Of all the social and political troubles we are contending with today, few may be broader or more consequential than the epistemic crisis, our polarizing shortage of neutral knowledge and agreed-on realities in the information age. The epistemic crisis took on a special urgency under the presidency of Donald Trump, who called professional journalists “enemies of the people” and whose falsified boasts were spun as “alternative facts,” and the problem has continued right up to the recent trucker blockade in my city of Ottawa, where protesters harassed broadcast reporters with jeers of “Fake news” and other insults. At a time when any Youtube clip can be instantly discredited by an Instagram post (and vice-versa), who, what, and how to believe anymore?
It’s important to note that the roots of the epistemic crisis are deep, and their origins may not lie where you’d expect. Long before Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and other contested electronic platforms, critics raised alarms about the groupthink, bias, and suppressed truths they detected in what we now call legacy media – newspapers, radio and television, and the entire panoply of Twentieth-Century journalism, scholarship, and entertainment. Classic texts advancing these concerns ranged from Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders (1957) to Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), as well as the annual Project Censored yearbooks and a slew of other titles just since the turn of the millennium, including Norman Solomon’s Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You (2003), Lewis Lapham’s Gag Rule: On the Suppression of Dissent and the Stifling of Democracy (2004), and John Nichols’ Tragedy and Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections and Destroy Democracy (2005). Predating the explosion of online culture by many years, so-called false consciousness, propaganda, and fake news have been staple complaints.
And oh yeah: most of those complaints came from the political left. The recurring theme of Chomsky, Lapham, and Project Censored was that all media, but especially the news, was compromised by its function within a capitalist economic order, such that its audiences had to be reduced to pliant consumers who’d never question the dominance of the order itself. ¨”[T]he bottom line explanation for much of the censorship that occurs in America’s mainstream media is the media’s own bottom line,” Carl Jensen of Project Censored charged in 1996. Whether this was a penetrating insight into our fundamental social structure, or just an elaborate conspiracy theory, it convinced a lot of people. Indeed, the idea went viral with the emergence of the internet and social networking, such that even folks who couldn’t tell Karl Marx from Mark Zuckerberg got the point that the journalistic establishment was merely a tool of powerful elites. Except their image of powerful elites wasn’t publishing moguls, business tycoons, and the military-industrial complex, but liberal politicians, unelected experts, and globalized multiculturalism.
Significantly, anti-elitist movements now get to craft their own narratives rather than simply reject the ones handed down to them. But here too, this possibility was first welcomed as a way of bypassing the mainstream “gatekeepers” who’d hitherto controlled the information available to average citizens. The use of Facebook to mobilize young Americans’ support for Barack Obama in 2008, and to galvanize the uprisings of the Arab Spring of 2010-2012, held much promise for everyone who hoped digital truth could at last speak to a suddenly vulnerable power. Few then foresaw how a different set of Facebook users might digitize their own selective versions of truth against other powers, including formerly authoritative scientists, legislators, and journalists, who now look pretty vulnerable themselves.
To be fair, the earlier generations of media skeptics never advocated physical intimidation of individual news people, and they could never have imagined deepfake videos or Russian troll farms. But they did encourage a pervasive distrust of the official and the objective, a suspicion which has now migrated from progressive academics and alternative hipsters to blue-collar workers and small-town senior citizens. In 2022, it’s dissent that’s being mass-produced, and bipartisan consensus on anything is the distant ideal. The current contempt for a conspiratorial press spreading lies on behalf of its secret masters isn’t all that new; only the alleged masters have changed. Accusations of mis- and disinformation – of untrue or incomplete stories sold to a gullible public to serve a hidden agenda – aren’t just products of modern technology. The epistemic crisis – whereby any assertion can be discounted if it comes from the wrong source, and every outlet can be categorized as either Ours or Theirs, according to its perceived ideology – isn’t just a phenomenon of the contemporary populist right. As we lament how so many have become susceptible to media-driven rage and paranoia, we should remind ourselves that rage and paranoia haven’t always been confined to one medium, or one message.