The Information Age has become the Misinformation Age. Pizzagate is not an anomaly — it’s the natural consequence of advances in information technology, the erosion of traditional media and the strenuous efforts of demagogues to tribalize our civic life. Two dudes in an apartment in Long Beach, Calif., can now confabulate stories that reach vast audiences through the miracle of social media and Google ads. The Internet democratizes the information universe for better or worse. Add paranoia and you have the recipe for what happened at Comet Pizza.
You were warned about this. Consider this passage:
The technology of falsehood has outraced our judgment. Alienated from nature, liberated from such barbaric responsibilities as the growing of food, the making of shelter, we have entered a mysterious phase in which we passively accept a cartoon version of reality that is projected upon us by unreliable, deceptive, and sometimes diabolical media.
I wrote that in 1988. That’s not a typo. (It’s hard to find a good link to it because it was pre-Internet. That paragraph ran in Mother Jones, in a piece based on an earlier essay titled “Creeping Surrealism” that ran in the Miami Herald’s Tropic Magazine.) The bad guys in that piece were corporations, advertisers, TV stars, Hollywood — the professional manipulators of image. My essay also derided the public for not seeming to care about what was fake and what was real. In retrospect the piece feels quaint, if not naive. One gets almost nostalgic for the days when the biggest thing we had to fear was that Disney was building a fake movie studio back lot with architectural facades near Orlando to resemble a real movie studio back lot — and thus selling to tourists the illusion of facades. (It’s a little hard to explain the concept, but trust me it seemed outrageous at the time.)
The notion that we were being fed a stream of bunk and nonsense, and had become a passive audience for image manipulators, was hardly original. For example, Neil Postman (“Amusing Ourselves to Death”) had warned of the brain-addling effects of the television age. Way back in the early 1960s, Daniel Boorstin wrote a book called “The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America.”
The Internet, however, has greased the skids for misinformation in a way that we couldn’t have imagined back in the day. Long before there was this fake news epidemic, there were conspiracy theories and pseudoscience and paranoid ideologies. The peddlers of the stuff were often charlatans looking for money. Sometimes true believers got caught up in their own web of nonsense. But they were limited in their reach, forced to publish pamphlets or give talks at small conferences of the like-minded, and if they managed to publish a book it was often shoved to a remote corner of a bookstore under the heading Occult. (My book “Captured by Aliens” is a science book that has no aliens in it, but it includes a long dissection of UFO mythology and credulousness, and so it, too, wound up in the Occult section.)
Now the machinery of bunk is far more sophisticated. The Internet has been leveraged by social media and smartphones, and we’re in a whole new world. Nancy Gibbs, introducing Time magazine’s Person of the Year issue, writes: “We can scarcely grasp what our generation has wrought by putting a supercomputer into all of our hands, all of the time.” And props to Gibbs for this truism: “Truth is only as powerful as the trust in those who speak it.”
The fake news epidemic is a lethal combination of technology and human nature. It’s supply and demand. We probe for missing information, what’s hidden, what’s secret. Digging up secrets has survival advantages. We’re programmed that way. There is obviously and simultaneously a premium on the ability to find reliable information — but that can be overwhelmed by the premium that comes from tribal cohesion, from aligning ourselves with others who share our beliefs and will defend them against all enemies real and imagined.
Thus coheres a tribe that believes in stuff that’s not true.