The Power of Narrative
Some of the most widespread and pernicious forms of untruth come in the form of stories. Urban legends (or ‘myths’), fake news and conspiracy theories have a story structure.
An old favourite horror legend tells of a young couple making out in their car at a lonely place. They hear a noise outside and the man goes to investigate. While he is gone, his girlfriend turns on the car radio to hear a news bulletin that a dangerous maniac has escaped from the local asylum. The boyfriend does not return and the girl become very frightened. Suddenly, she hears a thumping noise on the roof of the car – ‘thump, thump, hump. Terrified, she screws up her courage, opens the door and gets out to see what is causing the noise. Squatting on the roof of the car is the grinning maniac holding the bloodied head of her boyfriend and banging it on the car roof – ‘thump, thump, thump. A favourite among teenagers, this modern legend was always told as a true story and gave nightmares to generations. It might still do so.
Conspiracy theories also have a story structure. The QAnon delusion is that a network of Satanic paedophilic cannibals is running a global sex trafficking network. President Trump is waging a desperate, covert war against the shadowy figure of ‘Q’ who heads the network. This story, or one of its versions, is worthy of a superhero movie, possibly in production as I write. It is a complete fiction, of course, but very many Americans, and possibly others, believe it to be true.
Stories like these are told as truth by someone, or ones, the hearer knows, whether personally and face-to-face or through social media. This certifies the claims in the stories as credible through the curious human tendency to believe what we are personally told.
These stories fill an information gap, answer questions, solve a mystery etc., satisfying the human absence of knowing, something we have found unbearable throughout history and probably long before. We must have information, explanation, something, no matter how unverifiable and incredible.
The End of Experts
In the past (before the WWW), it was possible for fake news and other misinformation to be rebutted by those with authoritative credibility – scientists, academics, politicians (some, at least). With the growth of doubt and the demotion of ‘experts’ to simply wielders of another opinion, this is no longer possible. Now, one opinion is as good, or bad, as another, no matter whether it is informed or not.
Paradoxically, greater access to tertiary education since the 1960s has demystified them. Professors are no longer rarefied geniuses pronouncing on their subject from afar as unchallengeable experts. Wafter spending lots of face to face time learning with them, we know they are just the same as the rest of us. While this is good form an equalitarian perspective, it has contributed to the undermining of experts.
The growth of the WWW dimension of the internet, particularly that part of it called ‘social media’, has been the single most damaging element in this decline of truth. The sludge that makes up conspiracy theories, urban myth and fake news and the like was always present in society. But individuals only heard, and repeated, it through their limited oral networks, limiting the damage.
Social media, by contrast, expands everyone’s networks, amplifies what is said on and through them, as well as diffusing it instantaneously around the globe. The ability of social media to mimic the intimacy we all associate with personal, face-to-face interaction is a major element in the spread of misinformation.
To some extent, what is often referred to as ‘information overload’ is a part of the problem. As we have all become increasingly inundated with information through innumerable channels, our ability to screen it, verify or even absorb it has plummeted. Now, we all search for the quickest and shortest scrap of information we can find. Twitter, with its 140-character limit, is the ideal medium to satisfy this need.
The mainstream, mostly commercial, media of press, TV and radio has had a paradoxical role in all this. On the one hand, journalists and some organisations have honoured their ethics and traditions in battling lies, half-truths, dodgy statistics and so on. The emergence of fact checking organisations, sometimes linked with universities, is symptomatic of the desperate need to control the flow of misinformation.
On the opposite side of the ledger, we have seen the rise of ‘shock jocks’ and similar thunderers, usually employed by right-leaning media, belligerently trumpeting fake news and generally playing to the prejudices of their audiences. This has come at the expense of respect for credible, informed opinion and comment, as the possessors of such knowledge are execrated as ‘experts’ who have somehow come to be unreliable, biased or simply wrong because the shock jock, somehow, knows better.
Altogether, these powerful, intertwining forces have produced an information environment where lies rule and verifiable, evidenced facts are dead. The most dramatic demonstration of this process, and its consequences, has been in the United States of America over the last four years. It seems that more than seventy million Americans believe the demonstrable lies about the Presidential elections of 2020, as well as a bubbling brew of conspiracy theories, fake news and simple lies. The end result was the storming of America’s Capitol in January 2021 by thousands of such people, some armed and apparently determined to do harm to their democratically elected representatives.
Incredible scenes, yes, but the result of widespread credulity created by the appearance of truth.