There’s been plenty written about post-truth in the wake of last year’s presidential election, but reading commentary that doesn’t suffer from obvious blind spots is rare. While our culture is growing increasingly self-aware of its own confusion over political and scientific realities, the finger-pointing which surrounds the subject usually lacks historical dimension. Social media bubbles, the news cycle, and political mass psychology all play roles in perpetuating post-truth, but they are not its origins. The rise in populist skeptical thought is a phenomena that official historical accounts struggle to capture because decentering shifts in political consciousness grow silently, like diseases with long incubation periods. What causes a society to become skeptical in a moment of hyper-connectivity and technological power? Technological interconnection, social complexity, and a lack of clarity are all sides of the same triangle. The contemporary-Western-internet-hooked-subject has access to technical procedures which exceed and thwart facticity as much as they complement it. The technology that was supposed to clarify and spread human knowledge has instead undermined it.
While institutions leave people depoliticized and uprooted from their social power, the individual does have the means to create their own political context independent of central authority. The internet offers a well-stocked shopping mall of political ideologies, life-philosophies, and other frameworks for deriving meaning. The tools to construct a center-right, center-left, alt-right, radical left, anarcho-primitivist, Christian Scientist, Western Buddhist, vegan, libertarian, or nihilist worldview are freely available. The kaleidoscopic growth of lenses for understanding the world has happened in tandem with the technological revolution in part because increased reliance on technology distances individuals from the facts they use to generate opinions. A weird thing about living in the 21st century is that beyond the basics of navigating the world around us, most judgments we make are the result of evidence several times removed from its actual source. For the preindustrial individual, a political outlook might be formed by someone waving a weapon or a bag of food in front of their face. Today’s worldviews are shaped more often by media than anything witnessed firsthand. As the technologies we rely on grow in complexity, the outsourcing of judgment from the human mind deepens the possibility of philosophically skeptical attitudes about external reality. I’m not arguing that there are more people walking around who are actual, hard-line, “nothing-exists” skeptics about reality, but rather that it lurks threateningly in the background, surfacing through trends like ironic and post-ironic culture, the marketization of belief systems, and deep political apathy.
Skepticism isn’t an option among beliefs—instead, it’s the absence of any belief, swirling around and eating away at the foundation like a caustic wind. Nobody chooses skepticism. As the gap between human and technological judgment widens asymptotically, an irrational faith in the powers of our own agency—conspiratorial thought—presents itself as a dire alternative. The allure of conspiracy lies in its comfortable assurance that you will discover the truth with your own eyes. Enlightenment ideas of humanism and reason emerge once again from their slumber as parodies of themselves. In a nebulous, vibrating mass of confused information, you trace your own route. That’s the heart of the conspiratorial mindset.
Scanning through forums and watching YouTube videos late into the night are common methodologies through which a conspiratorial worldview is constructed. They’re of a certain style of handling information—synthesis through frantic traversal—which the Internet encourages. If you take a look back at pre-digital objects though, especially those that date right to the cusp of the internet’s popularization, you can see glimmers of that frenzied autodidacticism.
I have a theory about DK EyeWitness books, a series that millennials who had access to American elementary school libraries will likely be familiar with. It’s not an exaggeration to say that these slim, hardbacked volumes forever changed the world of children’s nonfiction publishing. Prior to the late 1980s (when EyeWitness first appeared on the scene) most nonfiction books on generic academic topics like Egypt, the human brain, or dinosaurs were filled with pages of type and small, gray images. Dorling Kindersley did something unprecedented, introducing networked spreads of bite-sized text and glossy, full-color imagery. The name “EyeWitness” itself is a bold claim of verisimilitude, that the books represented the closest thing to apprehending pyramids, velociraptors, or the inner-workings of the mind with your own eyes.
My theory is that the same kids who had their noses buried in DK Books are now creating and disseminating images like this.
