Viral Disinformation, from Silicon Valley to Washington DC
West for Intelligent Design, East for Alternative Facts
The latest de rigueur belief — resurgent yet also a dozen years old — is that we are living inside a video game universe, a Matrix-style game created by a hyper-advanced civilization. The evidence is supposedly overwhelming that you and I are bytes and bits.
So widespread is this theory that it’s made its way into the pages of New Yorker Magazine and been popularized by Elon Musk.
It is also a profoundly silly belief, as I’ll explain.
Ontological questions (i.e. those which examine the nature of existence) often take us in self-referential circles: how do we know what we know? Is your reality the same as mine?
One step further, we might ask whether there exists any objective, shared reality: in fact, philosophers tell us it is possible each of us lives within our own, concocted imaginarium, entirely separated from one another.
The upshot: you are the only “real” thing in the universe. Everyone else and everything that happens is a figment of your imagination. How could you prove otherwise?
While some enjoy dropping down this rabbit hole, the trip leaves me cold. Not only is psychosis scary as shit, but as a theory of the universe we simply don’t get far by waving our hand away, “None of this is real.”
That’s because the Matrix Model is just a new take on an old idea, Intelligent Design: it asks that we take an unprovable leap of faith and accept a universe without laws.
A Deus ex Machina world is ironically low-tech, one in which “God” explains everything and nothing. Such supposedly modern modes of thinking take us backward 6,000 years: there is no reliable and reproducible explanation for anything.
Evidence of our virtual, simulated world has included random, aberrant results, ranging from this year’s Academy Awards mishap to a Super Bowl-sized comeback to an upset of Presidential proportions.
But these examples are quotidian.
Inside the Matrix, the stakes are even higher: tomorrow we could awake to learn the human lifespan has shortened to 26 weeks, or that we’ve collectively gone blind, or the entire planet has covered over in ice.
And no one would lift an eyebrow.
You see, there would be no way to detect anything out of the ordinary. This point cannot be over-emphasized (and it will recur below).
To learn why, it might be helpful to envision our virtual world as a “walled garden.” As a closed system, the true nature of our environment eludes us until we are lifted high above and can gaze down upon our former home from an outsider’s perspective.
In the same way, the mathematician Kurt Gödel proved that no system can ever prove itself free of contradiction. In other words, it takes a second system to prove the first.
If our universe of expanding spacetime can be said to have a “limit”, then our reality ends just this side of it; while those running our simulation exist on the other.
Remember, the theory doesn’t assert that civilization-Earth is the simulation — the simulation is our entire Cosmos, Big Bang, quarks and all. Heady stuff, right?
Comparing the simulacrum concept to the Hollywood movie “The Matrix” is not exactly apt. For those who haven’t seen it, the Matrix invoked real humans inhabiting a virtual world, men and women whose brains were “plugged into” a computer-generated reality where trees, sky and cement were all hallucination.
But if a hyper-advanced civilization created the experience we inhabit, then we too are simulations, including our bodies, our thoughts, our ancestors and children.
I am a program. You are a program.
It is generally posited that our hypothetical advanced civilization created this simulation as an experiment — that we are an ant farm of Lovecraftian gods. As such, there is no rule which prevents our experimenters from breaking the 4th wall. God of the Bible appeared before his creations almost immediately, and lab rats can view their captors through glass.
It seems probable our inventors would be curious to interact directly with us. So likely, in fact, that we must ask, where are they? Are we interacting with them now, unknowingly? Have insurmountable blind spots been hardwired into us?
Perhaps they walk among us in human form… said the physicist indistinguishable from the conspiracy theorist indistinguishable from the mentally disturbed.
There’s a huge amount of anthropomorphism inherent in this theory, it goes without saying. If we are the virtual experiment of a race in a far-flung galaxy in the far-off future, they might be bugs or jellies and may possess senses nothing like our own. So why create us exactly, and not something in their own image?
Unless we are in their own image.
This particular variation on the theory is problematic in its own right: if true, it presumes time travel exists. Musk relates how humans have advanced rapidly from Pong to SimEarth in just 30-years, from SimEarth to photo-realistic VR in 5-years.
From this, he postulates that in 10,000-years, civilization will have evolved the technology necessary to create the simulation in which we live now.
The circular argument fails.
If we are living in the techno-advanced simulation proposed by Musk (which we are promised is “more likely than not”), then the timeline used to reach this conclusion (Pong to SimEarth to Oculus Rift) is a fictional artifact — arbitrary and groundless as a dream. Worse, as our “simulated history” it provides no rationale for the world of tomorrow, any more than the word of God helps predict the orbit of the planets.
