The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread
By Cailin O’Connor & James Owen Weatherall
Yale University Press, 2019
Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall are both professors of logic and philosophy of science at the University of California, Irvine, and in their new book, The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread, they only need three pages to mention Donald Trump. This is objectively depressing, but at least the authors wait a couple-dozen pages before they even gesture at one infamous specific: then-press secretary Sean Spicer’s belligerent claim at his very first press conference that Trump’s inauguration had been attended by record-breaking numbers despite the clear photographic record that this was a lie. Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway debuted the term “alternative facts” to establish the difference between observable reality and a parallel Trump-reality, and as our authors discuss, a study done of Sean Spicer’s lie indicated that a great many of those followers, when presented with clear photographic evidence, deliberately decided to believe the lie over their own eyes, in many cases because they knew other Trump followers likewise believed it. This is called “conformity bias,” and it has grown to such enormous proportions in the ensuing two years that it could almost literally be said that Trump followers actually live in that parallel Trump-reality, where they see something with their own eyes … and then wait patiently to learn whether or not it really happened and what they should think about it.
“We live in an age of misinformation - an age of spin, marketing, and downright lies,” The Misinformation Age tells its readers. “Of course, lying is hardly new, but the deliberate propagation of false or misleading information has exploded in the past century, driven both by new technologies for disseminating information - radio, television, the internet - and by the increased sophistication of those who would mislead us.”
For a book of 200 pages, The Misinformation Age covers a great deal of territory, from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and smallpox inoculation to “Pizzagate” to WikiLeaks and the rapid ideological polarization of the United States in recent years. The study concentrates in large part on the systems professional science has in place to stop the propagation of misinformation, mainly because, as our authors put it, “Science can be thought of as an extreme case of something we are all trying to do in our daily lives.”
But there’s no way for a book like this to stray far from Donald Trump, because Donald Trump, the President of the United States, is currently the most powerful and most prolific single source of misinformation anywhere in the world. His penchant for misinformation has reached a level of self-indulgence so extravagant that he now literally never speaks on any public occasion for any length of time without saying not only falsehoods - things he believes even though they’re wrong - but outright lies - things he knows are wrong. Millions of people - in America and around the world - believe those falsehoods and lies and further propagate them. O’Connor and Weatherall join the ranks of journalists and historians who churn out canned histories of the role of “fake news” in America in the last two centuries, and their own such summary is smart and readable.
But such summaries attempt to normalize the present by contextualizing it in the past; this is itself an attempt at creating fake news. This in itself is misinformation. There is no analog anywhere in post-Civil War America for the gushing font of frenzied, compulsive lying now being done every single day by the President of the United States, and a third of the country has declared that it trusts all of those lies more implicitly than if they had come from Jesus Christ. If those people get a $500 government paycheck and Trump tells them the check is actually for $800, they will look down at that same paycheck and say, “This is a check for $800.” If the bank only gives them $500 for it, they won’t suddenly blink hard and say, “Oh my God, this check really is for $500.” Instead, they’ll instantly complain that the bank is run by Democrats who voted for Hillary Clinton. They will look at the number 500 and believe they are seeing the number 800. There is no parallel for that in American history. The authors clearly want to ground the whole concept in a broader setting, but this is like the Fire Department rushing to a roaring inferno and beginning their rescue attempts with a 40-minute PowerPoint presentation on the history of house fires in America.
O’Connor and Weatherall then take things one amazing step further, asking “is it time to reimagine democracy?” They go on:
We do not mean to express skepticism about the ideals of a democratic society - properly construed … But we do think that the political situation among Western democracies suggests that the institutions that have served us well - institutions such as a free and independent press, publicly funded education and scientific research, the selection of leaders and legislators via free elections, individual civil rights and liberties - may no longer be adequate to the goal of realizing democratic ideals.
This is downright bizarre. The institutions of Western democracy - the free press, scientific awareness, legitimate elections, civil rights - do not need reimagining simply because a septuagenarian sociopath who lost the last US Presidential election by 3 million votes is temporarily in the Oval Office conducting unremitting warfare on the free press, scientific awareness, legitimate elections, and civil rights. If Twitter had cancelled Donald Trump’s account in 2016, if there had been no crazed all-caps tweets at 3 in the morning for the last two years, neither O’Connor nor Weatherall nor any other historian or commentator would be suggesting that Western democracy as we know it needs an overhaul. One item, precisely one item on the authors’ list needs to be changed in order to improve almost completely the picture they report. Here’s hoping they write a follow-up in 2024.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.