There is a number hidden in the dots below. What number do you see?
Give it a second before you continue. Really look. I’ll wait.
Did you see the 7, starting from the orange circles at left? Or maybe the 5, which starts at the purple circle in the center-right. Or maybe you didn’t see any number at all. Maybe you tried, but nothing jumped out at you.
There would a good reason for that: There is no number hidden in the dots. It’s just a randomly generated set of dots.
If you did see a number, you’ve proved the point that I hoped to make: When you’re looking for a pattern in a random set of data, you can often find it — especially if you have a lot of data to work with.
I’ll give you another example. Pizzagate.
Pizzagate, as you’re probably aware, was a conspiracy theory that emerged at the tail end of the 2016 presidential election. It held that a D.C.-area pizza place was a front for a child sex ring, operated out of secret passages hidden within the restaurant. The theory, such as it was, arrived on the national stage when a man from North Carolina grabbed his rifle and went to investigate for himself.
How’d this theory emerge? Largely because the WikiLeaks dump of a ton of emails hacked from the account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, allowed people looking for a conspiracy theory to put one together. It’s like someone dropped 17 years’ worth of periodicals outside John Nash’s woodshed. People saw mentions of the pizza place and read into other emails’ references to child sex trafficking and picked out logos and symbols that fit the narrative. In another context, we’d call it stupid. In the context of a man firing a weapon inside a public place — as that guy from North Carolina did — we will call it alarming.
Pizzagate is actually an extreme version of something that happened regularly over the last month of the campaign. Those stolen emails provided fodder for all sorts of theorizing. There was the “spirit dinner” idiocy, which similarly cobbled together emails to spin out a bizarre theory. But there were also any number of stories reported at more broadly read media outlets that picked out emails to fit into a broader narrative of wrongdoing by Clinton and her campaign.
It’s the age of guilt by volume. Given enough data about something and enough incentive to locate a problem, people are proving endlessly capable of getting the two to align.
Earlier this week, James O’Keefe — made famous for his often-iffy “exposés” of liberals and liberal causes — pledged to release recordings from inside a news network that would show how the mainstream media was corrupt. On Thursday, his group Project Veritas dropped its bombshell: Some people at CNN talked about a poll.
It’s really hard to describe what a pile of nothing this release was. O’Keefe dutifully released an ominous-looking video short implying that CNN executives had copped to their polls being “fake news,” but what he actually recorded is CNN staffers agreeing that using old poll data could be dishonest and shouldn’t be referred to as “newly released.” Golly!
What’s different about what Project Veritas did this time, though, was they released 119 hours of raw recordings apparently recorded at CNN. They did what I did above: Dropped a bunch of dots and told their followers to try to find some numbers. Undoubtedly, some people will peruse the release and find something they consider to be damning. Maybe it will actually be damning — though you’d think O’Keefe and his folks would have isolated it in that case.
As with WikiLeaks, the scale of the release itself is presented as somehow convincing. It’s like what President Trump did at his news conference last month, when he stood next to a pile of folders that he claimed contained documents separating himself from his business interests. (To engage in conspiracy theories of our own: It’s not clear there was actually anything on the sheets of paper.) Simply the presence of so much stuff was meant to make the case, all by itself.
“Project Veritas released 119 hours of raw audio in a WikiLeaks style dump,” O’Keefe’s team wrote, “with over 100 more hours still yet to be released.” Man! That must mean that CNN’s guilty of … whatever, right? It’s simply a matter of time before someone will dig into those hours of stuff and find something that proves their point.
I mean, O’Keefe already has, with that CNN poll thing. It’s not clear whether he’s convinced that he’s found something that actually proves that CNN is flawed and corrupt, or if he simply needed to have some example to present at launch and seized on the time someone used the word “dishonest.” Regardless, the effect is the same. And it seems clear that O’Keefe has finally realized that his supporters’ imaginations will likely be much more effective at generating damning arguments than he and his team could.
One of the most prescient essays I remember reading in the past decade was written by Harvard Law’s Lawrence Lessig for the New Republic in 2009. Titled “Against Transparency,” Lessig argues that massive dumps of information — even when presented outside of any presumptive moral context — would foster misunderstandings.
“We are not thinking critically enough about where and when transparency works, and where and when it may lead to confusion, or to worse,” he wrote. “And I fear that the inevitable success of this [transparency] movement — if pursued alone, without any sensitivity to the full complexity of the idea of perfect openness — will inspire not reform, but disgust. The ‘naked transparency movement,’ as I will call it here, is not going to inspire change. It will simply push any faith in our political system over the cliff.”
He called out “projects that are intended to reveal potentially improper influence, or outright corruption” for special mention, quoting from the book “Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency.”
“More information does not always produce markets that are more efficient.” Instead, “responses to information are inseparable from their interests, desires, resources, cognitive capacities, and social contexts. Owing to these and other factors, people may ignore information, or misunderstand it, or misuse it. Whether and how new information is used to further public objectives depends upon its incorporation into complex chains of comprehension, action, and response.”
“What we believe,” Lessig said, “will be confirmed, again and again.”
If you believe CNN is corrupt, you’ll find a snippet in the 119 hours of audio that makes your point.
If you believe Podesta runs a sex ring from a pizza shop, you’ll find an email that provides the hints you need.
If you believe there’s a number to be found in those dots up above, you’ll find a number in those dots.