In 2004, I was 19, conservative, and a partisan for blogging in the then-raging bloggers vs journalists rivalry.
The incident that would eventually end Dan Rather’s career at CBS seemed to me the model of how bloggers would improve the news. A news organization is a relatively bounded thing with finite resources, even if it isn’t systematically biased. With the Internet, you only needed one person anywhere in the world with the skills or alertness (or both) to catch an error, and this could be communicated to everyone. It seemed obvious that this new, distributed feedback system would make news more accurate than ever before.
Moreover, it seemed obvious that there would be no place for the news organization in the new world. Who needed professional journalists when you had citizen journalists, with a wider range of qualifications? Foreign correspondents could be replaced by bridge bloggers, like Iraq the Model, who liveblogged the first free Iraqi elections.
I participated myself, rounding up blog posts and articles on the war, the economy, and the new media debate, and adding my own commentary. I imagined myself as a member of a new community which would eventually include varying contributions from most citizens in most countries of the world. Those contributions would add up to a well-oiled distributed feedback system that caught errors at a faster rate than they were made.
Time has not been kind to that vision.
In The Revolt of the Public, Martin Gurri (my father) argues that the corrosion of the legitimacy of the institutions of high modernity has been a long, gradual process. Its chief cause is an ideological imperative to overpromise combined with structures which by necessity underdeliver, leading to disenchantment. But this process was radically accelerated by the spread of the Internet and digital technologies.
Now, failure drives the narrative. Government is characterized chiefly by stories about police brutality, people gaming the welfare system, and the myriad of failures and cruelties that are unavoidable for the institutions of an imperfect world.
This dynamic, rather than the one I envisioned 13 years ago, has also played out in the media.
Rather than leading to more accuracy, the palpable errors that amateurs and alternative outlets found in mainstream media reports simply lead to an erosion of trust. Mainstream news outlets adapted to the new environment in a number of ways: by delivering content that could only exist in a digital format, by hiring popular bloggers, by developing “blog sections” distinctly from the main sections of the site. But they continued to make errors, and to present a partial perspective. Of course.
Meanwhile, the dynamic I participated in over a decade ago grew into a big ecosystem of bloggers and social media personalities who called out every example of a clear error and slanted reporting. Over time, their audience grew to mistrust the (error-riddled, biased) mainstream media and trust the online critics instead. However, it is not as though these people were error free or unbiased. They often proudly touted their political preferences, considering it more honest than the objective style of journalist writing which is no more than a sham. And they made mistakes, because everyone makes mistakes. So communities and network clusters grew and splintered further, as new upstarts made trouble for bloggers who had began as upstarts themselves.
There is more to this, of course. I have been speaking as if detecting errors or bias are straightforward things. But all of these require judgment, including the judgment of when to trust other people’s judgment (deference to an authority on a subject). The Dan Rather episode is a case in point. The devastating demonstration by Charles Johnson that the documents must have been written in Microsoft Word, not a 70s-era typewriter, seemed like objective proof of their inauthenticity. But what do I know about 70s-era typewriters? Only what people like Johnson, and other bloggers, and other media outlets beyond CBS, told me at the time.
In other words, what seemed like a transparent act of recognizing a fact was instead a decision to extend my trust. I trusted that Johnson’s conclusion was correct, because I trusted that enough of the sources who agreed must know what they were talking about.
When we cease to trust that specific groups are acting in good faith, the question of error and bias becomes much more complicated. Set aside the mainstream media for a moment and consider only the internecine struggle among bloggers and social media personalities for audiences. A rival need not make an actual mistake to be found guilty of error or siding with an ideological enemy. Enough people simply need to believe it, or believe in the likelihood of it, for their trust to begin to erode.
On the flipside, a blogger can claim they are not in error and use the fact that it was called an error in order to damage the credibility of his accuser. Each side can erode the trust of some of the other’s audience, and win or keep the trust of some as well.
The result is not a convergence towards a lower rate of errors and less overall partiality. Instead, you get a rapidly multiplying plurality of partial perspectives with their own blindsides. It adds up as much to an increase in sources of error as an increase in sources of insight.
This situation presents plenty of arbitrage opportunities for con men.
I do not buy the narrative that we have entered a “post-truth” era. The very premise is ridiculous, a relic of stage theories of history. We were not in a “truth” era which we are now beyond. What we had was an era of relative—and I must emphasize relative—cultural homogeneity among the institutions which broadcast truth claims. And it was a broadcast culture, so the audience did not talk back. There were fewer sources of dissent, and so consensus was more easily achieved.
I am not going to go into how accurate or inaccurate the media was at that time. In my college blogging days, I had a very dim view on the matter. Now that I see where we’ve ended up, I’m of two minds. But one thing is certain: journalists, and the institutions behind them, were both fallible and partial. And the list of what they were partial towards included, at various times: eugenics, the Japanese internment, and totalitarian central planning. Whether or not they were better than what we’ve got, they were far from transparent windows into unblemished truth.
Meanwhile, the “fake news” phenomena, which I tend to think is overstated in its importance, is not a matter having moved us into a new post-truth era. It is no more than cynical profiteers exploiting the multiplication of blindspots I described above.
Which brings us to President Trump, inaugurated just two days ago. The man himself is, of course, the center of all claims made about a so-called post-truth era. But it strikes me as very strange to speak of historical discontinuity, or leaping into a new epoch, simply because we have a politician who lies. I’m not especially cynical when it comes to politics; I don’t think that most politicians, most of the time, lie as much as Trump or are as brash about it. But I try not to be naive, either. There is nothing new or novel about what Trump is doing, except that he is doing it in an environment where the public can talk back as never before.
13 years ago I believed that that necessarily meant a public that was more informed. I think time has shown how naively idealistic that was. Nevertheless, I do not think we’re faced with something fundamentally new here. We have elected liars before and will do so again. Voters will vote largely according to their party, and only a handful of sources will have enough credibility with them to persuade them that a lie has occurred. For the college educated who live in or near major cities, that still largely includes the old guard like The New York Times. For others, it does not.