Selling the story of disinformation
Maybe the people who are trying to understand why conspiracies take root online are themselves part of a giant conspiracy to prop up the online advertising economy. Personally, I think the truth might be weirder and a bit less nihilistic.
In Harper’s, Joseph Bernstein writes a corrective to some of the prevailing wisdom about disinformation. It’s a provocative piece that questions whether “Big Disinfo,” as he calls it, is real at all, or whether, like most advertising before it, social media writ large offers far less than it would have you believe:
This is perhaps the deepest criticism one can make of these Silicon Valley giants: not that their gleaming industrial information process creates nasty runoff, but that nothing all that valuable is coming out of the factory in the first place.
It’s an important question. Clearly, Facebook and Google are impactful, at least culturally. Why else would we spend so much time with them? The question is how impactful, and in what domains. As I wrote a few weeks ago, arriving in a very similar place while reading another Harper’s piece about TikTok influencers:
Like quantifying the impact of advertising, making the causal link between culture online and behavior offline is notoriously difficult. Sure, the January 6 insurrectionists organized much of their activities on Facebook, and right-wing messaging on the platform almost certainly had an effect on their mistaken belief that the election was rigged. But the actual violence occurred on the ground, well away from the platform, and was stoked not by digital content but by an in-person rally by the then-President of the United States.
Rather than tackling the contradiction head-on, however, Bernstein steps to the side, arguing via Jacques Ellul’s studies of propaganda that if you eliminate mass media persuasion as a factor, the only thing you have to blame for our current woes is ourselves, or as he puts it, the “context” of America — our weird electoral system, history of racism, libertarian streak, and so on. He takes it a step further, arguing that “the specific American situation was creating specific kinds of people long before the advent of tech platforms.” In other words, the role Facebook and their ilk played in January 6 was simply to expose what was already there:
To take the whole environment into view, or as much of it as we can, is to see how preposterously insufficient it is to blame these platforms for the sad extremities of our national life, up to and including the riot on January 6. And yet, given the technological determinism of the disinformation discourse, is it any surprise that attorneys for some of the Capitol rioters are planning legal defenses that blame social-media companies?
Bernstein is right. It’s preposterous to blame the January 6 insurrection, or any of the mess we’re in, solely on social media, precisely because it offers such a tantalizingly simple answer to all of our problems.
And yet his argument also features a kind of technological determinism, or, at minimum, technological nihilism, when it comes to society, our species’ quintessential technology. In Bernstein’s telling, the reason anyone believes that social media (and maybe even media writ large) is impactful is because we need to believe it has power for society to function at all:
But there is a deeper and related reason many critics of Big Tech are so quick to accept the technologist’s story about human persuadability. As the political scientist Yaron Ezrahi has noted, the public relies on scientific and technological demonstrations of political cause and effect because they sustain our belief in the rationality of democratic government.
Indeed, it’s possible that the Establishment needs the theater of social-media persuasion to build a political world that still makes sense, to explain Brexit and Trump and the loss of faith in the decaying institutions of the West.
No doubt, large parts of the Establishment are performing as if the Big Disinfo theory of everything is true, desperately trying to construct a reality that is, as Bernstein puts it, is “legible and useful to capital—to advertisers, political consultants, media companies, and of course, to the tech platforms themselves.”
And yet, it’s easy to use this line of reasoning to construct a hyperreality of our own, where we pretend that nothing about our political culture was ever real to begin with. Bernstein winks at this notion in his opening parable about the ideal Midcentury American media-consuming man, noting that even then, “over frequencies our American never tuned in to, red-baiting, ultra-right-wing radio preachers hyperventilated to millions.”
That’s true enough, but it’s also true that every mass media technology has been used to spread ultra-right propaganda. Until the last decade or so, that propaganda never reached mainstream prominence. Why? If indeed Bernstein’s “specific kinds of people” have always existed, it seems more likely that something about information technology altered our society’s political discourse in a way that granted them more political capital than ever before, than it does that their moment simply happened to arrive.
Even in the simplest version of Bernstein’s provocation, “what if the people believe crazy things, and now everyone knows it,” information technology is at fault for finally letting everyone see that the people believe crazy things. In fact, if Bernstein is right, what information technology may have done is allowed the most nihilistic, opportunistic elites to understand just how irrational the people really are, and use that to their advantage.
(As an aside, I don’t think the people are, in fact, irredeemably crazy, whether due to “context” or nature, and I vehemently dislike the special brand of leftist nihilistic thought that welcomes that conclusion, but that’s another post.)
Thus, explaining away attempts to understand the information ecosystem as merely the theater the Establishment needs “to build a political world that still makes sense,” as Bernstein does, is just as much of a simplification as the Big Disinfo theory. Even if Bernstein’s own conspiracy is true, and politics and advertising have been nothing but theater the whole time, the Establishment has been remarkably successful at guiding everything from the stage for centuries, and large parts of it are having little trouble adapting to whatever’s going on now.
If we’re ever going to build a functioning society, we need to understand how that stage worked, and why it failed. This need is especially great if Bernstein’s conspiracy is true, because replacing the irreality will require building something that actually resists the twin temptations of conspiracy and simplicity, and the nihilists who would use them for their own corrupt ends.