The Misinformation Train Leads To Conspiracy Brain

I am a misinformation agnostic. If you rewind things back to 2016 and watch as the Establishment tried to come to grips with the fact that Trump had won and Clinton had lost, you could see a lot of grasping at straws and desperate pretzel-bending to avoid the obvious: they ran a candidate with incredibly high negatives who ran a campaign that wasn't that great and lost by the skin of her teeth because the other guy wasn't exactly that awesome either.

That was obvious to me, but no, instead, it was social media. It was the Russian bots farms and the evil Facebook, it was... misinformation. The people, they didn't know. The people, they had been led astray. After a while, it became, the people, they're obviously racist and the whole Resistance Media Conglomerate just became increasingly clownish and impossible to take seriously. 

I was a big believer in individual agency. People have their own reasons for voting the way they do and very little of them were talked about in the media following 2016.*

COVID, of course, broke our collective brains and muddied my hypothesis up even more. But by and large, I tend to give people who throw around the word 'misinformation' some side-eye, because it's a label that's used to cover all manner of sins and hide all kinds of agendas that I may not agree with. But in the post-COVID landscape, a new phenomenon- which has always been present in body politics, but pre-internet was confined to mailing lists and self-produced newsletters on the fringe of the political spectrum- is riding the misinformation train straight down the rabbit hole to conspiracy brain.

The recent dust-up over Kate Middleton was a perfect example of this. Like many people, I got sucked in but I was mainly curious about what on Earth their PR people were doing. The initial statement ('planned abdominal surgery') should have been what they stuck with, but instead, they put out a photo that not just the internet but major international press organizations labeled as 'sus'. If there is one thing that annoys me, it's when people do their jobs badly. 

But of course, TikTok being TikTok and Twitter being Twitter, I got sucked in. Soon there were schools of thought emerging: she's negotiating her divorce, she's dead, William hit her, so she's getting facial reconstruction, one of the kids killed her and they don't know what to do and then Charles apparently died on St. Patrick's Day, but they couldn't announce it then because it would make Ireland too happy. I found myself agreeing with the 'Crohn's Disease' school of thought, as I wouldn't want people to see me all cut up, jammed up with 'roids and, to be blunt, shitting into a bag.

The internet waited with bated breath as rumors of a 'royal announcement' (Charles was abdicating, Charles was dying, Charles was dead- pick your rumor) and then I saw a TikTok from a lady who was very nice, very American, had a bad spray tan and the most American accent you can think of who was talking about her 'sources inside the BBC'. 

At that point, I put my phone down and went outside to touch the grass.

I mean, to be fair, that spray-tanned lady might have actually had sources inside the BBC, but it just snapped me right out of it. I needed to take a step back because logic and reason were no longer working. An ill-advised, badly touched-up photograph had taken what had been a gossipy bit of clickbait and turned into a conspiracy-brained lunatic asylum of a roller coaster. I mean, 'What if one of the kids killed her and they don't know what to do?' People were actually thinking these things out loud and saying them where other people could hear them?

It was disturbing to me just how quickly this exploded into realms of fan fiction and nonsense. But it also made me consider my own priors when it comes to misinformation. In 2016, TikTok had not been released internationally yet. The misinformation landscape (and man, do I hate typing those words out) supported my overall agnosticism on the notion. Now, it's estimated that 150 million Americans are on the app and spend up to 55 minutes a day on it.

You don't even have to view this through a political lens to be concerned at how easily this stuff can get into the discourse and infect the body politic. Whole books could be written on the Israel-Hamas conflict and just how much bullshit young people are absorbing about it- entirely from TikTok. But there's other stuff too: in the run-up to the eclipse, there was a strain of Rapture-predicting TikToks because the path of the 2017 eclipse and the 2024 eclipse intersected. Also, the hidden 10th Planet was going to become visible during the eclipse. Also, there's a secret government project about aliens-- I am not an expert on algorithms by any stretch of the imagination. But I have observed that if you watch a video or two about food, you'll see more videos about food. Same with cats, dogs, whatever- it's easy to get sucked into any given topic, and then, you find yourself on the internet saying things like 'SHE'S DEAD AND HE'S SOFT LAUNCHING HIS MISTRESS' and people are actually agreeing with you.

If we must use the very loaded term 'misinformation', let's say pre-2017, it was less of a problem and more of a group-hysteria-grasping for some kind of rationalization of the election results. Now, with TikTok being adopted so widely and penetrating so deeply into the American market, it's not a case of a lie traveling halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on-- it can now travel around the world fifty times and breed fifty more lies in turn so that when you actually get to the truth, either no one notices or no one cares.

This might be my most Boomer of takes, but at this point, I would not be averse to banning TikTok. At the very least, a forced divestment is a must. We can argue all we want about misinformation and what it might mean, but I am pretty convinced now that the 'misinformation train' leads straight to 'conspiracy brain' and we should be looking to get ourselves off this particular train at the next available stop.

(As a post-script: I don't understand America's fascination with the British Royal Family. I haven't checked with family across The Pond, but I would imagine the overall reaction was slightly more muted than the five-alarm dumpster fire on the internet. That said: divorce always seemed unlikely. If you go back and look at videos of Charles and Di prior to their divorce their body language is that of two people that do not want to be around each other. You don't get that sensation with Will and Kate. Throw that in with the fact that she waited ('Waity Katie') before putting a ring on it, you have to think that she's very aware of what she's marrying into. With the idea of abdominal surgery and so much of your public identity being predicated on looking like a Princess, I can understand the notion of going dark until you're ready to be seen in public again. Being a parent, I can also understand not wanting your kids to see you in a hospital bed all cut up and swollen post-surgery. And, while William is Heir to the Throne, I can understand wanting to cling to some semblance of normality for your family for as long you can. In retrospect, none of it made sense and while the Royal Family's PR operation looks like it desperately needs to join the 21st Century, its apparent ineptitude generated a metric ton of clicks for tabloids worldwide. They fed the beast. A family got to face some grave medical news in relative privacy. Everyone wins?)

*My big picture, poli-sci nerd hypothesis: it's NAFTA. NAFTA devastated a lot of the Rust Belt and life got harder and harder and all they got were platitudes and promises of new jobs. Obama came along in 2008 and hope and change resonated because they were getting screwed by 'business as usual'-- eight years of Obama and Wall Street getting bailed out in 2008 and these voters were fucking pissed. Trump said, 'Hey, fuck these people,' and they said, 'Damn right.' It's probably a bit more complex than that, but that's essentially what I think. Do I think it's 'the racism', no because you cannot convince me that counties that voted twice for Obama suddenly decided to flip to Trump because of racism? That makes no fucking sense and never has. And by the way, for all the sneering talk about the difficulties faced by  'the white working class' all of this also applies to the 'working class of color' by a factor of about three- at minimum. 


Popular posts from this blog

I Didn't Watch The State of The Union

Psephology Rocks: Holiday Grab Bag Edition

Tintin, Ranked