Anti-elitism and the Internet are a problematic combination


It was relatively easy to spot the QAnon supporters in the crowd at Donald Trump’s August 2019 rally in New Hampshire, as they were generally decked out in Qs the way a college freshman is decked out in his school’s colors on game day. So I was able to button a few on the way back to their cars and learned, among other things, that it was them asked to turn their Q shirts inside out before entering the arena.

But it was a side issue that stuck with me, a 27-year-old guy defending the honor of the movement. He was completely confident in the accuracy and nobility of what he endorsed, he said, “as long as I did my own research.”

You can see how self-defeating this appeal to individual authority is right here. This is a guy who has accepted at least the broad outlines of a conspiracy theory that hypothesizes at its depths a satanic cabal of cannibalistic pedophiles who control American power. If your unshakable confidence in your own ability to assess credibility got you there, your confidence may be misplaced. And yet he was there, bringing this case up in that context.

That pervasive impulse, however, runs like a common thread through a number of controversies at the heart of American culture and politics — and, of course, through the still-rising death toll from the coronavirus pandemic.

Rugged individualism and unrestricted internet turns out to be a bad combination.

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Take Joe Rogan. By now you not only know the podcast host, but probably also his general type, the type who explains the topics of his speeches with enormous self-confidence, if not always. One of the better casual descriptions of Rogan was a Twitter user’s 2018 summary: “When I was a kid, you didn’t need Joe Rogan. Your best friend had a 27-year-old brother who… smoked weed in a room with black light posters and told you the Mayans invented cell phones.” Chill out, have fun, embrace the wilder explanations of how things work.

Rogan also conducts research live on his show. He interviews random people, often mavericks, who provide their own take on each topic. The point is often special to emphasize an outsider’s perspective, with Rogan often agreeing either broadly or in detail. This embrace of misleading nonsense and Suppliers of same triggered its current crisis.

Essentially, the theory driving Rogan, this QAnon guy, and so many others is that in a world without trusted experts, anyone can be a trusted expert. People like scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or doctors interviewed on mainstream cable news networks are treated with skepticism because what was once their crucial value – their recognized expertise – has now collapsed into the negative: they believe they just know better because they have some degree. The published research, the citations from others in your field, the years of familiarity with the subject—all of that was once distilled into “this is who they say you should be talking to.” But now the spirit of contrarianism attaches an “thus not.”

This is made possible by the fact that people can “do their own research”. A guy sitting at home can click on a few links and learn about alternate narratives for everyday, everyday events. Just as the internet allows those with an interest in underappreciated Japanese anime to find each other and form communities, it allows groups of self-proclaimed investigators to dig into everything from the Dating patterns of employees of furniture companies to kidnapping plots allegedly being carried out by powerful politicians. Sometimes the internet can enhance the effectiveness of an investigation, especially when they are tied to actual expertise. Sometimes it can amplify a downward spiral.

What makes this compelling is the sense of ownership of cracking the code. Rogan is useful here because he’s as transparent as it works. He’s looking for a more interesting angle on something that’s happening and exploring it with hot mics. It’s often persuasive — more persuasive than having real experts repeating the well-understood data behind vaccines and masks or whatever else is happening in the news. Just as it is more compelling for the QAnon devotee to believe that there is a massive global battle between good and evil going on behind the walls of the White House than just to think that the Trump administration has been quite a mess.

And of course anti-elitism. It is no coincidence that the QAnon movement overlapped heavily with Trump’s support base. Trump has widely lent credence to conspiracy theories as president, from allegations of voter fraud to theories about criminal migrants. But his political career was largely based on the idea that the elites would ruin America—that, moreover, they were fundamentally incompetent and shielded by their supposed credentials.

It probably is, as journalist Matt Yglesias recently did written downthat partisanship plays a role: university graduates are becoming increasingly politically liberal, which does not go unnoticed. Trump realized that he could personally benefit by turning his supporters against those who, because of their familiarity with process and research, tried to steer him towards reality. His feud with Anthony S. Fauci was driven by Trump’s desire to get people to act like the pandemic was over, but centered on the idea that he knew as much about the coronavirus as government experts who do been doing it for decades.

“Maybe I have a natural ability” to understand science, Trump said said at the CDC in early March 2020. Maybe we all do! After all, we have Google.

The confidence aspect of all of this wanders into some fuzzy territory, like hypermasculinity. Our ancestors built log cabins and hunted mountain lions and survived the flu and didn’t need a white-coated nerd to teach them how to live. You figured things out. It’s kind of natural, of course, that the opposite of “intellectual” would be “physical,” but it’s odd to see how that manifests itself very literally in a lot of it.

The internet is compounding the problem in another obvious way: there is no way to counterbalance the occasions when Trump or Rogan dish false information. For one thing, the size of the audience generally surpasses the critics. But more importantly, those who are listening are not listening to consider a point of view that they then compare to other sources. They listen because they are fans. Because they trust the information sources in the first place. Ironically, this is an appeal to expertise in a different way: Trump, Rogan, and others earned trust through an entirely different set of credentials, including mechanics like choral preaching and ego-stroking. This is how trust is placed in them.

Two decades ago, a researcher couple named David Dunning and Justin Kruger described a psychological effect where people who don’t know much about a subject cannot necessarily know how little they know about it. They described a pattern where people learning about a new topic quickly become confident in their familiarity with it before realizing that the topic is far broader than they originally understood. So as they learn more, their confidence dwindles – because they now know how little they know.

Dunning and Kruger’s original formulation overlapped with a young Internet, one without blogs and without social media. It would be hard to predict how easy it would be for people to learn just enough about a subject to reach that first pinnacle of ill-informed confidence — and then just stand there and take in the view. Standing there with thousands of other people, all congratulating each other on their expertise. Having one person climb dozens of peaks on different themes at once. Just standing there, confident.

And they got there all by themselves.

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