How Our Society Lost The Truth: Don't Just Blame the Internet

By Chris Mooney | April 29, 2011 9:41 am

On MSNBC last night, Chris Hayes quoted White House press secretary Robert Gibbs:

There are no more arbiters of truth. So whatever you can prove factually, somebody else can find something else and point to it with enough ferocity to get people to believe it. We’ve crossed some Rubicon into the unknown.

Great quote–but why have we crossed “some Rubicon”? Last night on the air, Jonathan Kay attributed it to the Internet echo chamber effect: People are selecting their information sources based on what they believe, then getting their beliefs reaffirmed, etc. Politico makes the same attribution–following, in turn, the logic of the White House itself (as quoted in the Politico story).

This explanation is not sufficient, I say.

First, there’s been a trend over 40 years to create conservative think tanks that put out their own version of reality and their own version of expertise–so that now, “for every Ph.D. there’s an equal and opposite Ph.D.,” to quote Andy Revkin from somewhere or other. Meanwhile, Fox News has a stronger effect on unreal perceptions than blogs, I would say, and it is “old media.”

In fact, media balancing itself creates a more postmodern culture, as we know from the research. And again, we’re talking about old media, not new.

So the question is much more complicated, and you can’t just blame the Internet. What do others think? Are there other factors I’ve neglected?

Comments (33)

  1. Jon

    Ideology.

    The anti-statism of the GOP has reached an irrational level. And you can trace the development of this anti-statism through modern conservatism’s intellectual anti-communists, its coalition with old-line business and the religious right, its consistent anti-rational populism.

    Plus, many of its original intellectuals who wrote the manifestos have passed on. The originals were smart people. The new generation just read the manifestos and never did the thinking of the people who produced them.

  2. It’s like this: voter turnout is the key to winning elections. The best way to get people to actually vote, is to get them angry. So certain politicians try deliberately to get people angry. The more intense the emotion, the more difficult it is to exercise critical thinking. Therefore, reasoning is displaced by anger, because anger is what wins elections.

  3. Chris Mooney

    @2 I agree that playing on emotions makes it hard for people to be rational and now we know why this is. But surely this has been true from time immemorial.

    @1 I know it must have something to do with changes in the GOP, but, I don’t fully understand why the party’s trajectory ended up this way. It still has intellectuals, after all. It still has think tanks, etc.

  4. I’m afraid to say that I actually DO blame the internet. Take, for example, 9/11 conspiracy idiots. I think that those people might have harbored silly thoughts before, but now they can log onto the internet and discover that there are others like them. They quickly rile each other up in an echo chamber, and give themselves the feeling and appearance of legitimacy.

    I agree that the notion of the media presenting “both sides” of a debate with only 1 correct viewpoint doesn’t help, but I do fear that the internet is an incredible catalyst.

    Maybe I’m just down over the moving of the goalposts by birthers, but I really see the movie version of “idiocracy” looming in real life. :-(

  5. Jon

    George Packer boils it all down in one post:

    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/georgepacker/2009/04/full-circle.html

    He gives a bit more background here:

    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/georgepacker/2009/04/irving-kristols-long-strange-trip.html

    Again, the key is the populism. Right now it’s driving the movement. The smart people thought that would never happen–that there would always be smart people at the head of the movement tweaking the message and effectively governing. But these days the best are not in charge and the worst are full of passionate intensity…

    Over at the Weekly Standard, they’re pretending there’s nothing wrong:

    Kristol would not brook being lectured to by thinkers feigning a concern for conservatism and shedding crocodile tears over its fall from a dignified version limited to quoting maxims from Edmund Burke. This group of salon intellectuals, still active today, would, in the name of “saving” conservatism, exclude from it people of faith because they are too religious, entrepreneurs because they wish to make too much money, and middle Americans because they are too patriotic. While Kristol acknowledged the dangers of populism, he also saw that it can be a “corrective to the defects .  .  . often arising from the intellectual influence .  .  . of our democratic elites.” Calling attention to a new fact of modern political life, he noted that the “people were conservative and the educated elites that governed them were ideological elites, always busy provoking disorder and discontent in the name of some utopian goal.”

    …But there is. Instead of the “philosophers” in charge, as was intended, we have opportunists and know nothing populists, with a conspiracy-minded base.

