As a longtime fan of your work, I’m tickled by your kind words, and I’m honored to have the chance to debate True Enough with you here. That said, let’s get ready to rumble.
You do a nice job summarizing my ideas, but I want to point out that True Enough isn’t about the Internet alone. I’ve got to say this in order to squash the charge—which you don’t make, but which I fear others might—that I’m some kind of Luddite. I’ve spent a career writing for the Web, I get most of my news online, and I consider Boing Boing a national treasure.
So my beef is not with the Internet, exactly, but with the entire modern infosphere: blogs, cable news, talk radio, YouTube, podcasts, on-demand book publishing, etc. In the era of mass media—the 60-year span, give or take, between the advent of television and the advent of the Web—we got all our news from a handful of major sources. Now we get our news from all sides, from amateurs and professionals who span Chris Anderson’s famously long tail of niche outlets.
I think you and I agree that this shift will profoundly alter society, and that some changes will be for the good and some will be for the bad. Where we disagree is the bottom line: When it comes to that grand, gauzy thing called Truth, I think niche media will do more harm than good, at least for the foreseeable future.
You’re right, the Internet is a boon for fact-checking. But how useful is fact-checking if the facts and the lies shuttle about in entirely separate cultural universes?
In the book, I spend much time on Leon Festinger’s theory of “selective exposure“—the idea that in order to avoid cognitive dissonance, we all seek out information that jibes with our beliefs and avoid information that conflicts with them. While the theory is controversial, there’s ample evidence that selective exposure plays a role in how people parse the news today. Survey data show that folks on the right and folks on the left now swim in very different news pools. Right-wing blogs link to righty sites, while left-wing blogs link to lefty sites. For example, see Lada Adamic and Natalie Glance’s study (PDF) or consider this experiment by Shanto Iyengar and Richard Morin: If you slap the Fox News logo on a generic news story—even a travel or sports story, something completely nonpolitical—Republicans’ interest in it shoots up, while Democrats’ interest plummets. People now choose their news—and thus their facts—through a partisan lens.
Yes, the Swift Boat campaign exploded when it hit TV, but I wouldn’t say it depended on “old-style top-down media distribution.” The TV we’re talking about is cable news, especially Fox: the very definition of a niche partisan outlet. (Fox’s biggest show, The O’Reilly Factor, attracts about 4 million viewers a night; that’s big for cable, but it’s not the mainstream.)
The Swift Boaters initially tried to go the old-media way. In May 2004, they held a press conference at the National Press Club to announce that John Kerry had lied about his time in Vietnam. Reporters from every old-media shop in town showed up, but most dismissed the group. Bereft, the vets went to the Web and talk radio, where they found an audience that lapped up their claims. It was only by winning some fame in these media that the vets garnered a few big donors and, eventually, interest from cable TV. Broadcast news networks, the Associated Press, and national newspapers came to the story much later on. And their role was salutary—online, in print, and on TV, the old-media outlets fact-checked the Swift Boaters very well, debunking most of their claims. But did the facts hurt the story? Not really.
On 9/11 and Saddam: Would Dick Cheney have been able to convince the nation of that connection without a partisan press apparatus—Limbaugh, Drudge, O’Reilly, the Freepers—at his back? We can’t know, of course. I think it’s telling, though, that a large percentage of Americans continued believing the lie long after even Cheney and the rest of the administration disavowed it. To me, this suggests that the story was propelled by forces far stronger than the vice president. It persisted—and persists—thanks to niche partisan outlets and despite the facts of the matter being available to all online.
Of course, you’re right that society has found a consensus on many of the most dogged issues of our past. But True Enough doesn’t argue that we are markedly more partisan today than we once were. Rather, I’m saying that our partisanship is of a different character. The big historical controversies you mention involved questions of political values—for example, what should be the proper role of women and minorities in society? Disagreement over an issue like global warming, though, doesn’t concern values. It’s a difference over facts: If you believe the science on global warming, you think we should do something about it. But if you’re among the 20 percent to 40 percent of Americans who subscribe to different facts on the question, you don’t. And on many big issues—the war, terrorism, several areas of science, even the state of the economy—Americans today not only hold different opinions from one another; they hold different facts.
As for conspiracy theories, I can assure you that an alleged governmental role in 9/11 isn’t the only thing keeping paranoid Americans up at night. Have you heard Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s theory on vaccines and autism (championed now by John McCain)? Or Kennedy’s theories on the stolen election of 2004? What about the NAFTA superhighway? Or HIV denialists? Really, I could go on.