Breaking the Fever

What is the cure for the toxic blend of partisanship and conspiracy theories roiling our politics?

I knew the QAnon bug was spreading, but I assumed it was contained largely to the U.S population. I was wrong. This happened over the weekend.

So did this:

We can blame social media, according to a recent survey by Kings College in London. No surprise there, as these two doctors discussed in an op-ed.

Indeed, a German journalist writes that the Berlin protests over the weekend “would probably not be possible without the closed environments of Telegram channels and WhatsApp groups,” and also “unthinkable” without YouTube’s algorithm, which points people to content similar to what they are viewing.   

Of course, such algorithms now influence much of the way we use the Internet. It’s not all bad. I don’t mind when Pandora and Spotify recommend music according to my taste. But I’d prefer not to be manipulated by marketers or have my ideological and political biases reinforced by Twitter and other social media vehicles. (Earlier this year, I showed the progression of a self-made echo chamber in a Politico Magazine piece.) Unfortunately, this algorithmic-generated ecosystem has helped create a toxic landscape of partisanship and conspiracy narratives that is polluting our politics and civic discourse.

What’s unnerving about this development is the way Donald Trump rode it to the White House and further accentuated it over the last four years. Yesterday, he was in prime form.

There was a time—before we became numb to it—when this behavior perhaps could have been kept in check. I’m thinking back to a conversation I had with Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth political scientist, shortly after Trump was elected President in 2016. “What’s most worrisome to me,” he said then, “is the linking of partisanship with conspiracy theory belief.” He continued:

That’s what most new about the way conspiracy theories are playing out, along with the technology side, of course. We’ve always had conspiracy theories, but they’re seemingly more partisan conspiracy theories than ever before. And once believing in a conspiracy theory becomes linked to your partisan identity, it’s going to be very hard to disavow people of those claims.

(He’s right. See related research here—and here for the dangerous consequences of this development.)

 Nyhan finished his thought from 2016:  

The big question is will Republicans in Congress hold trump accountable for violations of democratic norms, including the norm of the president of the United States not promoting conspiracy theories and misinformation?

We know the answer to this.

So what comes next? Beyond wondering what social media executives will do to tamp down the spread of conspiracy theories and misinformation, I think the big question now is what judgment American voters will render on Election Day, 2020.