  6. TTT

    Chris: Participants in “think-tanks” are not what I’d call intellectual. They have all the worst features of the worst stereotypes of academia, but without any of the legitimizing factors and baseline meritocracy involved with becoming a real academic. Instead, your thinktanker either self-selects or is pretty much autoselected by their drinking buddies, from some organization that the two or three of them made up the day before yesterday. The emergence of a pundit-led media and legitimization of thinktanks is one of the major communication disasters in American history, as it created a new class of false experts whose sole role was to repeat themselves and to permanently re-cast all events through a lens of their parochial, inevitably pre-1980s political experience and the accompanying mantras.

  7. Short answer: The Internet certainly helped, some would say a lot, to turbo charge the trends already in place, as Chris pointed out.

    Long answer: In the very early days of the Internet, I remember quite well all the ideological talk about how it would let us learn about just about any topic without having to take a class or even buy a book. You would be able to find all sorts of information about medicine or the arts or auto repair or anything you wanted. Such wonders awaited us, just a mouse click away!

    Of course what really happened is we overwhelmingly use the Internet to break down barriers to finding other people who think exactly like us and share the same interests. In some areas this is at least benign and very likely a good thing; someone in the US learning the board game Shogi can find all sorts of online resources and overcome the lack of local clubs and interest. But all too often we take the easy road, wallow in our little community and spin in place, our views becoming ever more condensed and dominated by the most extreme members of the group. (We don’t have to agree with the crazy people, but merely seeing their views on a regular basis moves our personal Overton Window to consider those views more acceptable.) Consider it a much more interactive, and therefore effective, version of Fox News.

    The deniers who fought on the wrong side of the wars over smoking, asbestos, CFCs/ozone, and now climate change started out as obscure think tankers who talked to policy makers. Now they have their own unpaid, volunteer armies of people who mutually support each other via the Internet: Hence, we’ve turbo charged disinformation.

    Frankly, when I see the surveys that show how many Americans think President Obama wasn’t born in the US or I hear about the resurgence of some diseases because of the vaxxers, I have to wonder if we’ll ever overcome these multiple, self-inflicted mental wounds.

  8. Bobito

    Senator Jay Rockefeller tried to address the issue and was demonized by both sides for doing it: http://www.saveyourrights.com/videos/sen-jay-rockefeller-d-west-virginia-wants-fox-news-and-msnbc-to-disappear/

    It’s getting the point that we need to force the media to be what they are supposed to be, that is, an unbiased group that keeps the government in line.

    What we have is a bunch of mouthpieces for politicians. There are so many, on both sides, that one can watch/read/listen all day long and never hear a valid opinion from the other side.

  9. Jon

    …It still has intellectuals, after all. It still has think tanks, etc.

    Yes, but it’s a uniquely cynical intellectualism. Remember John Lott? The rules that normally apply to professional intellectuals, such as peer review of work, doesn’t really apply to them, at least as a priority. And their stance is often *against* intellectuals as a class–they’re counter-intellectuals, to use Mark Lilla’s term. And as Mark Lilla put it, “the young people they cultivated and inspired… became counter-intellectuals without ever having been intellectuals — a unique American phenomenon.”

    It’s an intellectualism that sees political instrumental reason–in the form of defeating expertise as a political force, forming feasible lines of propaganda, getting the right candidates elected, etc.–as the be all and end all. And intellectual independence isn’t prized at all. In fact it’s a liability.

  10. eyesoars

    Just an opinion, but the corrupting influence of money and the convergence of big media are huge factors.

    Any major organization that tells the truth that major corporate interests want hidden will suffer for it economically. All media is driven by advertising revenue (incl. NPR and public TV!). Thus we have very little real discussion about GMO’s in this country, or the ongoing mortgage scandal (involving all our major investment banks, and all manner of criminality), or serious discussions about the consequences of our wars, or global warming, or …

    That about a dozen media conglomerates own 90% of the media — radio, TV, newspapers, billboards, &c, guarantees that anything they own a part of will never see bad press.

  11. whoschad

    “Are there other factors I’ve neglected?”

    The rise and influence of structuralism and then poststructuralism. Plato and Augustine both trounced Gorgias and kept him at bay for over two thousand years. But now he’s making a comeback. Someone needs to put him in his place or it’s just going to get worse.

