In simple terms, the world has gotten big. Since I was a child in the early 1970s, the population of the planet has doubled. Imagine a “Shaft”-era earth, with all the chaos, all the strife, all the crime and competition for resources. Imagine a second right next to it, different but just as messy.
Yet, we can’t simply push the two together. While the world has gotten big, it has also gotten small. In 1970, if a ship sank off the coast of Singapore, I might not have heard about it. Today, I not only know instantly, but I see pictures of the dead and pleas of support from their families. What was once a distant tragedy, buried on the back page of the newspaper, now joins the ranks of an endless doomscroll of calamity and injustice.
So when we push those two 1970s earths together, we have to cram them into a smaller space than either occupied alone. That’s the world today.
This makes it very difficult to make sense of things. Not only are so many more things happening, we are also aware of them faster, which inundates and overwhelms not just individuals but our legacy institutions that are supposed to make sense of the world: universities, news organizations, and parliaments, most of which were designed before the advent of radio or the automobile.
So if it seems like no one knows what’s going on, it’s because no one really does. The world has surpassed our collective ability to make sense of it.
But our brains keep trying. Even if we know the world doesn’t make sense, we’re unable to “turn off” the urge to find patterns and meaning, just as we can’t “turn off” the feeling of thirst or hunger. We can’t even temporarily satiate it like those others, for meaning cannot be continually made and destroyed. Starved of it, even smart people today fall for dumb things.
This leaves us vulnerable to exploitation. Ad-based information distribution, like cable news and social media, makes money on volume. More viewers = more cash, which means there’s no incentive to conserve truth, versus some indistinguishable mix of truth and lie.
Individual humans are the same, by the way. If I invent a story and people believe it and share it widely, then I get likes and status. More viewers = more status.
This is not new. It was true of old-timey gossips and newspapers as well. “Yellow journalism” is as old as the urge to taddle on the neighbors. The reason few people mistook The National Enquirer for news was because it was clearly disconnected from what the institutions of sense-making agreed was true.
The appearance of fake news isn’t the change. The loss of the benchmark is, which means any attempt to suppress fake news, versus repair the institutions of sense-making, is doomed to fail.
For at the same time the benchmark has collapsed, the scope of what’s possible has increased. The internet has become our memory, but it only remembers the rare and exciting. Presented daily with outliers in place of facts, our sense of what it’s “reasonable” to believe is wider.
We see this in relatively benign topics like UFOs, which have entered the mainstream consciousness as they never could’ve in 1970, when it was taboo for a “serious” news organization even to mention them.
We’re more open-minded to an expansion of our narratives but also more skeptical of others. We’ll laugh at Electiongate but believe the actions of January 6th was an “armed insurrection” (despite that the protestors killed no one and not a single weapons charge has been filed). We’ll roll our eyes at a supposed Russian conspiracy but promote a Chinese one.
This will get worse, and not simply because the information distributors have no incentive to fix it. They can’t. Making them apply labels or remove false posts assumes there is some benchmark to compare them to. If so, why don’t we just go there directly? What functionally infallible repository of facts is the junior analyst at the tech company comparing a post to such that she knows whether it’s true or false? And where is it?
Of course, it doesn’t exist, which means that Facebook and Twitter can only “validate” by comparing, say, a CNN article to an NPR one, or by comparing CNN to itself. What’s at stake, then, is which news source gets the seal of approval from the largest corporations in history to be remarketed as “the truth.” Contemplate the global financial incentive.
But it’s worse still. You are not simply being misinformed. You are being baited. You are the villain in someone else’s narrative, just as they are the villain in yours, and the more you both act out that role, by attacking or threatening to silence the other, the more your fear and uncertainty can be monetized.
Your venom each keeps the other nervously glued to a screen, where your eyeballs can be milked for cash while kept safely away from the genuine nexuses of power like Wall Street and the military-industrial complex.
I’ll leave you with a rule of thumb. If the information you’re consuming makes you angry or scared, if it tells you the enemy is your fellow citizens, who have no more power than you, then it’s probably a limbic hack. Real news is often boring — even predictable. No one wins views or Pulitzers by reminding everyone of all the ways the wealthy are looting the store.