My husband has an excellent track record. When authorities were seeking two men from the Middle East for the Oklahoma City bombing, Andrew said, “It’s probably some White militia.” When I brushed off parental outrage about a gay teacher, he insisted on accompanying me to a PTA meeting that turned out to be standing room only and near-violent in its hysterical outpourings. He has red-flagged civil unrest in other countries before war was announced. Same with COVID mask resistance, which I had no idea would explode into a political…thing. He makes a good case for Jeffrey Epstein’s convenient death being a suicide both urged and enabled.
A pessimist trained in history and international relations, he has all of the past to draw on—the intrigues of empire and monarchy, the political upheavals in distant lands—and he sees with a more independent and jaundiced eye than I do. But when he suggested that Biden might have deliberately let classified documents be found in order to avoid the nightmare of prosecuting a former U.S. president, I looked at him sideways. Was he sliding into conspiracy bedlam? Granted, it would make a hell of a movie script. But seriously? Risk the embarrassment and take the heat off the man whose popularity endangers democracy?
I teased him about it. He held fast. Surreptitiously, I “did my research” on conspiracy thinking, just to be prepared. Is there something in the water? Because this mindset is suddenly as contagious as COVID itself. And as a recent article in The Atlantic points out, “The speed at which AI can generate high-quality disinformation will be overwhelming.”
So who is vulnerable, and why? Contagion would, in fact, be the first explanation. People who hear something that sounds smart and jump on the wagon just to be part of the select crowd with the gnostic answers. Then there are the injustice collectors and the solitary, brooding, anxious types. Another bit of research points to overconfidence, an unjustified cockiness about one’s own reasoning abilities. This probably starts with temperament, but holds far more appeal in a time that feels chaotic and uncertain. Conspiracies give “the illusion of control, i.e., the soothing effect of reassuring oneself that troubles do not happen at random, but rather in a meaningful order,” the researchers note. “Endorsement of conspiracies occurs when official narratives are experienced as deficient and lip-deep, while events are viewed as deceitful.”
My husband does grow impatient with idiocy and bullshit, but his usual style is more cautious than cocky, and he issues multiple caveats for any tentative speculation. I keep looking. Finally, in the always-brilliant musings of L.M. Sacasas, I find something that makes sense.
First, Sacasas dismisses our instinct to blame disinformation, because that reduces conspiracies to evil planters of fake data and gullible consumers who swallow it whole. The reality is far more complicated. The root of the problem is not so much evil information, he says, as overabundant information. Bits of data that fly at us before anyone has made sense of it.
“When you give people too much information,” Marshall McLuhan once said, “they instantly resort to pattern recognition.” And conspiracies pattern chaos.
Without some sort of theory, we have only “a loosely arranged set of data points, whose significance and meaning has not been baked into the form itself,” Sacasas writes. We have lost (or given up on) the compelling, comprehensive Narratives that used to order our world, because there are no institutions or individuals left that we trust with the broad cultural authority that presidents, journalists, and civic and church leaders once enjoyed. Instead, each of us has to hunt down or weave our own lower-case narratives.
Data floods in fast, and we pick and choose, curating competing realities. “Under these conditions, it is entirely possible for serious, educated people to arrive at disparate understandings of reality,” Sacasas notes. These understandings are—or should be—temporary, because the data keeps coming, revising our understanding. “We are all just pinning red string on the board to connect the data points,” unknotting it when it tangles.
“Any effort to make sense of a situation, to connect the dots, will seem to others making a different run through the Database (and perhaps even feel to us) not unlike conspiracy theorizing,” Sacasas adds. “We are all conspiracy theorizers now. We are all in the position of holding beliefs, however sure we may be of them, that some non-trivial portion of the population considers not just mistaken but preposterous and paranoid.”
The effort to understand is itself dividing us, in other words. Having all this available data does not wind up comforting us with insight but instead leaves us increasingly insecure, wary, and frustrated. “The inability to establish Narratives yields an experience of perpetual flux, unsettledness, instability,” Sacasas writes. “It amplifies a sense of disorder. Consequently, it can also yield the impulse to impose order by whatever means. Losing your Narrative is traumatic.”
Weirdly, not having data yields the same outcome, unsettling us and predisposing us to wild conclusions. Consider the lab leak theory of COVID-19’s origins. Four U.S. agencies blew it away, and now, in response to unspecified new intelligence, one of them, the U.S. Department of Energy, changed its mind and rated the lab leak more probable than natural origins. But only with “low confidence.” Meanwhile, more than one in three U.S. citizens nurture the suspicion that the Chinese government engineered the virus as a weapon, and another third think the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deliberately exaggerated the dangers of COVID-19 to undermine the president.
So there you go. We have several competing narratives from which to choose, and most of us have such negligible data and expertise that, honestly, the choice is a crapshoot. “Maybe this is just what happens when you’re trapped inside an information vacuum,” writes Daniel Engber in The Atlantic. “Any scrap of data that happens to float by will push you off in new directions.”
Decades ago, Hannah Arendt wrote of a “common world” that could only exist if “differences of position and the resulting variety of perspectives notwithstanding, everybody is always concerned with the same object.” Now the common world has exploded. “As our lives are increasingly shaped by the hyperpolarization of political communication and the online silos in and through which we interact with others,” Michael Weinman writes for The Hedgehog Review, “any activities that might otherwise have prompted us to enter and participate fully and freely in a shared civic realm have all but vanished.”
We have lost our common sense. Each of us is on our own, looking for conspiracies or their competing benign explanations. How cynical we are—and how rich and well-fed our imaginations are—will be a better predictor of where we end up than the raw data could ever be.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.