  12. danny

    conservatism is the natural repellent to liberalism…it seems the natural arc of a capitalist society is the collapse under it’s own weight promoted by the expansion of government…conservatives could slow this collapse down n the past.now the perfect storm of liberal media,executive and congressional branches,written media,and workers unions has 0ver come any natural solutions….socialism maybe the only solution 2 the great American experiment.

  13. Dana Milbank’s column in today’s Washington Post exposes one of the ugly side effects or symptoms of the problem – media that go to extravagant lengths to curry favor and thus access with the very people whose actions they should be watch-dogging.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-the-journalist-prom-got-out-of-control/2011/04/28/AFla9PCF_story.html?hpid=z5

  14. Jon

    Lawrence Lessig:

    The Framers of our Constitution were obsessed with the idea of “independence.” Not the “independence” of 1776. Rather, an independence that many feared the people and the Nation had lost by abut 1785. “Independence” in the sense of a lack of dependence. The “independent,” as Blackstone put it, has “no rule to pursue, but such as he prescribes to himself.”[1] He needn’t conform himself to the will of others. He was free to follow what was right, or just.

    Dependents didn’t have this freedom. Until their “independence,” as Jane Austen often described, sons were not free of the will of their parents.[2] Laborers were tied to the interests of their employers. Magistrates dependent upon the King couldn’t defend rights against the King. In each case, dependency sapped the soul. If not but temporary, it would corrupt. As Jefferson described, dependence “begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.”[3] It was therefore the Framers’ vision, a “Republican ideal,” that the individual, the representative, and the Nation would be protected from this type of “corruption,” by protecting the individual, the representative, and the Nation against improper dependency.

    …The solution was to build institutions, or constitutions, against improper dependency. “Each department,” Madison argued in Federalist 51, “should be as little dependent as possible on those of the others.”[5] That independence would give these departments the means to do their job properly. Indeed, the only proper dependency identified in the whole of the Federalist Papers was the ultimate dependency of the government upon “the People.” In every other respect, corruption inducing dependency, as Duke’s Zephyr Teachout effectively argues,[6] was the single most prominent target of the Constitution’s design.

  15. kirk

    Your are missing the acceleration of the acceleration of the rate of information transfer. Some people just cannot keep up. I don’t walk into a grocery store and proclaim I am unable to shop because some of the food I like and some of the food doesn’t taste good to me. I go for the familiar items. The amount of information transfer at the Kroger is staggering and in real time. The interwebs are a billion grocery stores with stuff I like and stuff that makes me troll.

    If you are in teh Tea Party it is because. You. Just. Cannot. Keep. Up. With the rate of information acceleration acceleration.

  16. Matt B.

    There may be a natural drift. Fox News has never admitted to being conservative, and Bill O’Reilly claimed to be an independent. But I read his first two non-porn books and saw that he was crazy, so I ignored him thereafter. Others didn’t, and those people were brought closer to his craziness, lured by his claim of objectivity. So I guess it’s that extremes have been given legitimacy (actual balance is no longer a goal) by a few powerful individuals like Rupert Murdoch. Which means we can also blame lack of anti-trust enforcement in the media industry.

  17. ES

    Also, and this is just a basic truth of American culture… how many people actually know how to use deductive logic properly? You can use the internet as a source, and a fact-verification system, if you are capable of applying sound reasoning and logic. Another thing… when rhetoric escapes making hard, verifiable claims… PEOPLE SHOULD BE PISSED OFF. When a person drones on for and hour about a topic (eg. Fox and Friends) and no one bothers to ask, “Um.. hey, they really didn’t say anything I can check.. or verify, why the heck am I watching this??”… perhaps it’s time to start looking for an actual discussion and dissemination of news (factual verifiable information), instead of watching gorram posers do their thing and scare you into positioning the news in your consciousness.

  18. brian

    Looking at this from an anthropological viewpoint, it is quite natural for humans to isolate themselves from “outside” opinions. The internet merely enhances that trait. Over the last 50 years or so, education has been so diminished that even many of those who are willing to look outside the box, are so bombarded with politically influenced banter, they give up the search for objectivity (if there is any). The powerful are then re-elected because it’s easier and more comfortable than actual change. Notice how similar the two parties are (no matter how often the “disagree” with each other). Let’s face it, both sides are only interested in maintaining power. However, third party candidates are not taken seriously even though the “new” Democrat or Republican make the same choices regardless of why they were voted in. So the Truth is there and I believe most Americans want to believe they are voting for it, but because of fear and desire (fear of some invented enemy or the desire to make their lives easier), they delude themselves into thinking they are voting for Truth. Well, in my humble opinion anyway.

