet, rather than functioning mainly as a great educational leveler–the Rosetta Stone that would allow everyone ready access to the most solid facts and research and usher in a global enlightenment–has instead become, for a huge section of the population left and right, an intellectual sewer, a self-curated echo chamber in which the most absurd brainwaves and toxic lies can be spun into seemingly indisputable truth.
Yes, it turns out spending several hours every day of your life staring at computer screens and engaging in completely virtual relationships and experiences has the potential to skew one’s grasp of reality in not-so-enlightening ways. (The only thing that should be surprising about this discovery is that many people actually do find it surprising.)
The ages-old human tendency (or superpower?) for believing weird things has never gone away, of course, but the digital realm does seem to have given abundant quarter to that tendency, with results so drastic that they have many fearing for the survival of democracy.
“Fake news” and “post-truth” have become touchstones of a new anxiety, as the empirical and skeptical-minded, the seekers of reality-however-unflattering, find themselves on what seems like a shrinking island of consensual reality, assailed by tides of digitally-fueled relativism.
I have had many encounters with post-truthism myself, but one I had just recently still hangs my mind and showcases a lot of what the seeker of reality-however-unflattering is up against.
I was traveling through a small town in the Rockies, and at a brewery I happened to strike up a conversation with a guy who owns a farm 45 miles south of town. It’s been in the family six generations, he said. He loves it out there. Loves farming, the hard work. Cattle and hay. A lot of people wanted to buy the land and he could make a small fortune if he went along, but he wouldn’t sell. He’s lived all over the world, he said, but nowhere compares with here.
All fair enough. Then it got into politics.
Everything, absolutely everything, he began, is a scam by the government to gin up money. It’s the 1%’s fault, he says. So was the Cold War. Both sides were really in on it. Everything, everything, is a scam, he repeated. It sounded kind of like an unusually hard-core binary version of Bernie Sanders’ invectives against income inequality.
At this point, I was willing to give him some credit. Maybe not everything is a scam, but an incredible amount of what’s going on in government these days seems unusually fraudulent and dysfunctional and unequal. But there was more to come.
Take Syria, he continued. If you just look on the internet, you’ll see there’s really no war there at all. Aleppo? Not a scratch. Completely unchanged. (He said he’d seen online a picture of a girl swimming in a nice swimming pool in Aleppo so that clinches it. Google it yourself, he suggested.) The whole “conflict”, he maintained, was fabricated by the evil 1%.
Oh, and nuclear weapons don’t exist, he said. The footage of explosions? The radiation at Chernobyl and Fukushima? All concocted by the 1%. Nuclear warheads and ICBMs are non-existent, the silos in North Dakota just clothing depots perhaps, all just another way for the 1% to funnel billions out of the taxpayers’ pockets.
My friend interwove all this with a kind of weirdly rigid pan-humanism that somehow managed to sound both neoliberal and socialist at once. All people, everywhere on earth, are the same as us, he said. We’re all the same. We all want the same things: to relax and feel safe. Nothing else. No one wants war except except the rich 1%. Ipso facto, it seems, there really is no war–as, for instance, in Syria.
We ended the conversation by half jokingly agreeing that it all boils down to class struggle–a random Marxist flourish to tie the whole bouquet of diseased memes together.
For a moment, walking away, I admit I had a hint of this awful rabbit-hole feeling: a grasping in a whirlwind. Truth, I couldn’t help but reflect, is a fragile chain indeed, dependent on countless links of inference, education, and trust. I have never seen a nuclear explosion with my own eyes. I can talk about protons and neutrons and U-235 and chain reactions, but what makes that more than any story? I can see movies of the explosions, but what makes them more than so much special effects?
It’s interesting too how remnants of random ideas accumulate in the mindset of people who don’t really know or care where they came from. We are all guilty of that, one way or another; we can’t screen or scrutinize everything. It is terribly easy to form a pastiche of second-hand thoughts that don’t really relate to each other, but create a kind of gratifying mosaic–like the adoption of something like Sanders’ “1%” message on income inequality, alongside something like the globalist’s mantra of human interchangeableness, “we’re all the same“, alongside, say, “nuclear weapons are a hoax“.
It turns out ideas “trickle down” in a way tax cuts never did: from think-tanks and other tastefully tendentious institutions perched atop the socioeconomic pyramid, the flow of thoughts plunges, ever thicker and cloudier, acquiring fresh errors and corruptions, until it ends up as half-biodegraded sewage sludge clinging to the effluent grates of our everyday discourse–there to be picked up, as likely as not, as the next online fake news story.
Yet these sources on the top, whether the Heritage Institute or the Chicago School of economics or any of hundreds of others, don’t get a free pass. They generally differ from the worst of the internet dredgers only in that they construct their alternate worlds out of the finest scholarly cloth instead of the conspiratorial bile of some dark listserv; long before the internet made it a do-it-yourself thing, think-tankers were the true pioneers of the reality bubble.
So this is much bigger than one eccentric conversation in a bar; it is chillingly emblematic, particularly the nuclear stuff. After all we don’t just live in a nation where farmers far out in the country think nukes are a hoax. We live in a nation that, already under Obama and Bush II, has been contemplating ways of “rethinking armageddon” so that nuclear weapons can become usable. We live in a nation whose president-elect openly wonders what we even have nukes for if we can’t put them to use, and is already gleefully provoking China–a nuclear-armed nation with four times our population and the world’s largest armed forces which sits on the doorstep of the world’s busiest trade routes. Should we just call all that a hoax, too, smile and go back to our sandboxes?
In a recent video, Noam Chomsky reflects on the social impact of information technology and declares, point-blank: “random exploration through the internet turns out to be a cult generator”. I wholly agree, yet the statement in its way sounds almost as incredible as denying nuclear weapons’ existence; again, there’s the feeling of the rabbit-hole, if just for an instant. What unholy place have we reached where even the most coolly rational minds must resort to such shockingly strange descriptions, where the truth is as bizarre as reality?