People didn’t need to believe Trump, they just needed him to confirm that their decision to believe in nothing was right. A conspiracy theory isn’t about believing something — it’s about believing that what is in front of you is not the truth, not the reality. So a conspiracy theory is a bamboo scaffolding flexible enough to frame anything you like, so long as it fits your core suspicion that the world is not as it seems. Trump’s embrace of the Birther lie — one that 3/4 of Republicans, and ⅓ of Americans believe is true — enabled him, and therefore them — to reject Obama’s presidency as a fraud. As Anne Applebaum put it:
That third of Americans went on to become Trump’s base. Over four years, they continued to applaud him, no matter what he did, not because they necessarily believed everything he said, but often because they didn’t believe anything at all. If everything is a scam, who cares if the president is a serial liar? If all American politicians are corrupt, then so what if the president is too? If everyone has always broken the rules, then why can’t he do that too?
This is not dissimilar to the analysis presented by Adam Curtis in “HyperNormalisation“, which merits watching a few times. The title is taken from that grim fairyland of the Soviet Union:
The Soviet Union became a society where everyone knew that what their leaders said was not real because they could see with their own eyes that the economy was falling apart. But everybody had to play along and pretend that it WAS real because no-one could imagine any alternative. One Soviet writer called it “hypernormalisation”. You were so much a part of the system that it was impossible to see beyond it. The fakeness was hypernormal.
But Curtis realised it applied to a lot more than a decaying communist empire. Hypernormalisation had evolved to embrace Putin’s Russia, where opposing sides in the battle were being funded and directed by the same hand, and even Trump’s America. Curtis’ genius is to chart this path and see the common thread: leaders who could sell any version of reality they wanted. The situation now is in some ways the natural conclusion of his analysis — the documentary appeared in 2016, before Trump’s victory. Here’s how Curtis effectively concluded his screed:
But underneath the liberal disdain, both Donald Trump in America, and Vladislav Surkov in Russia, had realised the same thing – that the version of reality that politics presented was no longer believable, that the stories politicians told their people about the world had stopped making sense. And in the face of that, you could play with reality, constantly shifting and changing, and in the process, further undermine and weaken the old forms of power.
We have been constantly frustrated by Trump’s asserting lies as truth, by his accusing the other of crimes he has (instead) committed himself. This is a playbook as old as authoritarianism itself, but in the Information Age, we had hoped would be one that would be harder and harder to use. But a surplus of information is the same as a deficit; it is as hard to find needle in a haystack as it is in an empty field. Trump’s instinctive genius has been to pull out the rug of legitimacy from the presidency, and by exposing the holder of it as a fraud, cheapen it enough to turn the votes that fill it into junk as well. As Anne Applebaum says, he was throwing shade on fertile ground. The institutions had already ceased to matter for many Americans.
So Trump played with reality, and will continue to do so, because that is the hallmark of demagogues; charismatic leaders wrap themselves in the trappings of office, but those trappings, and those offices, are largely fictional affairs. More important for him, and all instinctive autocrats, is to ridicule all institutions — including those outside government, like the media — so there is no credible alternative. Part of the trick is to create momentum — or the illusion of it — by always shifting gear, always throwing sand in the eyes of opponents, to turn politicians, civil servants, generals into lickspittles, and — his own twist on it — to turn it into a reality show, where we’re always ‘waiting to see what will happen’. There is no finale, only more addictive dramatic tension.
We still don’t quite understand this. We still imagine there is some rational level upon which all this operates — Trump, his followers, Russia, Johnson, populism — and that that is where we fight our battles, with well-honed reason and rules-based politicking. But as Curtis has pointed out, the version of reality that conventional politics presented is no longer believable. This is not cynicism at work here, it’s the algorithm. As Curtis describes:
The liberals were outraged by Trump. But they expressed their anger in cyberspace, so it had no effect – because the algorithms made sure that they only spoke to people who already agreed with them. Instead, ironically, their waves of angry messages and tweets benefitted the large corporations who ran the social media platforms. One online analyst put it simply, “Angry people click more.” It meant that the radical fury that came like waves across the internet no longer had the power to change the world. Instead, it was becoming a fuel that was feeding the new systems of power and making them ever more powerful. But none of the liberals could possibly imagine that Donald Trump could ever win the nomination. It was just a giant pantomime.
This is old news now, and we are hoping that it will be addressed. After all Twitter and Facebook are being proactive about flagging and removing offensive content, even if it’s from the President of the United States, right? I can’t help thinking of horses and barn-doors and bolts. The issue is no longer trying to prevent misleading information from social media. Social media itself is, by definition, unfiltered information and so therefore misleading. If I watch a video on Youtube titled ‘Buffaloes Rescue Baby Elephant from Lions‘ am I sure what I’m seeing is that? Or Buffaloes Stop 2 Male Lions From Killing Another Lion? Is that really buffaloes protecting an elephant or a lion, or something else entirely? Just as likely, at least in the second case, is that the buffaloes want the lion for themselves. In the first case, it’s just as likely the buffaloes just want the lions out of there. But I have no way of knowing from the video, the caption or the comments. I’m no wiser at the end of it as I was at the start.
