I decided to search for the term “post-truth” before I starting writing this entry, as I wanted to confirm that I was using the right language1. That took me to the Wikipedia page on the topic where I was a bit surprised to discover the term was coined over five years ago to describe a phenomenon whose consequences we’re only beginning to grasp today. And even then the term was describing something that, for years, we had all seen claw it’s way into the world, even if we couldn’t name it.

Facts. Truth. Reality. We used to collectively joke that the way you could tell someone was crazy or high was by whether or not they described the sky as blue. Today, it wouldn’t surprise me if there was some Telegram channel somewhere claiming the sky was actually red and that the United States was engaged in a massive psy-op to convince us otherwise2.

It feels like, in the last four or five years, the rate of erosion of our shared understanding of reality has only accelerated. The Internet has served as fertile ground for a rotten crop of lies and conspiracy theories, egged on by corrupt politicians who recognize the manipulative power of such things.

But deep down I think there’s something more fundamental going on: I think people find themselves frustrated and bewildered by a world we don’t understand, and so they’re looking for certainty and simplicity in an increasingly uncertain, complicated, and rapidly changing world.

And into that confusion has come misinformation peddlers and conspiracy theorists who’ve learned how to weaponize the Internet, allowing them to exploit the vulnerable for personal gain.

For a few years now, when making the drive from Edmonton to Calgary, I’ve spotted a roadside advertisement for a Flat Earth society.

It sounds crazy, but we now live in a world where some people reject the evidence of even their own experiments in order to hold on to the notion that the earth is, in fact, flat.

It’s hard to tell how much of this stuff is tongue-in-cheek and how much of it is serious3. But these types of groups consistently offer two things: certainty in an uncertain world, and community in an always-on world that feels increasingly and paradoxically disconnected.

Consider the effects of the pandemic.

The COVID pandemic is forcing us to confront a new kind of danger that most of us haven’t dealt with in our lifetimes. We’re having to grapple with increasingly complicated risks in a way that we’ve never had to consider before. And this is all exacerbated by the rapid pace of change in our understanding of the virus and associated risks, such that, on any given day, it’s virtually impossible to know what is and isn’t safe to do. This situation creates the impression that our sources of authority–scientists and political leaders–don’t know what they’re doing.

The reality is, of course, far more complicated than that. The fact is that science is messy. But, as I’ve mentioned previously, individuals are not normally exposed to that aspect of healthcare and medicine, and to an outsider it looks like utter chaos, when in fact it’s just the normal process as we rapidly tack toward truth.

The pandemic also has the effect of fraying our social connections by pushing is all apart, both literally, thanks to the need for lockdowns that limit social interaction, and figuratively, through polarization of the public sphere. Despite the ubiquity of the Internet and “social” media, the world has never felt more fragmentary and isolating.

Further, as a generation we’re being asked to deal with all of this after having faced the calamity of the great financial crisis, which exposed the shaky underpinnings of the world economy, and the polarizing presidency of Donald Trump, a public figure who treated lying as a matter of habit, a behaviour excused by many as in keeping with the behaviour of all politicians4, thereby both normalizing something that was far from normal while further chipping away at the bedrock of trust on which our institutions are built.

The upshot is that, in the last ten to fifteen years–the most formative years of the Millenial generation–we’ve seen events that have destroyed our confidence in both the financial and political systems that govern our lives. And now we face a once in a hundred year health crisis that hasn’t left a single corner of the world or aspect of our lives untouched.

Which brings us back to folks like the Flat Earthers.

In this scary, uncertain world, imagine you come across a community that is full of people who claim to have answers to so many of your questions, and who offer up those answers with deep and abiding certainty. They offer connection and community with a group of like-minded people who reinforce our beliefs and give us a sense of stability in unstable times. They give us a sense of certainty and validation, telling us our feelings are every bit as valid as facts5. In many cases they claim that those things our leaders tell us to be afraid of are in fact nothing to fear at all; rather, that those fears are a way for those in power to control us, and that by rejecting them, you’re taking back that control that you feel you’ve lost. They point to the constantly changing science of COVID not as proof that the system works, but as evidence that in fact it doesn’t. Through all this, the conspiracy theorists perform a magic trick, transforming uncertainty into certainty.

The Internet in general, and algorithmic curation on social media in particular, then acts as a force multiplier, rapidly increasing the reach and influence of these types of communities, who are then able to more effectively prey on the vulnerable.

To be clear, this isn’t a new phenomenon. I’ve long felt that the radicalization of the far right is, at bottom, a counter-reaction to a world that has transformed dramatically in the last twenty to thirty years. Change is scary, and the world has changed a lot over my lifetime.

But, in keeping with the theme in a lot of these posts, the pandemic has served as an accelerator, pouring fuel onto a smoldering fire. The result is, while deeply frustrating, entirely predictable, as folks turn away from traditional sources of leadership toward the radicalizing forces of conspiracy.

There’s a paradox at the heart of any discussion about misinformation. On the one hand, I’ve heard the claim that education is key, that we need to train individuals to be able to sniff out misinformation and to find reliable sources of facts that they can use to understand the world.

On the other hand, the conspiracy theorists themselves encourage people to “do their own research”, recognizing that no one is coldly evaluating facts. Rather, we’re all engaging in a mix of rational thinking and emotional reaction reinforced by cognitive biases.

At bottom is a much more fundamental assumption: that individuals can tell the difference between reliable, authoritative sources of facts and peddlers of misinformation.

But after decades of work by various groups to undermine the authority of our institutions, accelerated by a pandemic that only seems to reinforce the sense that no one knows what’s going on, it now seems impossible to find those reliable, authoritative sources.

And, until we can rebuild that trust–something that will take a generation, if it happens at all–we will continue to see the effects of widespread misinformation and conspiracy theories.

  1. I started off using the term “post-fact”, and to be honest, I kinda wonder if that isn’t the better term to describe the time we’re living in… 

  2. Yes, I realize I may have just started a new conspiracy movement. If you’re out there, folks, invite me to a meeting, I love free coffee and donuts! 

  3. My personal favourite is the Birds Aren’t Real movement, which its own creator has made clear is absolutely a joke. It’ll be interesting to see how long it takes before a splinter group breaks away that takes it a bit more seriously… 

  4. Which is itself a lie and just another kind of conspiracy theory. 

  5. This reinforces key mental processes like Confirmation bias, which lead us to accept or reject facts based on our preconceived notions.