― Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction no longer exist.”
It is said that we live in the Information Age. Cool.
But this is only accurate as long as we adjust our understanding that the term “information” no longer implies any usefulness or credibility. Think of it this way: if we lived in the “Nutrition Age”, you wouldn’t expect the times to be defined by Hot Pockets and Cheez Whiz. And yet, here we are.
Entire books could, have, and are continuing to be written on how the hell we got here, but it is more important to focus on what the hell we’re going to do about it. And in the meantime, we need to address the burning elephant in the room.
The weaponization of people’s innate vulnerability to confirmation bias stands to be the defining political strategy of the coming years. Indeed, while humanity is barreling into a future where we have access to virtually every possible bit of information we could ever want, as a species we are even less-trained in that respect than we are with nutrition when it comes to discerning what is good for us from what will put us all in early graves.
And just like the distinction between food—which technically includes chicken-fried Twinkies—and healthy food, there is a distinction between information and facts. Information also includes every incoherent rambling and preposterous assertion produced by our most-broken and least-cogent minds, while facts are our best-effort attempts at data that is in consilience with objective reality.
Information is every dart thrown at a bar’s dartboard—whether stuck the in target, or in the bartender’s throat—while facts cluster around the bullseye. Facts are uncovered, discovered, or revealed, through deliberate processes in the pursuit of accuracy; information is produced, with or without such a commitment.
And in the case of misinformation, it is deliberately produced to ensure the facts are buried, hidden, or obfuscated. To run the nutrition analogy into the ground, this would be like the time Chinese companies were falsely elevating the amount of protein in their infant milk formulas and dog food by adding the same stuff “Magic Erasers” are made out of.
Facts come into the world through great effort and significant expense, but the only real costs involved in producing misinformation are those to one’s own conscience and sense of shame. It takes, in some cases, a lifetime of study to develop a level of expertise on a particular subject, and perhaps several hours’ work to distill that down into an informative lecture. It costs $30 with 2-day delivery for a bullhorn that will ensure said lecture is never heard.
And on a broader scale, the return on investment for deliberately and professionally producing bullshit and misinformation is so great that it was a given that rogue states and foreign adversaries would use it to take advantage of the most vulnerable people in our population.
Working the Refs
The challenge of running an unbiased media outlet with a high factual rating is infinitely more difficult when one “side” makes significantly greater use of falsehoods, misinformation, & conspiracy theories—and then plays the victim when any of that is called out or questioned.
For example: a recent YouGov/Yahoo News poll asked a sample of over 1500 voters across the political spectrum a series of questions including their opinion on the Qanon conspiracy. And while it would be comforting to say that the results were shocking, they really weren’t.
When asked for their opinion on Qanon, 85% of the people who stated they were likely to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate responded unequivocally that “it is an extremist conspiracy with no basis in fact”. Only 16% of those who stated they were likely to vote for the Republican candidate said the same, 37% responding with some degree of positivity to the conspiracy (47% “not sure”).
Conspiracy thinking often includes a significant degree of belief in a victimhood narrative as it is, that some oppressive force is out to do you harm and is actively working towards that end. This is partly because the type of people who fall prey to conspiracy thinking often do so for the depressingly sad fact that such a belief, means that someone gives a crap that they exist. After all, if someone is “out to get you”, by some twisted logic you have to be worth getting in the first place.
The victimhood narrative portion of conspiracy thinking is extremely useful to politicians and demagogues looking to drum up an irrational degree of fervor for their actual goals—irrespective of both the position on the political spectrum or the degree to which it is actually true. But it is especially insidious when both disseminated and swallowed by the dominant sociopolitical group.
One perfect example of this is the idea that there is a “War” on Christmas and that Christianity is under attack in the United States. Keep in mind that over 70% of Americans identify as Christian, to such an extent that it is still, to this day, virtually impossible to hold an elected office in this country without professing some degree of faith in the religion. It is clear that there is a difference between the erasure of a cultural tradition and reasonable modifications to make it more inclusive for all—unless excluding others is the point, of course. Which it is, because convincing you the in-group is “good” and the out-group is “bad” (or even, “evil”), is the first step in how a demagogue gets a pass on doing “bad” themselves—because it’s necessary to stop the “others”.
And until the disincentives for this exploitation of the bits of ancestral code in our skullware somehow become greater than the incentives for doing so, this is going to be abused time and again, with outcomes ranging from simple corruption to outright genocide. Consequently, we need to do a better job at dialing up those consequences as a culture, whether through our institutions or though establishing stronger norms for the values of fair play and contempt for those who eschew it.
Most importantly, those whose job it is to provide accurate information to the public—actual facts—need to start giving zero fucks about the people who, when called on their bullshit or fact-checked, fall to the ground screaming and kicking in the hopes that our collective nuts come within range of their feet. And while that’s a delightful picture to paint, the reality is that people who kick and scream in unearned victimhood tend not care much who they kick, as long as they can hurt anyone who isn’t directly enabling their bullshit.
YouGov – Yahoo! News poll Presidential Election – October 19, 2020
Pew Research – Religious Affiliations
Arendt, Hannah. The origins of totalitarianism. Vol. 244. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1973.