If a single unit of information (like a photograph or a text clipping) can no longer exist on its own, an important way of raising its credibility is to present it as a piece of a larger pattern. It’s true that traditionally linear and hierarchical methods will present units of information as pieces of a larger story. But even the idea of a narrative can draw suspicion; it's better to present things in a manner where the subject has a greater degree of autonomy over their traversal of the information, and the ability to apprehend it all at once as a series of interconnections. The visual narrative of DK EyeWitness books and conspiracy memes is: we have no narrative, here are some facts, use your own eyes to connect the dots. For the conspiracy theorist everything exists as a plot point in a larger story that is unravelable. The way that story is put together, however, must be by means of individual agency. The flash of revelation—the sudden falling together of all pieces—can’t happen unless you arrived at it yourself.
There’s an idea that technology turns the world around us into a standing reserve, as in modern industrial production, where a forest becomes little more than a store of future toilet paper. Social media apps which facilitate the sharing of ephemeral life experiences—Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter—turn our everyday lived experience into a kind of standing reserve. Each pleasant, funny, or poignant moment is subject to the gaze of an invisible audience. Even if you don’t put an image on your story, you’re still left considering how many likes it could garner.
The most direct problem with experiencing your life among an audience is that it increases the amount of perceived social pressure around you. Among things that might be hallucinated, social pressure is one of the most insidious; unlike hallucinations of sight, touch, or sound, we have no means of apprehending it through any single sensory organ. For the contemporary individual, the social must be conceived as a constellation-like pattern among points of evidence.
It’s rare that you get to know someone through social media by talking to them. Usually, you’re sorting through scattered pieces of media: likes, comments, photographs. Just as a conspiracy theorist assembles a worldview by drawing assumptions from media artifacts, the social media user gains an understanding of their peer by guessing at the life implied by posts and a profile. A user’s social status or personality can be ascertained by the quick scan of a well-trained pair of eyes. People have learned to do this over time, but it also became easier as the nature of identity on the web shifted.
In the late ’90s and early 2000s, the public internet was much more anonymous. The cryptic usernames which have lately reemerged on social media in ironic pastiche—titles like “Hunter2,” “born1986,” or “JHawk111420”—were employed as a form of disguise for a reason. Chatrooms and messageboards were realms of escape from the everyday, and in the web’s early hacker culture, the cruelest punishment one could inflict was a “dox.” Short for “dropping documents,” doxing refers to the act of publically connecting somebody’s online persona to the facts of their real identity. For a geeky teenager on an IRC chatroom, the public announcement of your home address, full name, and parents’ phone numbers could lead to devastating consequences. Calls in the middle of the night threatening violence, countless undesired pizzas, even SWAT raids could ensue.
In today’s internet of verified Twitter accounts and livestreaming, doxing can only inflict damage if your internet persona deviates heavily from your IRL persona—unassuming suburbanites who happen to also be white nationalist bloggers, for instance—or if it contains the threat of violence lurking behind it. The deadliest dox I’m aware of happened on May 30, 2016 in a “Syria General” thread on 4chan’s politics board.
The thread began with a link to two new propaganda videos released by an unnamed, presumably Islamist group of Syrian rebels. The 4chan users on the thread, who lean heavily Assadist, immediately began searching for clues within the videos of the whereabouts of the rebel training camp. By identifying the make and model of an electrical transmission tower in the distance, one user was able to calculate its position relative to the camp with trigonometry. A likely candidate for the location was identified through Google Maps satellite imagery, and quickly confirmed through the correspondence of several other landmarks between the two perspectives. Another user direct messaged the coordinates to Ivan Sidorenko, a Syria news Twitter account with connections to the Russian Ministry of Defense. Within hours, the camp was demolished in a Russian airstrike, the rebels presumably killed.
This incident is as bizarre as it is chilling. We’re living in a world where the boundaries between people arguing over political ideologies on internet forums and people fighting over political ideologies in a war are dissolving. For anyone with violent enemies, the social media gaze has the power to kill.
