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 1970s earth, with all the chaos, all the strife, all the competition for resources. Imagine another right next to it. Now push the two together. That’s today.
At the same time, the world has also gotten small. In the 1970s, if I said “That’s stupid!” to something on the news, the only person who heard it was my spouse, or maybe the guys at the local. Now, everyone everywhere can see it and say “Yeah! That’s stupid!” and start a movement.
This makes it very difficult to make sense of things. Not only are many more things happening, we are aware of them faster, which inundates and overwhelms the legacy institutions we built to share and make sense of the world: universities, news organizations, and the like.
So if it seems like no one knows what’s going on, it’s because no one does. We have surpassed our collective ability to make sense of things.
But our brains keep trying.
Even if we know the world doesn’t make sense, we are 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, which is why even smart people 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. In other words, they have no incentive to restrict themselves to the truth versus some mix of truth and lie.
Neither do individual humans, 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 how social apes naturally behave.
This was true of old-timey gossips and newspapers as well. (Hence the phrase “yellow journalism.”) 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.
That benchmark is gone. At the same time, the scope of what’s possible has increased. Every crazy thing that happens in the world is instantly available to me, so my sense of what’s reasonable or just possible is wider.
We see this in relatively benign topics like UFOs, which have entered the mainstream consciousness as they never could’ve in 1970. We’re willing to contemplate more possibilities.
That also means that some platforms can claim Russiagate without any real evidence and people will believe it, and other platforms can claim Electiongate without any real evidence and people will believe it. (Or at least get very, very suspicious.)
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??
I’m being serious. What basically 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?
Truth is, it’s just another news source, which means what’s at stake here is which news source gets the seal of approval from the largest corporations in history to be peddled and remarketed as “the truth.”
Contemplate the global financial incentive there.
You are not simply being misinformed. You are being baited. You are the enemy in someone else’s world view. The more you act out that role, the more you threaten to riot or silence others, the more you can be monetized — to keep someone else nervously glued to their screen.
I’ll leave you with a rule of thumb. If the information you’re consuming makes you angry or scared, if it tells you there are enemies behind every bush waiting to hurt you, it’s probably a limbic hack. For the most part, real news is boring.