The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Anti-elitism and the Internet are a problematic combination

Joe Rogan is seen during a weigh-in on May 12, 2017, in Dallas before UFC 211. (Gregory Payan/AP)
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It was relatively easy to spot the QAnon adherents in the crowd at Donald Trump’s rally in New Hampshire in August 2019, given that they were generally adorned with Qs the way a college freshman is adorned with his school’s colors on game day. So I was able to buttonhole a few on their way back to their cars, learning, among other things, that they’d been asked to turn their Q shirts inside out before entering the arena.

But it was an aside from one that has stuck with me, a 27-year-old guy who defended the honor of the movement. He was entirely confident in the accuracy and nobility of what he supported, he said, “as long as I did my own research.”

You can see how, particularly here, this appeal to individual authority is self-defeating. This is a guy who has accepted at least the broad strokes of a conspiracy theory that, at its depths, hypothesizes a satanic cabal of cannibalistic pedophiles that controls American power. If your unfailing confidence in your own ability to assess credibility led you there, perhaps your confidence is misplaced. And yet there he was, making that case, in that context.

This same omnipresent impulse, though, runs like a thread throughout a number of the controversies at the heart of American culture and politics — and, of course, through the still-mounting death toll from the coronavirus pandemic.

Rugged individualism and the unfettered Internet, it turns out, are a bad combination.

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Take Joe Rogan. By now, you’re not only familiar with the podcast host but probably with his general type, the guy who expounds with enormous confidence in himself, if not always the subjects of his exposition. One of the better casual descriptions of Rogan was a Twitter user’s 2018 summation: “Back when I was a kid you didn’t need Joe Rogan. Your best friend had a 27-year-old brother who … would smoke pot in a room with black light posters and tell you that the Mayans invented cell phones.” Chill, kind of fun, happy to embrace the wilder explanations for how things work.

Rogan also does his own research live on his show. He interviews random people, often contrarians, who offer up their own assessments of whatever subject. The point is often specifically to elevate some outsider perspective, with Rogan often agreeing either in broad strokes or the specifics. This embrace of misleading nonsense and purveyors of the same triggered his current crisis.

The theory that drives Rogan, that QAnon guy and so many others is, in essence, that in a world without trustworthy experts, everyone can be a trustworthy expert. People like scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or doctors who are interviewed on mainstream cable news outlets are treated with skepticism because what was once their defining value — their credentialed expertise — has now collapsed into a negative: They think they know better just because they have some degree. The published research, the citations from others in their field, the years of familiarity with the subject matter — all of that was once distilled into “this is who they say you should talk to.” But now the spirit of contrarianism appends a “so don’t.”

What makes this possible is that people can “do their own research.” A guy sitting at home can click a few links and learn about alternative narratives for everyday, mundane occurrences. In the same way that the Internet allows those with an interest in little-watched Japanese anime to find one another and form communities, it allows groups of self-declared investigators to dig into everything from the dating patterns of furniture-company employees to kidnapping schemes allegedly perpetrated by powerful politicians. Sometimes, the Internet can amplify the effectiveness of an investigation, particularly when bound to actual expertise. Sometimes, it can amplify a downward spiral.

What makes this compelling is the sense of ownership, of cracking the code. Rogan is useful here because he’s so transparent about how it works. He seeks out a more interesting angle on something that’s happening and explores it, mics hot. It’s often compelling — more compelling than having actual experts on to reiterate the well-understood data behind vaccinations and masks or whatever else is happening in the news. Just as it’s more compelling for the QAnon adherent to think that there’s a massive global struggle between good and evil that was playing out behind the walls of the White House than to just think that the Trump administration was kind of a mess.

And of course, the anti-elitism. It’s not a coincidence that the QAnon movement overlapped heavily with Trump’s base of support. Trump gave broad credence to conspiracy theories as president, from claims of voter fraud to theories about criminal migrants. But his political career was largely predicated on the idea that the elites were ruining America — that moreover, they were fundamentally inept and shielded by their purported credentials.

It’s likely, as journalist Matt Yglesias recently noted, that partisanship plays a role: Those with advanced degrees are increasingly politically liberal, which has not gone unnoticed. Trump recognized that he could benefit personally by turning his supporters against those who, by virtue of their familiarity with processes and research, were trying to redirect him toward reality. His feud with Anthony S. Fauci was driven by Trump’s desire to have people start acting like the pandemic was over, but was centered on the idea that he knew as much about the coronavirus as did government experts who had been at it for decades.

“Maybe I have a natural ability” to understand the science, Trump said at the CDC in the early days of March 2020. Maybe we all do! We have Google, after all.

The self-confidence aspect of all of this wanders into hazier territory, like hypermasculinity. Our forefathers built log cabins and hunted mountain lions and weathered the flu and didn’t need some nerd in a white coat telling them how to live. They figured things out. It’s sort of natural, of course, that the inverse of “intellectual” would be “physical,” but it is odd to see how that manifests very literally in a lot of this.

The Internet amplifies the problem in another clear way: There’s no way to offer a counterweight to those occasions on which Trump or Rogan serves up incorrect information. For one thing, the scale of the audience of each generally outstrips critics. But more importantly, those who listen are not listening to consider one viewpoint that they then test against other sources. They’re listening because they’re fans. Because they trust the sources of information in the first place. This, ironically, is an appeal to expertise in a different way: Trump, Rogan and others have earned confidence through an entirely different set of credentials, including mechanisms like choir-preaching and ego-stroking. So they are granted trust.

Two decades ago, a pair of researchers named David Dunning and Justin Kruger described a psychological effect in which people who don’t know a lot about a subject are necessarily unable to know how little they know about it. They described a pattern in which people learning about a new subject have a quick surge in confidence in their familiarity with it before discovering that the subject is far more expansive than they originally understood. So, as they learn more, their confidence fades — because now they know how little they know.

Dunning and Kruger’s original formulation overlapped with a young Internet, one without blogs and without social media. It would have been hard to predict how easy it would be for people to learn just enough about a subject to reach that first peak of poorly informed confidence — and then to just stand there, enjoying the view. Standing there with thousands of other people, all congratulating each other on their expertise. To have a person climb dozens of peaks at once, on a range of different subjects. Just standing there, confident.

And they got there all by themselves.