Aug 12 2019

The Epstein Conspiracies

This was highly predictable. Of course there are conspiracies surrounding the apparent recent suicide of Jeffrey Epstein while in prison. That’s just background noise now. There are conspiracies about everything. Apparently the two shootings last weekend were false flag operations, because #conspiracies.

Just as predictably, news about the conspiracy theories, how they spread, and how they are treated by the media is itself news. And yes I get the irony that here I am blogging about it. It’s turtles all the way down. I guess in order to have something interesting to say I have to get one level more meta than everyone else – does that do it? Getting meta about being meta?

By now this phenomenon is old news. The traditional editorial filters are no longer in place. They have largely been replaced by algorithms which determine which news items are “trending.” This becomes a self-reinforcing feedback loop that allows the worst information to spread. Of course, this has always happened. Sensationalism and propaganda spread because they are interesting. They break up the mundane monotony of our lives. They are a real-life soap opera.

Jonathan Swift observed in 1710, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” There are also several versions of, “A Lie Can Travel Halfway Around the World While the Truth Is Putting On Its Shoes.” The source of this quote, often mistakingly attributed to Mark Twain, is unclear. The point is – the inherent advantage that false but sensational information has in the human mind over prosaic truth has long been observed. And that, of course, is the ultimate medium, the human mind. The external method of spreading false information is incidental to the core phenomenon, but it can influence the speed with which such information spreads and the credibility it is given.

So social media and the internet did not create this problem, but seem to exacerbate it. But far worse than the fact that Twitter was trending conspiracy theory hashtags, is that our president chose to retweet one particularly silly conspiracy involving the Clintons. Again, no one is shocked by this. Such behavior has become normalized. Imagine the scandal this would have produced even a few years ago.

Which I think gets to the real problem and why people feel like times have changed and we are facing some new kind of threat to public discourse. It’s not social media per se, I feel there is a sense of unease stemming from the realization that there are no adults in charge. There never has been, in a way.

Yes, this is an oversimplification, but bear with me. What psychological research has revealed over the last century is that everyone, even mature-seeming adults, in many ways are still children, at least in the respect that we retain our basic motivations and biases from childhood. All of human frailty and vices persist to the grave. What changes as we mature is our frontal lobes, our executive function. This gives us a level of control over our behavior, not by eliminating all of our childish biases and motivations, but by literally suppressing them.

This suppression is just a more sophisticated calculation. That’s what executive function largely is – looking out for our own long-term strategic interests by suppressing our short term impulses. That executive function, in turn, is a finely tuned cultural and social instrument. What is often in our long term interests is what is socially acceptable. Humans are profoundly social creatures.

What this in turn means is that our behavior is largely determined by the culture, society, and institutions around us. This is not a new realization. It was essentially the theme of the book Lord of the Flies.

This is also not to say that humans are all savage beasts waiting to burst out, as many 19th century authors thought. People have good impulses also. We want to be kind, just, and generous. We are mostly all the heroes of our own narratives. I am not really talking about raping and pillaging. I am more talking about telling the truth, doing due diligence, being fair and charitable to those who disagree with you, not spreading misinformation because it’s gossipy, and that sort of thing – suppressing our tribal instincts for a higher cause.

That is what seems to be crumbling around us. The sense of unease (captured, by the way, in the HBO series Years and Years, which I recommend) stems from the realization that what many of us thought was normal moral and ethical behavior was not baked into our democracy, but was a very thin veneer. It’s nothing but a mutual agreement reinforced by “norms” and institutional behavior. What’s shocking is how vulnerable it all was to inflamed tribalism. Many people, it seems, are willing to give it all away for some short term partisan advantage.

This is not just about one person (if it were, we would not have a problem). But it is disturbing for our own president to represent the absolute worst of this phenomenon – retweeting a rank conspiracy theory because it seems to support his team.

For some reason that scene from 2001 where the two tribes of protohumans are fighting over the water hole comes to mind.



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