All versions of this theory suffer from the same weakness: they rob our experiences of predictive power.
With a higher being at the controls, the algorithms which operate our simulation can change on a whim or the game reset to 0 over and over and over — as perhaps has been done repeatedly without us being the wiser.
Unless or until our Intelligent Designers reveal themselves to us, we’d never know.
Which brings us to “fake news” (an expression which now exhausts) and the world of Donald J. Trump. According to a poll conducted by Pew Research, individuals who voted for Trump (regardless of party affiliation) are often divorced from truth: they get their facts wrong.
It is pernicious when someone lives inside an aquarium and doesn’t know it — everyone on the outside can see in quite easily. That so many swim so willingly is not by accident: they are reaping what the President sowed.
89% of his party now believe Trump a more reliable source than the mainstream news.
How does anyone know what we know? If we trace back to Orson Welles’ infamous “War of the Worlds” we recognize how an awful lot of good people were fooled into believing the Earth was under attack by Martians. Not because they lacked intelligence or sophistication, but because the source of their trusted information betrayed that trust.
Since we cannot experience everything firsthand in this life, we must choose whom to trust, then accept what this authority (an “authoritarian” if you will) says as Gospel. As children, our first authorities are Mom and Dad. If they report that Santa Claus is real, we accept it. To make a child feel guilty or gullible for believing in this lie (besides being rude) misjudges the basis on which we construct reality.
If we accept that we live in a shared, objective reality (and not one which springs whole cloth from our own imagination), then at some point we must decide whom to believe. We must trust someone else, for the world is too large, and history extends too far in the past, for each of us to have had direct experience of everything.
Some truths will come to us second-hand, even third-hand.
One of the most unfortunate perversions of the term “fake news” has been a conflation of two concepts: bias and fakery.
Too many readers and pundits dismiss a story because they fail to distinguish between the two (or are too lazy to bother). One can report on an event truthfully, but with bias. This is not fakery.
Another might report the event untruthfully, or fabricate it. This is fake. I dare say, most who shout “fake news!” really mean “news told with a bias with which I disagree!”
As the point of view from which we perceive the world, bias is a powerful beast. We need only recall the tale of the “Five Blind Men and the Elephant.” Each man touches a different part of the great pachyderm (hide, trunk, tusks, ears, feet) and describes not one, but five completely different animals.
In the case of the Tooth Fairy or Santa, although each of us at one time believed they were real, no one today feels the need to fact check their existence — everyone commonly agrees on their fictionality. The importance of this point cannot be stressed enough. The more one invests in the fabulous, the more credence one gives to the lie.
Entire TV shows and internet subcultures are devoted to Bigfoot sightings and ghost hunting, let alone “institutes of the paranormal”. Such foolishness ought not be given the time of day, yet this is precisely what the media have done in the face of outlandish, unsupported lies regarding wiretapping, illegal voting and pizzagating.
By the time today’s reality molts into yesterday’s memory, is your experience of remembered half-truths qualitatively different from those of remembered truths? Our brains are not that tidy. In other words, as time goes on, it can be hard to say with clarity which events actually happened (the Twin Towers fell) from those that did not (hundreds of people cheered on rooftops in New Jersey when they did). Is the incepted Bowling Green Massacre so different from the implanted memories of child molestation that rocked daycare centers in the 1980’s?
Our selection of “trusted authority” (a kind of “election” if you will) matters fundamentally. We willingly give over our perception of reality to another.
If this sounds hyperbolic, this author had a friend growing up whose psychologist father taught her blue was red and red was blue. A multi-lingual lexicographer, recalling the time she lost her way studying word derivations in near isolation for days, describes going to her colleagues for validation, “Am I speaking English?”
Such questions are magnified when they concern the leader of the free world: “Who is mis-informing the president? What are the president’s sources of info? Who is feeding him this nonsense?”
“Alternative facts” have deep roots in the soil of propaganda.
Describing the heyday of his president’s administration, Karl Rove announced, “We’re an empire now. We create our own reality.” Those of us outside the aquarium are witnessing a two-way street as twisted as Lombard: a man disconnected from reality, and followers who love him for it.
Rove describes their patriotism thus: “The leader speaks, and you are a follower if you repeat what the leader says.”
Professor Jason Stanley, author of “How Propaganda Works,” reports that Trump supporters are “attracted to his open defiance of reality.” The magic act is so convincing, “the modern masses do not believe in anything visible or the reality of their own experience.”
It is tempting to wave away the seriousness of alternative facts as partisan bickering, or to wash our hands of it as Kellyanne Conway has — the “alternative” being the innocuous difference between partly-sunny and partly-cloudy, or that of a glass half-full versus one half-empty. But doing so gives a free pass to the far more sinister agent at work: gaslighting.
