Possibly you recall the “information superhighway.” As The New York Times explained way back in 1993, “one of the technologies Vice President Al Gore is pushing is the information superhighway, which will link everyone at home or office to everything else — movies and television shows, shopping services, electronic mail and huge collections of data.”
Oh, frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! In the bright future imagined by the forward-looking vice president, the invention of what we now call the internet had the potential to bring about nothing less than a revolution in human understanding.
So a couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column praising House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for maneuvering Senate Republicans into adding hundreds of billions in stimulus aid for small businesses and workers unemployed by the coronavirus crisis. The original GOP proposal was pretty much classic Republicanism: a corporate-only, Save-the-Fortune-500 effort.
Thanks to Pelosi and congressional Democrats, I wrote, laid-off workers would “have sufficient funds for rent, food, utilities and other necessities.”
Via email, I received the following brilliant riposte: “No facts your a idoit nancy Pelosi is not good for the United states.”
That’s right, fellow travelers on the Information Superhighway: I got called an idiot by a guy who can’t spell it. (He repeated it several times.) And who also can’t tell “you’re” from “your.” What I sometimes call the Mystery of the Apostrophe eludes many.
A cheap shot? Maybe so. After all, people in my line of work have been receiving semi-literate screeds up to and including death threats via snail mail since forever. What’s different, in my experience, is the (pardon me) viral spread of mis- and disinformation not only made possible but actively encouraged by various malicious actors, foreign and domestic.
For all the immense good it’s done — and I could scarcely produce a column without it — the internet has also fostered ignorance and delusion on a planetary scale. Probably the most mordant dissection of this phenomenon is my pal (and Esquire political blogger) Charles P. Pierce’s 2009 book “Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free.”
Pierce unveils what he calls the “three great premises” of the internet age: “Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units”; “Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough”; and “Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.”
To his credit, Al Gore has also written a book on a similar theme, called “The Assault on Reason: Our Information Ecosystem, From the Age of Print to the Age of Trump.” Charlie Pierce is a whole lot funnier.
But back to Pelosi and the question of belief. One of the classic sources of politicized nonsense is, of course, Facebook. Just the other day, I noticed a bunch of old-timers all worked up about a link a friend posted claiming that the speaker had drunkenly proclaimed that “Social Security recipients are just a burden on society” at a San Francisco fundraiser.
This absurdity had a galvanizing effect. “Pelosi is a waste of oxygen,” one fellow offered. “She needs to croak and let someone with common sense use the air!!!!” Others countered that the quote was clearly fake. After all, liberal Democrats invented Social Security; defending it against GOP attacks has been a party priority since FDR’s presidency.
Indeed, Pelosi was mainly credited with defeating George W. Bush’s plan to “privatize” the program in 2005.
Eventually, the fellow who posted the phony quote acknowledged that he’d learned it was false, but he hated Pelosi anyway.
A fair amount of this preposterous disinformation, of course, originates in Russia. Setting Americans at one another’s throats ultimately weakens our democracy and advances Vladimir Putin’s goals. “It’s all about seeding lack of trust in government institutions,” Peter Pomerantsev, a Soviet-born British journalist and author of “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible,” told The New York Times.
If nobody can be trusted, you see, the strongman is your only alternative.
That said, conspiracy theorists based in China, the United States and elsewhere are catching up fast. Only recently, for example, I saw a cheap politician on TV insinuate that hospitals report shortages of protective masks because nurses and doctors are stealing them to sell for profit.
Precisely, I suppose, as that eminence would do, given the chance.
But the real danger during a worldwide pandemic is that frightened people, gullible and easily hoodwinked under the best of circumstances, can be manipulated into blaming the contagion upon a favored enemy: preferably of a different race or religion.
And that way lies catastrophe.