  19. JMW

    I am going to propose a factor which I don’t believe others have mentioned.

    It is particular, I think, to the United States. I don’t see it here in Canada (though I suspect I’m beginning to in our Conservative Party): hyper-competetiveness.

    The belief that being the best at something – anything – is preferable to being right. This, I am beginning to believe, is the poison infecting American society and slowly killing it. Americans celebrate winners – that’s okay. But when Americans have begun to deify winners, that’s different and dangerous. And so America becomes obsessed with seeing itself as “the best in the world”, even when it is plainly not. See what replies that comment engenders, to see what I mean.

    And the end result is a focus on winning at all costs, even if you kill off what you’re fighting over. That, I believe, is where American politics sits now – both the Democrats and (especially) Republicans would rather sacrifice anything than lose an election – and they don’t realize they’re sacrificing their country. There are individuals in both parties cursed with sanity and principal who would not do this, but the mass of party strategists are not thus encumbered.

    Competitiveness in news media hasn’t helped either. The goal is to be first to the public with news – not to be accurate.

    You people are on your way to becoming a 3rd world country. And that’s sad.

  20. Welcome to opposite land where everyone believes everything is opposite of what it actually is.

  21. Bobito

    @JMW You people are on your way to becoming a 3rd world country. And that’s sad.

    I couldn’t agree more with your post. And I am a nationalist that routinely makes fun of Canada! ;)

    Some factions have attempted to get us out of the muck we are in. The Tea Party had the right idea, but then Beck and Palin glommed onto the movement and ruined it.

    Obama had a great message with “Hope and Change” but that, as we all see now, was just words with no substance.

    I see the winds changing. People on both sides of the political spectrum are starting to realize that our elected officials are more worried about their own interests than the interests of our country, and have been playing us all for fools. I just hope enough people realize it before it is too late…

  22. Jon

    The Tea Party had the right idea…

    No, Bill Buckley had the right idea at the beginning of the economic crisis, that we can’t run a modern economy at a pre-1930’s level of unregulated abandon, and all the watchdogs captured by the interests they’re supposed to protect us from. And it’s an idea we never heard from the tea party, ever. They were too busy telling us “don’t let the government get its hands on my Medicare.”

  23. Bobito

    Jon – Perhaps you’ll better understand if it comes directly from the horses mouth rather than filtered through your twisted image of what the tea party was supposed to be: http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2010/10/20/tea-party-founder-slams-tea-party/

  24. Jon

    I’m not saying there weren’t some good people in there, but the rant first heard round the world was Rick Santelli’s, right? Doesn’t exactly sound like a populist uprising:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tea_Party_movement#First_national_protests

    Or if it was, it was bound from the beginning to be a confused one…

  25. Bobito

    It be came a “populist uprising” on it’s own. And it certainly was a “confused one” (as any uprising will be in it’s early phases… do you think the Declaration of Independence was good to go on first draft?) What my point was is that people like Beck and Palin glommed onto it and started defining it rather than allowing it to continue to grow organically. And, by doing so, made it just another political organization that is corrupt at the top with a bunch of followers that bow to their whims.

  26. Jon

    Ok, Beck and Palin. But what about Rick Santelli? He didn’t glom on, he *started* the glom. A business news editor buddying with stock brokers on the floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange as a Thomas Paine against financial abuses? Come on, that’s strange. It doesn’t sound like he’d be a rallying point for the most clear-headed part of the citizenry, even before Beck and Palin piled on.

  27. Bobito

    Jon, you do just love to argue don’t you… Why are you stuck on Santelli? His speech resonated with people, he didn’t do it promote himself as a leading figure in the Tea Party movement. His speech, to pull a quote form Santelli’s wikipedia page, was “credited with being a catalyst in the early formation of the Tea Party movement”. And that is the only mention of the Tea Party in his wikipedia profile.

