I recently watched a documentary on Netflix aptly named “What the Health?” It’s a journey by a man named Kip Andersen who, as a hypochondriac, spent most of his life worrying about being sick. He looked at the sicknesses preying on Americans and concluded that the cause was not simply genetic disposition but rather the food we eat. The moral of the story is to go vegan and avoid all of the complex chemicals and antibiotics in animals and processed foods.
The extremity of his message was not what inspired this post.
He noticed the disparity between what certain medical organizations and foundations were recommending their members eat and what many studies had shown was linked to those illnesses in the first place. One example was a Harvard study showed that cow-milk had a strong correlation with breast cancer. Another had shown that animal meat, especially processed meats like deli cuts and sausages had a correlation with certain cancers. Despite the validity of his findings (his examples and similes seemed dangerously hyperbolic), he did hit the nail on the head with the tactic of businesses and organizations to not bother with establishing truth: they need only to confuse the public enough so that no one is sure of the facts.
When it came to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, Andersen had a lot to say: they were taking money from Yoplait, a yogurt company, to promote their product despite the findings (see above). As corrupt as it is if it is true or a dumb as it is if it is false, why would this be such an incredible thing?
Why is it that one week, no one can shut up about the power of acai berries but a month later, if it doesn’t detox and flatten your tummy, its not the solution? Why would one website say that chicken is an excellent source of protein and lean meat with lower cholesterol and calories than red meat but another website will say (to use Andersen’s go-to comparison) it is worse than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day and that the only protein you need will come from leafy greens and legumes?
This is not about food. In fact, this documentary is an excellent example of my point when juxtaposed to comments made by professionals who have seen it and disagreed with almost every single thing Andersen said. Is it all a conspiracy to make money from lies at the risk of everyone’s health, or is it truly nonsense and we can believe what the professionals say?
This is what some would call anti-establishment rhetoric. It is closely related to the concept of fake news and how vulnerable it makes people to the tactic of sowing discord.
So what is true and what isn’t? Why it matters should be obvious, but the effects of forgetting the process by which we find truth may not be.
This brings me to my point: What can we trust to be facts when one person says one thing and millions agree, and one person poses an “alternative fact” or even a plausible conspiracy and millions agree with that? And what does that have to do with bitterness, disagreement, and hostility?
Facebook has been under fire for placating the spread of propaganda during the 2016 election. Many accounts and bots were spreading multiple stories using Facebook’s algorithm of sending you to things you may like to speed up the process. To anyone willing to pay attention to reality (at the risk of making yourself crazy), the FBI has already outlined the charges on people involved in the Trump campaign and Russian companies who were known to have been trolling on social media. The official document said that those accused “had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
There was no sudden jump to “fake news” and “alternative facts.” Long before it was what Fox News called a “pre-existing condition,” or America’s deep and growing political divide. This divide is older than the civil war, even if the main issues have evolved over time. With that divide came news shows that catered to a specific ends of the spectrum. News stations and internet forums became echo chambers for their viewers.
Spouting off idiocy has a torch and a tradition. I would say Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh are two of the most impressive contemporaries of the practice. This is not really the main problem though. With free speech will come those who abuse it and skew it for their own purposes. The main problem is that we no longer have an authority for epistemological truth. Some do and some don’t and this is a problem.
When we bestow someone with epistemological authority, it is because we believe he/she generally has true knowledge and does not say irrational things or lie. They are a trusted source. What Donald Trump essentially does then with his tweets by saying Statement A and then saying Statement Not A, is confuse us. This confusion has become the new norm:
The problem is not simply that sowing discord creates hostility. When such hostility towards a group is paired with total rejection of all testimonial sources, you have rampant opinion-news and confirmation bias to support it. By saying “fake news” to most news stations, you strip credibility from all testimonial sources. When there is an air of deception towards sources of testimonial knowledge (newspapers, news stations, peer-reviewed journals, scientific studies, even friends, family members), it leaves a vacuum devoid of solid truth and skepticism toward even seemingly self-evident facts. This vacuum now has no proper procedure to find truth as no one trusts the sources (news), the messengers (those who support the news), or the process by which the truth is presented (how we judge each other’s credibility and reliability), as we now run under the assumption that they might be lying. Truth or facts are then replaced by alternative facts or more eloquently, beliefs motivated by emotive appeals (a fascist propaganda technique for empirically unsupportable claims). It will be aggressive presentation of what could be total lies or just bald-faced opinions that fill the vacuum. Since the procedure for discovering the truth is no longer trusted, the vacuum of deliberation will be filled with straw- man arguments, whataboutism, and fierce emotion/ identity-based opinions. These will hardly ever be discussed either, since the hostility surrounding these opinions leads to insults and yelling, both of which truncate discussion and turn the disagreement into a fight.
It is no wonder that more are prosecuted in courts where the accused is considered guilty until proven innocent.
I do not feel I would be remiss in saying that the problem goes deeper, and instead of simply believing opinions filling the void of truth, many will believe the opinions of the epistemological authority- Trump or whoever is bestowed with this credibility because of his aggressively emotive appeal. By removing power from competitors (anyone else who says anything against him), he has become the only reliable news source for those who give him that credibility.
Maybe they know this. I don’t know if Trump knows it because I’m honestly not sure if he can think far enough ahead into the future to understand the impact of his actions and words. I do believe that many who devoutly follow him or admire him may be aware of this practice and are hoping it will create a new political climate, one that is ripe for abusing the rights of the people without them noticing. This is not just civilians, this is other world leaders who exist in the same climate of confusion and hostility as we do. They reap what they sow: people who are angry, misinformed, and fighting each other while those who understand what’s happening do as they please, say, give tax breaks to those who fit into their own tax bracket and then claim they didn’t do that, all while avoiding taxes and having the credibility to be believed
They were doing a fantastic job of that already, but ignorance of this will speed up the process. Authority should never be heralded over accountability; the two must go hand in hand.
The problem of journalists making their headlines misleading in hopes of gaining popularity is a whole other issue, but I don’t discount it as part of the problem.