How do you know that Hillary Clinton exists? I’m serious; or, at least, I’m making a point. Bear with me. Think about it. You don’t know her personally, after all. You’ve never met her. You’ve maybe been in the same room as a woman who was introduced to you as her – but probably not. So how do you know there truly is a real person named Hillary Clinton who matches your understanding of her?
…It sounds like a crazy question, of course, right up to the end. Love her or hate her, Hillary Clinton is one of the most significant and important figures in the world over the last thirty years. Few people’s lives are as public and well-documented. To ask how you know she even exists approaches conspiracy-theory lizard-people in its ridiculousness. Obviously. And yet I think you’ll find the answer is illuminating.
You don’t know her personally, but you feel like you do, because you’ve seen her countless times on television, heard her voice on the radio, read endless articles analyzing her and her prospects, chuckled at her Internet memes. You know she exists the same way that you know Uruguay and the Aleutian Islands exist; through thousands of fragments of third- and fourth- and fifth-hand evidence over the years, each of which individually has some weight, but, more importantly, collectively knit together into a coherent, consistent narrative that feels like the fabric of reality itself.
Feels like, and is, of course. Obviously, Right? I mean, Hillary Clinton and Uruguay and the Aleutians do actually exist. Nobody’s disputing that. Not exactly. Bu an emergent property of modern technology is that Western culture has increasingly fragmented from a single consensus narrative of the world to two or more — and the repercussions are remarkable.
Not so long ago, television, radio, newspapers, and schools — the media, in other words — were controlled by a small set of large corporate and government gatekeepers, who decided what was and wasn’t reality. There were many different interpretations of the facts, but the facts themselves were generally agreed upon. Usually, when they lied it was only by omission, since reporting on reality is a lot easier than wholesale invention.
Usually, but not always. In 2003, you may recall, well after household Internet access became ubiquitous, America invaded Iraq based on an entirely fictional narrative of an imminent threat from weapons of mass destruction — a narrative created by the US and UK governments, promulgated by the gatekeepers of the media, and woven into our collective consensus understanding of reality at least long enough to drum up sizable popular support for waging war.
Nobody is saying gatekeepers are a good thing. The resulting war cost hundreds of thousands of lives, at least a trillion dollars, and plunged Iraq into at least fifteen years of violent instability. But right now we seem to be at a weird worst-of-both-worlds intermediate point: we have an official consensus narrative, dictated by the same governments and massive media organizations who brought us the Iraq war, and, simultaneously, extremist splinter narratives promulgated via social media.
These splinter narratives tell us that massed antifa supersoldiers are about to start a new Civil War; that the World Trade Center was an inside job; that ISIS has an uncountable number of sleeper agents inside America, while vast swathes of European cities are no-go zones ruled by sharia law; that the Democratic Party is ruled by unspeakably corrupt pedophiles who keep a dungeon in a pizza joint in D.C.; that the European Union is vampirically draining the United Kingdom of 350 million pounds of wealth every single week; etcetera. And this is before AI lets us perfectly simulate public figures saying and doing anything disinformers might want.
These splinter narratives sufficiently small in scope, and sufficiently internally consistent, that, just like the official consensus, they knit together into something that feels like the fabric of reality, if you don’t look too closely… especially since, as the Iraq war proves, you actually can’t trust the consensus narrative. You have to try to arrange its many kaleidoscopic fragments into a lens of truth, and then look through that skeptically, which takes more time and cognitive effort than a lot of people can or will expend. Getting caught up in a splinter narrative is actually easier than being appropriately skeptical of the consensus narrative.
So where does this leave us? Doomed to an ever-fragmenting population believing in increasingly different sets of basic facts about the world? Maybe. But, call me a Panglossian optimist, I don’t think so. I think this has created an enormous social and cultural need for a cohort of people who can reliably report on the reality around them. We used to call those people “journalists,” and indeed traditional journalists still have a huge role to play, but these new kinds of narratives require entirely new mechanisms of proof and trust. I predict that soon those will begin to emerge.