Millions of Americans cannot agree on basic facts. Our lack of a common framework for reality makes it difficult to even acknowledge, much less collectively address, many of the systemic problems that our country faces. As material conditions continue to deteriorate and corruption prevents internal reform, the problem of a lack of a common acknowledgement of reality is highly likely to continue its acceleration. We do not agree on fundamental realities, and our key beliefs are growing ever-more divergent.
In 2015, 42% of Americans believed US forces found weapons of mass destruction following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In 2020, respondents describing themselves as “liberal” or “very liberal” grossly overestimated the percentage of unarmed African Americans killed by police per year. In early 2022, only 55% of Americans believe Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 presidential election. In 2020 most Americans, including 74% of Democrats, found claims by anonymous American officials published in mainstream corporate outlets of Russian agents paying bounties to encourage Taliban attacks on US troops to be “very” or “somewhat” credible. Many other beliefs tend to correlate strongly with their perceived political and/or ideological convenience.
America’s political elite are largely to blame for our country’s dangerous lack of a common reality. Officials lied about the Gulf of Tonkin incident to justify expanded US military intervention in Vietnam. Officials lied about the motivations for the 9/11 attacks – the narrative of terrorists being “jealous of our freedom” was so outrageous it would have made the propagandists of Mao’s China blush. Officials lied about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein to justify the 2003 Iraq invasion. Officials lied about the likely effectiveness of mask-wearing against COVID-19 transmission in early 2020 to ease shortages of masks for medical and other essential workers. Government agencies frequently exaggerate threats in order to secure funding; they may also downplay significant challenges in order to avoid panic. One day our military is bombing a terrorist group; a few years later, officials say that same organization hasn’t existed for over a decade. Top officials routinely shift the blame from their failures for various political purposes.
The government’s lies create and exacerbate numerous systematic problems. Most obviously, they often support unjust and harmful policies. Secondly, they implant widespread false beliefs in the population – beliefs that often persist even after the population has access to evidence that challenges or outright refutes the official falsehoods. Finally, many people in a population that has become accustomed to government lies reflexively dismiss all government narratives and statements, even when they are truthful.
Corporate media plays an important role in undermining public trust in established sources of information. Since it is driven by profit motives and is ultimately beholden to advertisers, mainstream media rarely meaningfully challenges the economic status quo. Some corporate outlets have a decided political slant, capturing audiences by playing to the already established biases of Democrat or Republican voting blocks. Little wonder then that trust in the media is near record lows.
Additionally, mainstream outlets often parrot official statements and the claims of “anonymous government officials” with dubious motivations. For example, in 2020 corporate media breathlessly repeated the claims of an “anonymous government source” who said that Russian officials paid the Taliban a bounty for killing US service members in Afghanistan, despite the apparent absurdity of the claim, which was later walked back.* In late 2020, corporate outlets – and major social media services – effectively censored stories about material found on Hunter Biden’s laptop, and instead magnified “former intelligence officials” who claimed the story (which ended up being factual) seemed like “Russian disinformation”. Russian (or Chinese, or Iranian) “disinformation” is an incredibly convenient label for narratives that undermine the perceived interests of America’s ruling elite. This is a classic tactic used by authoritarians throughout history: instead of addressing claims, blame the messenger.
Despite the promise it still holds, social media does not generally provide a beneficial alternative to mainstream corporate news. Firstly, nearly all major social media sites and apps are controlled by profit-driven corporate interests. As always, these firms limit, promote, and otherwise shape narratives in pursuit of their fundamental goal to earn more money. Social media companies are also intimately tied with government, in part from being at the mercy of government regulations. They restrict alleged propaganda efforts from Washington’s officially-designated adversaries. Like traditional media outlets, social media earns most of its income from advertisers, and simply seeks the attention of the masses. Profitability is gained by garnering a strong – often negative – emotional response. Furthermore, people often self-segregate on social media into echo chambers that simply reinforce their preexisting biases.
Even the self-appointed institutions meant to separate fact from fiction, in many cases, further obscure reality. Many fact-checking organizations have a significant degree of organizational bias. Some of them receive funding from government agencies and large corporations which may influence not only the issues that they choose to fact check, but also their results. At least one “fact-checking” organization currently cited by Google News is directly funded by the American government. Unsurprisingly, it focuses nearly entirely on refuting narratives from Washington’s foreign adversaries and competitors. Sometimes supposed fact-checkers have “debunked” claims which ended up being at least partially true. Other times, a claim goes from being a “fringe theory” to an accepted possibility, apparently based on whether or not it is convenient for established interests. Most “fact-checking” organizations effectively represent the viewpoint of the economically and politically privileged members of our system, and therefore make judgements largely in line with their own interests. While actually verifying objective facts is crucial, much supposedly fact-checking activity has devolved into amplifying government narratives and scoring political points.
Although government officials and media conglomerates deserve the lion’s share of blame for our lack of a common framework for objective reality, we must acknowledge that some of the fault lies with ordinary Americans. Fundamentally, we believe what we want to believe. Many of us have chosen to base our beliefs on what is psychologically comforting or politically convenient, rather than what is objectively true.
Distrust in government and established media will likely accelerate as our economic and political crisis deepens. Increasing material hardship will exacerbate social instability, anger, and radicalization of segments of the population. This in turn will inspire government officials and corporations to double down on their attempts to limit dissent and direct public discourse. Such efforts at control will, in turn, inevitably intensify popular distrust of media and government agencies. Additionally, distrust in official and semi-official information sources will delay reactions to genuine threats. An increasingly radicalized and ideologically divided population will retreat further into their media echo-chambers, unable to communicate effectively with their compatriots on “the other side”. Our lack of common reality will help to exacerbate, and is in turn exacerbated by, most of the other key factors leading to accelerating national collapse.
* The fact that many people believed this claim is truly mind-boggling. Why would the Russians waste money paying people to do something they were already doing? Did the CIA have to pay bounties to the Afghan mujahideen to convince them to kill Soviet soldiers? Now, Russian agents providing some intel or weapons to the Taliban to tie up American resources is theoretically plausible, but paying bounties is not. The entire story seems to be an attempt by intelligence agents to drum up propaganda against foreign adversaries while testing the extent of popular gullibility. We failed spectacularly.
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