    Also, if you look through the Tea Party wikipedia page you provided, there is mention of protest before that speech…

    And, if you read the article I posted, you’ll find this “In January of 2009, Market Ticker bloggers including Graham Makohoniuk and Stephanie Jasky suggested “mailing a tea bag”.” Santelli’s speach was Feb 19th…

    What is your point?

  28. Brian Too

    In the old days information was scarce and expensive. Now information is cheap and so plentiful no one can even process it all. Therefore in the Internet age, it is easy to find like-minded people and information that validates your views. The glut of information makes ignoring the information that contradicts you, easy. By the time you have to pay attention to countervailing facts, you already have a full quiver of facts (or pseudo-facts) of your own. And then let the fight begin.

    Pre information age the first or second fact you learned, if you held a provably incorrect viewpoint, would likely contradict you. There wouldn’t be a torrent of additional information to come. You’d just have to deal with the one or two facts that destroyed your opinion.

    Ignorance could be shattered easily back in the day. Now ignorance can be nurtured and protected.

    Now pile on the politicization of everything. In politics you don’t need to be right, you just need to be convincing. Winning is paramount. Facts are deployed in aid of winning, not in aid of truth or wisdom. Might makes right, remember?

  29. Matthew Saunders

    Chris,

    how many people actually think? How many people are actually aware of, say, their role in the creation of the colour green in grass, or in the creation of meaning in the newspaper that they read? How many people understand the mechanisms and processes involved with thoughts and feelings and ideas?

    How many people actually pay attention?

    To be able to look at something like the internet or the current money system or the Bible and understand that it isn’t something uncreated like gravity but created by people with rules/habits for a purpose.

    We’re doing something amazing, we’re birthing a true global civilization, one where people can’t be ignorant anymore.

    I think it is good that we are having all of these opinions. It is HEALTHY, we are just entering an age (thanks to the internet and other thangs) where we GET to do that. Whereas before, we had the ONE WORLDVIEW thang (just take a look at most countries — they are built around one religion and a few racial groups — then take a look at the USA…the USA isn’t a country, so to speak…) Just look at how even a fringe news story can get heard around the world in more-or-less real time; I’m thinking here of the Terry Jones thang. It is an exciting time to be alive right now.

  30. Johnny

    The seminal event in the “crossing of the rubicon” was the extremely successful “Bush lied, people died” campaign by the Democratic party in the mid 2000’s. Everyone knew in 2002/2003 that the Democratic leadership had exactly the same CIA and military intelligence that the administration had. Kennedy, Clinton, Gore, Edwards, Kerry and the New York Times all were ferocious advocates of war with Iraq. Bush, despite not needing to, sought and received (overwhelmingly) Congressional approval for the wars.

    Faced with the fact that they were complicit in a war that wasn’t going well, Democrats decided to overturn reality and state that Bush had somehow deceived them. In broad daylight. The “BLPD” lie was born, raised in the Internet echo-chamber, and it lives today.

    BLPD has been extremely successful in rewriting history in the minds of those who don’t bother questioning it. It is so big a lie that today’s manufactured facts seem trivial by comparison.

  31. Sorbet

    OMG!! Johnny you’re so right, that was a lie that would have made the big G from the 40s so proud!!

  32. I think 19 and 20 have it spot on. Extremely well-said. The decline of a country’s star begins when its elected officials stop caring about real problems and the country’s long-term interests and start worrying only about short-term self-interests and a desperate wish to remain a superpower. There was a time when this country (both the government and the private sector) used to plan fifty, sixty years ahead and used to worry about future generations. That’s no longer true. Addiction to cheap Chinese products and oil, decimation of the workforce by outsourcing, inattention to environmental problems, dramatically declining investment in education and scientific research, a desire- as 19 said- to be the best and biggest at any cost (even if it does much more and possibly permanent harm than good) and relentless consumerism are only some symptoms of this death wish. I think it started with the Republicans in the 80s under Reagan and was further orchestrated by Bush and his lackeys (especially the nation-building part) but the disease has definitely affected the entire American political establishment and society as a whole.

  33. Matt

    Truth is subjective and based on the individual’s own framework of reality. Some of what makes up the truth is verifiable, some is not, and the rest is interpretation. If you want to blame the Internet or the GOP for the fact that other people do not always share the framework you do, go ahead.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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