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An America of Secrets

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An America of Secrets

July 19, 2023

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This piece originally appeared in the New Atlantis.

There have been two dominant narratives about the rise of misinformation and conspiracy theories in American public life.

What we can, without prejudice, call the establishment narrative — put forward by dominant foundations, government agencies, NGOs, the mainstream press, the RAND corporation — holds that the misinformation age was launched by the Internet boom, the loss of media gatekeepers, new alternative sources of sensational information that cater to niche audiences, and social media. According to this story, the Internet in general and social media in particular reward telling audiences what they want to hear and undermining faith in existing institutions. A range of nefarious actors, from unscrupulous partisan media to foreign intelligence agencies, all benefit from algorithms that are designed to boost engagement, which winds up catering misinformation to specific audience demands. Traditional journalism, bound by ethics, has not been able to keep up.

The alternative narrative — put forward by Fox News, the populist fringes of the Left and the Right, Substackers of all sorts — holds almost the inverse. For decades, mainstream political discourse in America has been controlled by the chummy relationship between media, political, and economic elites. These actors, caught up in trading information, access, and influence with each other, fed the American people a thoroughly sanitized and limited picture of the world. But now, their dominance is being broken by the Internet, and all of the dirty laundry is being aired. In this view, “misinformation” and “conspiracy theory” are simply the establishment’s slanders for inconvenient truths it can no longer suppress. Whether it’s the Biden administration establishing a Disinformation Governance Board within the Department of Homeland Security or the New York Times’s Kevin Roose calling for a federal “reality czar,” the establishment is desperate to put the Humpty Dumpty of controlled consensus reality back together again.

Continue reading in the New Atlantis.

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