In clinical psychology, there exists a behavioral tendency known as apophenia. Originally invented to describe one of the classic pathologies of schizophrenia, it refers to the hallucination of patterns among things that aren’t actually connected. For the apophenic, the world is soaked with meaning to such a degree that even the most trivial of perceptions can appear deeply auspicious.
It may not be surprising that computers fall victim to the exact same tendency. Machine learning algorithms often battle against a phenomenon known as “overfitting,” in which random patterns in noisy data become perceived as underlying relationships. The most severe technical consequence of overfitting is that an algorithm loses the ability to generalize anything beyond its training data. The most severe political consequence of overfitting is that a supposedly objective algorithm can become just a means of confirming the expectations of its designer.
The 2016 Machine Learning paper “Automated Inference on Criminality Using Face Images” made a media splash when its authors, Xialoin Wu of McMaster University and Xi Zhang of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, claimed that their algorithm had discovered associations between rates of criminality and certain facial features among a database of Chinese male mugshots. Strangely, the authors were surprised when people reacted with horror to the idea of an algorithm marking citizens as likely criminals based on the configuration of their facial landmarks. Similarly phrenologic practices are already commonplace in America, though. Algorithm-based methods for facial reconstruction from DNA are in common use in criminal justice circuits. Additionally, US state governments occasionally sentence people based on the risk assessments of so-called criminal justice algorithms; they include the Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions (COMPAS), Public Safety Assessment (PSA), and Level of Service Inventory Revised (LSI-R).
The 2014 paper “Using publically visible social media to build detailed forecasts of civil unrest” raised comparatively fewer eyebrows. In it, the authors present an algorithm and data mining system which was able to predict thousands of incidents of civil unrest in Latin America using information from Twitter and Tumblr. The algorithm was able to create accurate forecasts many days in advance, leading the authors to brag that “traditional assumptions” about reporting events only after they have occurred can now be relaxed. In the past five years, social media analytics software has been eagerly adopted by government, law enforcement, and political groups. You may be familiar with the company Geofeedia; the Baltimore Police Department used its facial recognition software to identify protesters with outstanding warrants in Instagram photos of the protests against Freddie Gray’s murder.
The Romans famously relied on augury—divination by bird—for decisions of state. We rely on the briefing. It took two dossiers and a Powerpoint presentation to launch the Coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003: the British September and February dossiers, and Colin Powell’s speech to the UN Security Council. All three briefings largely consisted of faulty connections drawn between dubious sources: fake documents alleging uranium transactions between Niger and Iraq, creative interpretations of satellite photos. Many other political developments of this century have transpired from the release of information packages. The Trump-Russia story, for instance, was born of a leaked dossier.
We’re accustomed to the idea of conspiracy as a strongly populist attitude. But what happens when its methods of thought filter upwards, and the people who are supposed to be behind the conspiracies are thinking like conspiracy theorists themselves? The nature of mid-21st century evidence is to foster a conspiratorial state of mind. As computers grow more adept at analyzing information, they become more adept at synthesizing information. The same statistical and algorithmic techniques used to understand data can be employed to fake data. The introduction of Adobe Photoshop completely eliminated the last remnants of photography's truth claim. Similarly, as techniques of data synthesis grow more sophisticated, information has greater difficulty convincing us of its integrity. In an ironic twist, our society's ability to survey the world with unprecedented detail has deepened its levels of doubt and confusion.
The only DK EyeWitness book I held on to was called Future, an introduction to futurology. About a third of the book is identifying societal trends from the year it was published (2000), the rest is full of predictions about the upcoming 21st century. Most of them are as hilariously optimistic as you’d expect: nanorobots cleaning our rooms, humans on Mars by 2014, underground cities. The only dire predictions are left for the bottom corner of the book’s final page, undated, as if the authors were afraid to get too specific. Right around “viruses become immune to all known treatments” and “international financial collapse,” the authors predict a “major information disruption.” Oddly prescient, I think, for a kid’s book.
ZAK ZIEBELL B/RISD ’19 is searching for an honest man.