Anti-elitistism and the Internet are a problematic mix

But he was far from the one who stuck with me, a 27-year-old man who defended the honor of the movement. He said he was absolutely confident in the accuracy and nobility of what he supported, “so long as I did my own research.”

You can see how this appeal to individual power, in particular, leads to self-defeat. This is the man who has accepted at least the broad blows of a conspiracy theory that, deep down, posits a demonic gang of cannibal pedophiles who control American power. If your unwavering confidence in your ability to assess credibility led you there, your confidence may be misplaced. However there has been, making the case, in this context.

Yet this omnipresent impulse runs as a thread through a number of controversies at the heart of American culture and politics – and of course through the growing death toll from the coronavirus pandemic.

It turns out that coarse individuality and unrestricted internet are a bad combination.

Take Joe Rogan. By now, you’re not only familiar with the podcast host, but you’re probably familiar with his general type, the guy who explains with great self-confidence, if not always the topic of his gallery. One of the best unofficial descriptions of Rogan was 2018 Twitter user summary: “When you were a kid, you didn’t need Joe Rogan. Your best friend had a 27-year-old brother…he was smoking pot in a room with light black posters and telling you the Mayans invented cell phones.” Chills, kind of fun, happy to embrace brutal explanations of how things work.

Rogan also does his own research live on his show. He interviews random, often ambivalent people, who give their own assessments of any topic. Point often Especially To raise some external perspective, with Rogan often agreeing either with broad strokes or on detail. This is a misleading embrace of nonsense and financiers From the same effects of the current crisis.

The theory Rogan leads, that the QAnon guy and many others are, is, in essence, that in a world where there are no trustworthy experts, everyone can be a trustworthy expert. People like scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or doctors interviewed on major cable news channels are treated with skepticism because what was once their defining value — their certified expertise — has now collapsed into a negative: they think they know only better. Because they have a degree. Published research, quotes from others in their field, years of familiarity with the topic – all summed up at once in “This is who they say you should talk to”. But the spirit of contradiction now catches up with “don’t do it.”

What makes this possible is that people can “do their own research”. The man sitting at home can click some links and learn alternative accounts of normal everyday events. In the same way that the Internet allows those interested in the less censored Japanese anime to find each other and form communities, it allows groups of self-proclaimed detectives to research everything from dating patterns of furniture company employees to kidnapping schemes allegedly perpetrated by powerful politicians. Sometimes the internet can amplify the effectiveness of an investigation, especially when it is related to actual experience. Sometimes, it can amplify a downward vortex.

What makes this compelling is the sense of ownership, and code cracking. Rogan is useful here because he is very transparent about how it works. He’s looking for and exploring a more interesting angle on something going on, the hot mics. It is often persuasive—more convincing than having actual experts replicate the well-understood data behind vaccinations, masks, or whatever else is going on in the news. Just as it is more pressing for followers of QAnon to believe that a massive global struggle between good and evil was playing out behind the walls of the White House rather than simply thinking that the Trump administration was in disarray.

And of course anti-elitism. It is no coincidence that the QAnon movement has closely intertwined with Trump’s support base. Trump has given wide credence to conspiracy theories as president, from allegations of voter fraud to theories about criminal immigrants. But his political life was built largely on the idea that the elites were destroying America—moreover, they were fundamentally unqualified and protected by their purported credentials.

Probably, as journalist Matt Iglesias said recently pointed, this partisanship plays a role: those with advanced degrees are becoming increasingly politically liberal, which did not go unnoticed. Trump realized that he could benefit personally by turning his supporters against those who, by virtue of their knowledge of operations and research, were trying to reorient him toward reality. His feud with Anthony S. Fauci was prompted by Trump’s desire to get people to act as if the pandemic was over, but he revolved around the idea that he knew as much about the coronavirus as government experts had been at it for decades.

“Maybe I have a natural ability” to understand science, Trump said at the CDC in the early days of March 2020. We have Google, after all.

The self-confidence aspect of all of this wanders into more dangerous territory, like hyper-masculinity. Our grandparents built log cabins, hunted mountain lions, beat the flu and didn’t need some nerd in a white coat telling them how to live. They have discovered things. It is natural, of course, for the inverse of “intellectual” to be “physical”, but it is curious to see how literally that manifests itself in so much of this.

The Internet amplifies the problem in another obvious way: There is no way to provide a counterweight to those occasions where Trump or Rogan provide incorrect information. For one thing, their audience size generally outnumbers the critics. But more importantly, those who do listen do not listen to one point of view and then test it against other sources. They listen because they like. Because they trust the sources of information in the first place. Ironically, this is a plea to experience in a different way: Trump, Rogan, and others have gained confidence through an entirely different set of credentials, including mechanisms such as preaching and ego stroking. So they were given confidence.

Two decades ago, a pair of researchers named David Dunning and Justin Krueger described a psychological effect in which people who don’t know much about a topic can’t necessarily tell how little they know about it. They describe a pattern in which people who learn about a new topic have quick confidence in their familiarity with it before discovering that the topic is much more comprehensive than they originally understood. So, as they learn more, their confidence fades – because now they know how little they know.

Dunning and Kruger’s original crafting intertwined with a modern internet, one without blogs and without social media. It was hard to predict how easy it would be for people to learn enough about a topic to reach that first peak of weak confidence – and then just stand there, enjoy the view. We stand there with thousands of other people, all congratulating each other on their expertise. To make someone climb dozens of peaks at once, on a bunch of different topics. Just standing there, confident.

And they all got there by themselves.