I’m entirely certain you’re well-acquainted with the idea that “media bubbles” are a big problem right now, effecting disinformation and perverting ideology and generally destroying society in an orgy of postmodern technological mediation. Certainly, there is cause for concern; unlike in the past, when everyone had complete correct information that they used to make fully rational decisions, nowadays humans have somehow become closed-minded and parochial. The figure of the barely-informed loudmouth shouting his kneejerk opinions into the public square represents a truly new development in history. And now that bad things are happening in politics, which has never been the case before, it’s clear that something must have gone horribly wrong.
No, okay, so I’m super annoyed about all the hyperventilation, there’s nothing more obnoxious than small-minded arguments against small-mindedness, but there’s also a real issue here. The internet certainly is generating a world-historical amount of garbage data, and political polarization really has increased to an extreme degree. The fundamental dynamic at issue here is what pretentious people like to call “epistemic closure.” When one’s sources of information or methods for evaluating it are limited in some fundamental way, certain areas of knowledge become inaccessible – or, worse, only accessible in the wrong way, such that the formation of inaccurate ideas comes to be considered true knowledge. Fox News will never give a sympathetic hearing to an idea like universal single-payer health care, so if that’s where all your information comes from, you can never develop an informed opinion on this topic. It’s important to realize that this is an absolute constraint; it’s not that it becomes harder to get to the truth, it’s that it becomes impossible. This is the double-edge of the Enlightenment ideal: since there’s no such thing as divine wisdom or whatever, you cannot form correct ideas without accurate and comprehensive information, regardless of how smart or conscientious or committed you are.
Now, one of the few positive results of the 2016 election is that no one is any longer laboring under the delusion that there’s any kind of “unbiased” source that can be relied on for complete information. “Traditional” news sources simply represent one particular set of biases. There’s plenty of issues on which they’re incapable of informing you. Most obviously, an enforced centrist perspective will fail to understand a situation where the “center” is falling apart and all new growth is happening on the “extremes” (that is, it will understand the situation incorrectly, as a “breakdown of communication” or a “legitimacy crisis” or whatever). So the popular response to this is the idea of a “balanced media diet.” The worry is that the internet allows and/or forces people to self-sort into ever more polarized communities, so you have to make the effort to seek out sources that oppose your existing beliefs. The villains then become “algorithms” that deliver pre-polarized information, or “cult-like” communities that suppress dissent.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The most important source of epistemic closure is our finitude as physical beings. Simply put, there are only so many hours each day you can spend reading shit, so it’s more than a little odd to argue that people should be spending more of said hours reading things they believe to be more wrong. If you could really read everything, and also spend the requisite time to analyze and distill it all, then sure, that would solve the problem. In reality, though, you have to choose what you’re going to care about, and any choice you make is going to define a particular horizon. If you’re a feminist, for example, you could spend half of your time reading feminist sources and the other half reading anti-feminist sources, and this would give you a “balanced” perspective, in the sense that you’d understand what’s going on on both sides. But this understanding will necessarily be shallower than the one you’d get by focusing your time on one side; you’ll miss deeper arguments and distinctions and internal diversity. For one thing, you might come to believe that there are only “two sides,” which is not the case. Anyone who knows a second thing about feminism knows that its herstory is coated with blood spilled by many thousands of vicious internal disagreements. One way to get over feminist dogmatism is to read more anti-feminism, but an equally effective option is to read more feminism. There isn’t one choice that “works” and one choice that doesn’t. There are different choices that have different effects. Some bubbles are bigger than others, but you can’t not be in a bubble.
This is why blaming the internet or “algorithms” or whatever misses the mark. Like, I don’t enjoy defending tech assholes, but they really just aren’t relevant to this situation. There is a sort of consumer rights issue here; people should be able to find out how their feeds and things are being customized and change them if they want to. But arguing that search results should be more “responsible” is arguing the opposite: it’s arguing for non-transparent corporations to have more control over what people read. I mean, it’s pretty obvious that most people talking about this are only thinking things through from their side. They see lots of “bad” articles floating around, and they feel like “someone should do something,” so they imagine that Google can somehow code social responsibility for them. Practically speaking, though, you can’t make that kind of a distinction in general.1 “Misinformation” is a value judgment made by the end user. If you write an algorithm that adds more articles about global warming to the feeds of denialists, that same algorithm will necessarily also add more denialist articles to the feeds of people who believe in global warming. You can’t have it both ways. Rather, trying to have it both ways is exactly how things get fucked up. Someone at the New York Times gets it into their head that they have a “liberal bias” that needs to be corrected, so they hire an Islamophobic global warming denialist to write opinion columns. Problem solved.
People want to read things that accord with their beliefs, and – this is the important part – they have good reasons for doing so. The reason feminists, for example, disprefer reading misogynist diatribes isn’t because they’re offended or whatever, it’s because they believe feminism to be true, and they’re obviously more interested in reading things that are probably true than things that are probably false.