Authoritarians gaslight for one reason above all: the brazen lying is the message. It’s a power move. To stand before a crowd like Baghdad Bob and declare it raining when everyone can clearly see the sun shining is to position yourself as the ultimate and sole arbiter of the truth.
And it works: without requiring proof, a majority of the Republican Party now believes several million people voted fraudulently in the 2016 election — an improbable claim requiring extraordinary evidence.
Psychologist Bryant Welch explains how gaslighting is used by political manipulators, “You come in and undercut their trust in the established sources of information.” Once the other source has been vilified, “you begin to substitute your own news, your own version of reality.”
Dangerous as this is for a society, it’s even worse when the cult leader himself — the trusted authority upon whom others rely — is mentally unsound.
Yet this is the worst case scenario in which we find ourselves: a President who is “detached from reality,” and just sane enough to “pass.” These are not my words, and they were not spoken lightly. Psychology broke its 44-year self-imposed embargo regarding the diagnosis of public figures from arm’s length (1973’s Goldwater Rule) in order to issue grave warnings about Trump.
Thirty-five mental health professionals signed a letter warning how individuals like the President, “distort reality to suit their psychological state, attacking facts and those who convey them,” and urging that Trump’s new position of authority would only exacerbate the problem.
With the Goldwater Rule now re-opened for examination, 26,000 mental health professionals signed a second letter. In an accompanying editorial, they posit they are duty-bound to disclose what they observe, and that to “see something, but not say something” would be a violation of the public trust.
In place of traditional diagnostic sacred cows, these 26,000 advance the sufficiency of thousands of hours of public testimony in the form of interviews, behaviors and statements stretching back decades.
What they see is unsettling: a man with a “loose grip on reality,” but the presence of mind to start nuclear war.
As fast as the well-intentioned moniker “viral disinformation” replaced “fake news,” your author read examples of its trolling misuse and deliberate misunderstanding. We can sigh, but it points out just how hard is the job ahead: how to save those who don’t wish to be rescued?
The sly mischief of this reality game is that — easy as it is for those of us on the outside of the aquarium to recognize our ignorant brothers and sisters deep in the tank — they feel the exact same way about us.
In researching this topic and chewing on it over the past few months, I’ve often wondered why — if I am capable of making my own reality — I haven’t created a better one?
This is surely the appeal of cult leaders: the promise of an existence more bountiful and less painful than the current one.
Scientology instills a missionary fervor in its adherents, while shutting out all outside sources of conflicting information until its followers, too, reject helping hands. Still, even if it takes decades, many victims escape, only to look back in astonishment at their former selves and the institution which engulfed them.
Professors, journalists and scientists be damned! They stand no chance against the lies and distortions of demagogues. But there’s an old Irish proverb [no there’s not] about objective reality that hinges on whether one person alone can see something, versus two witnesses, versus many observers. And the reassuring conclusion is that when society crowdsources our judgment, we tend to get it right in the end… almost as if we were part of someone’s Grand Experiment.
“Did the Oscars Just Prove We are Living in a Computer Simulation?” (New Yorker, 2/18/17).
“This Man is About to Blow up Mathematics” (Nautilus, 3/06/17).
“I Went Through All the Fake News of 2016, Here’s What I Learned” (CNET, 12/28/16).
“The Year That Wasn’t: 2016 as Told by 120 Fake News Stories” (CNET, 12/28/16).
“The Death of Expertise” (The Federalist, Tom Nichols, 1/17/14).
“A Peek Inside the Strange World of Fake Academia” (New York Times, Kevin Carey, 12/29/16).
“The Biggest Trend of 2016 Was the Disconnect between Fantasy and Reality” (Fark Comments, User Patrick767, 12/28/16).
“The Elephant in the Room” (Rosemary K.M. Sword and Phillip Zimbardo, PhD. Psychology Today, 2/28/17)
“The Rise of Progressive Fake News” (Robinson Meyer, The Atlantic, 2/3/17)
“Fake News Isn’t New. Neither Is Russian Meddling In A U.S. Election” (NPR, 12/15/16)
“’How Propaganda Works’ is a Timely Reminder for a Post-Truth Age” (Michiko Kakutani, NYT, 12/26/16)
“Some Experts Say Trump Team’s Falsehoods Are Classic ‘Gaslighting’” (Maggie Fox, NBC News, 1/25/17)
“Kellyanne Conway is a Star” (Olivia Nuzzi, New York Magazine, 3/18/17)
“State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind” (Bryant Welch, 6/10/08)
“To the Editors of the New York Times” (Lance M. Dodes, MD, et. al, 2/13/17)