Social media, is by definition social, and so it’s unfortunately open ended, subject to discussion, trolling, misdirection and confusion. To extend what Curtis says, all this largely contextless ‘information’ merely feeds the new systems of power which rely on confusion, and a lack of respect — even contempt — for institutions.
When you believe your president should never have been elected president, then why should you have any respect for him, for the office, and for all the arms of government under his control? And now we are faced with the reverse image of this. Where Trump won the presidency by denigrating it as an institution and ridiculing all those who challenged him for it, so he will create a new fiction, as Applebaum explains:
Even if Trump is forced to make a grudging concession speech, even if Biden is sworn in as president on January 20, even if the Trump family is forced to pack its Louis Vuitton suitcases and flee to Mar-a-Lago, it is in Trump’s interest, and a part of the Republican Party’s interest, to maintain the fiction that the election was stolen. That’s because the same base, the base that distrusts American democracy, could still be extremely useful to Trump, as well as to the Republican Party, in years to come.
Trump, and those who may see political or financial profit, will plough this furrow for as long as they can. But there’s a worse outcome, and one that seems to be playing out as I write this. It’s one highlighted by Barton Gellman, and it’s entirely consistent with Adam Curtis’ portrayal of a world where nothing is as it seems.
The worst case, however, is not that Trump rejects the election outcome. The worst case is that he uses his power to prevent a decisive outcome against him. If Trump sheds all restraint, and if his Republican allies play the parts he assigns them, he could obstruct the emergence of a legally unambiguous victory for Biden in the Electoral College and then in Congress. He could prevent the formation of consensus about whether there is any outcome at all. He could seize on that uncertainty to hold on to power.
Now I’m not here to write a political screed. I’m here to focus on the technological aspects of this. All narratives which try to define the reality in front of us were, before the era of social media, largely in the hands of those with power — political, financial, or otherwise. By power, I mean the establishment. Most of the media is free — I know, I worked for it — but it has always hewed along the same grain as the establishment it reports on, and which it holds to account. The standards it adheres to, the rules it checks for abuses of, are agreed upon. When Woodstein took on Nixon, they were accusing him of breaking very specific laws and norms, ones that (nearly) everyone agreed on.
These did change over time, as Curtis shows, and sometimes the reality, the norms, seemed to crack, as if The Matrix was buckling. We can see them clearly in the rear-view mirror: the demonisation of regimes (and their rehabilitation, or the reverse): Gaddafi, Saddam, Noriega. And before them the Soviet Union, whose sudden collapse surprised everyone. As Curtis put it:
Reality became less and less of an important factor in American politics. It wasn’t what was real that was driving anything or the facts driving anything. It was how you could turn those facts or twist those facts or even make up the facts to make your opponent look bad. So, perception management became a device and the facts could be twisted. Anything could be anything. It becomes how can you manipulate the American people? And, in the process, reality becomes what? Reality becomes simply something to play with to achieve that end. Reality is not important in this context.
But now this warped reality is coming home. No longer is it about “over There”, it’s about Here. Trump, Giuliani, Barr, and now McConnell are all feeding a narrative that takes us into new territory: Americans are being persuaded to believe there was no clear outcome to the election. That is essentially doing away with democracy, replacing that flimsy but long-adhered to scaffold with another: the reality that not only does your vote not matter, but the count doesn’t matter either.
And the tools being used to forge that new uncertainty are largely online.
Steve Bannon’s call for Anthony Fauci to be beheaded was on Facebook for 10 hours. Only when journalists quizzed Facebook did it take down a group calling for members to ready their weapons should Trump lost his bid to stay in power. According to Reuters
Such rhetoric was not uncommon in the run-up to the election in Facebook Groups, a key booster of engagement for the world’s biggest social network, but it did not always get the same treatment.
A survey of U.S.-based Facebook Groups between September and October conducted by digital intelligence firm CounterAction at the request of Reuters found rhetoric with violent overtones in thousands of politically oriented public groups with millions of members.
Even Fox (admittedly for its own reasons) cut away from a White House press conference alleging voter fraud without any substantiation, while Facebook ran it unmediated. After being prompted Facebook added a closable label to it.
I’ve said it before: eventually social media must become media, in that it will have to police itself and content on it in the same way a media organisation does. But that day may be too late. Social media has been shown to be a clear and present danger to democracy. It is easily manipulated — by professionals like Putin, and demagogues like Trump — and can quickly subsume us. It’s not because it radicalises, although it can do that, but because it can breed a sort of existential despair, in which disinformation, misdirection and the hypernormalisation of ambiguity, uncertainty, and alternative facts.