You don’t just automatically start understanding things once you’ve read broadly enough. You have to process the information, and how you do that – and why you’re doing it – is going to affect what conclusions you end up with. Like, there is a problem with certain types of feminists spending all of their time yelling at Bad Things and not actually developing their ideas. But if you’re one of these people, and you decide to “broaden your media diet,” all that’s going to happen is that you’re going to find more things to yell at. It’s going to strengthen your existing biases, and that’s going to happen regardless of what it is that you’re reading, and the reason for this is because it’s what you want. This isn’t even a bad thing, because the only way this is not the case is if you lack the ability to critically analyze information, which is, um, a somewhat worse situation to be in. If your goal is just to avoid being wrong, then you might as well not read anything. But if your reason for reading things and drawing conclusions is to do something with the information, then you can’t just wait around until you’re “sure,” because that’s never. In order to actually get somewhere, you have to take a stand somewhere and start moving, which will necessitate rejecting opposing ideas. Breathing underwater requires a bubble.
I’m not just applying this to my own side, either. The fact that people believe all kinds of weird conspiracy theories about the Clintons makes perfect sense, because the Clintons really are classic amoral political schemers, so if you’re opposed to them, it’s more accurate than not to assume that they’re up to some shady shit. Besides, liberals believe whatever nonsense people come up with about Trump, too. It’s the same thing. This is the normal way human communication works.
It does remain the case that the normal way human communication works is badly, and that real lies have real consequences. If you believe that Planned Parenthood is literally dismembering infants and selling their body parts to, uh, somebody (I’m not deep enough into this to know whence the nationwide demand for baby torsos supposedly originates), your advocacy on the subject is going to be somewhat more zealous. But learning the actual fact that only X% of Planned Parenthood’s expenditures go towards abortion-related services doesn’t change the moral calculus of the situation. If abortion is evil, then a little bit of it is still evil. It’s certainly worthwhile to correct lies, but you can’t fact-check your way around morality. If abortion is actually moral, then Planned Parenthood’s particular operating details don’t matter. An organization that spent 100% of its funds on abortion and sold the remains for ice cream money would be a moral organization. Focusing on the nuts and bolts here means dodging the real issue, and this is generally the case in political discussions. Even if Clinton really did use her secret email server to help the Illuminati plan Benghazi, the actual question at hand remains which policies we prefer to advance as a society. In general, misinformation does not add a unique problem to our existing difficulties in figuring out how to talk to each other. It makes things worse, but it’s not itself a crisis.
What is a crisis is when these sorts of discussions become impossible, when an enforced “healthy diet” drains the flavor from the world. When you’re stuck reading nothing but “respectable” media sources, that’s when you have a real problem, and extremism is the solution to that problem. It’s what makes new things possible. Which means that, yes, even the recent explosive growth of rightist extremism has to be understood as a positive development. InfoWars may be maximally false, but if you don’t have InfoWars, you also don’t have the truth. The fact that people have these beliefs is a bad thing, of course, but given that they do, it’s better for them to be out in the open. I mean, their agenda hasn’t actually changed, right? Reagan talked pretty on the TV, but his whole cut-services-and-fellate-corporations deal was exactly the same thing as what the current government’s up to right now. People lately have been praising Bush Jr. for talking nice about Islam, but he was doing this at the same time that his administration was turning Muslims into America’s new Great Civilizational Enemy; Trump is just picking up where he left off. Those situations were worse than the one we’re in now – rather, those situations are why we’re now in our current situation – because there was more obfuscatory rhetoric that had to be disentangled before you could get at what was really going on. This is now less of a problem; we’re getting closer to the point where people actually know what the stakes are.
It’s comforting to imagine that there’s a “middle ground” where we can all get along peaceably, but there’s not. Extremism doesn’t create disagreements, it reveals the disagreements that were already there, because people have real disagreements. Pretending this is not the case prevents anything worthwhile from ever happening. We don’t want a society where there’s “reasonable debate” about sexism, where half the time the Hyde Amendment is in place and half the time it isn’t. We want a society where sexism doesn’t exist. We want everyone trapped inside the feminism bubble, permanently.
This is the truth that must be acknowledged. All the things that people are so concerned about these days – political polarization, ideological extremism, the speed and diversity of information, the dethronement of traditionally respected sources of various kinds of authority – are the things that are, in spite of everything, going well. There’s no way to “fix” this, because it’s not broken. What was broken was the “end of history” bullshit that convinced people there were no fights left to be had, and that situation is now better. We are more confused now because we are closer to the truth – we have, in at least some sense, stopped lying. This is what has to happen. Getting the ocean without the roar of its many waters is not a real option. The real options are: retreat or advance.
- From a technical perspective, the reason this can’t work is that you have to write the code before you know what data it’s going to be run against, so you would have to be able to predict what information is going to be true or false before that information has actually been generated, meaning you can’t rely on the details of the information itself, meaning you can’t actually be making a real judgment as to whether it’s “disinformation” or not; you can only be relying on contextual coincidence. And if you try to get around this by using human intervention, all you’ve done is appointed an arbitrary, unaccountable person to act as an arbiter of truth, which is obviously several steps backwards. ↩