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How did we get here?
I sat mouth agape on Wednesday as a mob who believed the presidential election was stolen from President Trump — it wasn’t — stormed the Capitol. It was shocking, and so is the relatively large percentage of Americans who have said that they didn’t believe Joe Biden won fairly, despite no significant evidence.
Sure this mayhem was stunning, but it was not surprising. It came after months of Mr. Trump and other politicians encouraging the false narrative of a rigged election, people stewing in voter fraud conspiracy theories on social media and pro-Trump news outlets egging it on. (On Thursday, Facebook took the unusual step of locking Mr. Trump’s account for at least the next two weeks. Twitter on Wednesday put a 12-hour block on the president’s account.)
Farhad Manjoo, an Opinion columnist for The New York Times and former technology reporter, talked with me about how to apportion blame to the interrelated forces that led to this dark moment in America and whether we can recover from this.
Shira: How did we get to the point where, according to a recent poll, 39 percent of Americans believe the election was “rigged,” and a mob stormed the Capitol?
Farhad: This wouldn’t be happening in the immediate sense if we didn’t have a president like Donald Trump. I’d assign the lion’s share of the blame to him.
But if you remove President Trump from this, there are still all the other ugly forces in America that have made us more divided and insular.
It’s the result of a Republican Party that has bent to President Trump’s authority, and online communication systems that allow conspiracy theories to run wild.
It takes a media that caters to the views of the president, the internet advertising industry that provides financial incentives for outlandish ideas that grab people’s attention and our human nature that pushes us to extreme views. All of this stuff gets layered on top of one another.
The technology writer Casey Newton said that one underlying cause of mistrust in the election and the spread of false information about the coronavirus is Americans’ lack of agreement on a shared set of facts.
I completely agree. After 9/11 and after President Obama was elected there were signs of people believing in different sets of realities. But every year seems to amp up the sense that Americans are at such odds that we don’t even see the same world around us. I don’t know if this is reversible.
(Also read Charlie Warzel’s Opinion column on what he called “our reality crisis … born of selfishness, shamelessness and suffering.”)
Do you have suggestions for establishing a shared sense of reality?
The proposed solutions that I’ve heard include more education on critical thinking, a bigger emphasis on science and empiricism in schools and maybe going back to just three television networks. But the problems are so complicated and layered that I am pessimistic about fixing them.
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What made you interested in writing about the QAnon movement’s connection to President Trump’s attempt to overturn the election?
When I listened to President Trump’s recent phone call with Georgia officials, I was struck by how many of his false claims about the vote being stolen from him were lifted straight from internet conspiracy land, particularly from QAnon-related forums and message boards.
Believers in conspiracy theories assemble a foundation — bits of false evidence and theories of voting irregularities, then the president absorbs those bogus ideas and adds legitimacy to them, which in turn gives oxygen to the conspiracy theories. We’re seeing how dangerous it can be when someone as powerful as the president plays into a growing movement that has split from objective reality.
A question I keep asking is would we be better informed and have more of a shared sense of reality if the internet didn’t exist?
If you had asked me even two years ago, I would have said we’re on balance far better off with the internet. We have more access to ways to improve ourselves and more information to understand and change the world around us. But now I’m leaning to the view that we might be better off if the internet didn’t exist.
I’m surprised. You’re usually a technology optimist.
There are terrific parts of the internet that I wouldn’t want to give up. I know more about music because I can get everything that’s ever been recorded on Spotify, and I feel smarter for taking Stanford University courses on YouTube. There are important social movements like Me Too and Black Lives Matter that might not exist or might have developed more slowly without online networks.
But we now also have the possible weakening of democracy in this country, the mass surveillance of people in China and the sense that the world has grown more chaotic and unpredictable because of technology.
How much of this is Facebook, Twitter or YouTube’s fault? Those sites give powerful figures like President Trump a megaphone to spread unchecked falsehoods, and they are partly where groups organized around election fraud claims.
Many of these forces — the president, the pro-Trump media, social media, ineffective institutions and people’s mistrust — build on top of one another. Maybe Fox News has been a corrosive influence, but it’s been made worse because the talk news clips go viral on YouTube and might be recommended to more people, which magnifies the negative force. There are many examples like that.
When Facebook created the News Feed, the company didn’t anticipate that it would lead to echo chambers for people to spread and find validation in false claims of a stolen election. Facebook thought people being connected was obviously a good thing. People have blamed Facebook for not thinking expansively about these problems or being too myopic, and that’s true. But these forces all interact with one another in ways that make it hard to predict how they’re going to affect the world.