We all do it. Make little snap judgments about everyday strangers as we go about our lives. Without giving it a second’s thought, we sketch minibiographies of the people we pass on the sidewalk, the guy seated across from us on the train, or the woman in line in front of us at the grocery store. We wonder: Who are they? Where are they from? How do they make a living? Lately, though, such passing encounters tend to leave me with a sense of suspicion, a wariness tinged with grim curiosity. I think to myself: Is he or she one of them?
By them, I mean one of the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of “people” I encountered during my many forays into the darkest recesses of the Internet. Despite the staggering amount of time many of us spend online — more than six-and-a-half hours a day, according to recent research — we tend to haunt the same websites and social media platforms (Facebook, YouTube, CNN, Reddit, Google) again and again. Not me, though. Over the past five years, I’ve spent more hours than I wish to count exploring the subterranean hideaways and uncensored gathering spaces for some of the most unhinged communities on the Internet.
Call it an occupational hazard. Only recently, I published my first book, A Death on W Street: The Murder of Seth Rich and the Age of Conspiracy, an investigative political thriller that opens with the 2016 street murder of a 27-year-old who had worked for the Democratic National Committee. In the absence of a culprit, Seth Rich’s killing got swept into the fast-flowing conspiratorial currents of that year’s presidential race, a contest that pitted an unabashed conspiracy theorist, Donald Trump, against a candidate, Hillary Clinton, who had been the subject of decades’ worth of elaborately sinister claims (with no basis in reality). For my book, I set out to understand how a senseless crime that took the life of a beloved but hardly famous mid-level political staffer became a national and then international news story, a viral phenomenon of ever more twisted conspiracy theories that reached millions and all too soon became a piece of modern folklore.
To do so, I traced the arc of those Rich conspiracy theories back to their origins. In practical terms, that meant hundreds of late nights spent huddled over my desk, eyes fixed on my computer screen, clicking and scrolling my way through a seemingly endless trail of tweets, memes, posts, and videos. The Internet is, in some ways, like an ancient city, its latest incarnation resting atop the ruins of so many civilizations past. I came to think of myself then as an online archeologist digging my way through the digital eons, sifting through archived websites and seeking out long-vanished posts in search of clues and answers.
Who were these people? I couldn’t help but wonder whether they actually believed the stuff they wrote. Or was it all about the thrill of saying it? In an unnervingly boundless online world, were they testing the boundaries of the acceptable by one-upping each other with brazen displays of racism, misogyny, or antisemitism (just to start down the list)?
Firing up my laptop and venturing into those noxious places was like entering an inside-out world impervious to logic and critical thinking. They had their own language — losers were “cucks,” loyal foot soldiers “pedes,” and Hillary Clinton was Hillary “Klanton” — and they operated with their own sets of elaborate but twisted rules and hierarchies. After a few hours of studying such “conversations,” a form of vertigo would set in, a spinning sensation that made me get up from my desk and clear my head with a walk or a conversation with a real human being.
Now that the book is published, I don’t spend much time in those disturbing online worlds. Still, every once in a while, I can’t help checking in — old habits die hard — despite the horrors I saw there while gathering material for my book. What nags at me even now — in fact, it haunts me in some way — is the knowledge that there were real people behind those toxic accounts. The same people you might sit next to on a bus without having the slightest suspicion of just how disturbed they were and what a disturbing world they were helping create or elaborate. That knowledge still weighs on me.
Weapons of Mass Disinformation
A confession: on a few of those late nights spent in the online ruins, I caught myself starting to nod along with some of the wild-eyed nonsense I was reading. Maybe I found a particular Reddit thread surprisingly convincing. Maybe the post in question had sprinkled a few verifiable facts amid the nonsense to make me think, Huh? Maybe my sixth cup of coffee and lack of sleep had so weakened my mental safeguards that madness itself began to seem at least faintly reasonable. When I felt such heretical thoughts seep into my stream of consciousness, I took it as a sure sign that I should log off and go to bed.
Thinking back on those moments, I admit that the first feeling I have is pure and utter embarrassment. I’m an investigative reporter. I make a living dealing in facts, data, and vetted information. Heck, my first job in journalism was as a full-time, trained fact-checker. I should be impervious to the demented siren song of conspiracy theories, right?
The correct answer is indeed: right. And yet…
I realize now that, on those disturbing long nights at the computer, I was more than an avid journalistic explorer of online content. I had immersed myself — and immersion is what the Internet does best. It’s the gateway point to a seemingly infinite number of rabbit holes. Who hasn’t clicked on a Wikipedia entry about, say, the making of the atomic bomb only to check the time, realize that two hours had slipped by, and you’re now watching a YouTube video about the greatest comebacks in baseball history with no memory of how you got here in the first place?
That frictionless glide from one post to the next, video after video, tweet upon tweet, plays tricks on the mind. Spend enough time in that realm and even the most absurd theories and narratives start to acquire the patina of logic, the ring of reason. How else to explain the sheer number of QAnon adherents — one in five Americans, according to an analysis by the Public Religion Research Institute — who believe that a secret cabal of pedophile elites, including Tom Hanks and Oprah, run the world, or that the Earth is indeed flat, or that the moon landing more than half a century ago was faked, no matter what news broadcaster Walter Cronkite might have said at the time?
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that conspiracy theories weren’t a fixture of American life before the Internet came along. Quite the opposite: for as long as we humans have existed, we’ve dreamt up elaborate theories and fables to explain the inexplicable or, increasingly in our time, the otherwise all too explicable that we refuse to believe. Some of the founders of this country were unashamed conspiracy-mongers. What those delirious late nights at the computer led me to believe, however, is that tools for spreading such fantastical theories have never been more powerful than they are today and they’ve entered our politics in an unnerving fashion (as anyone paying attentionto the January 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol knows).
Put simply, we don’t stand a chance against the social media companies. Fueled by highly sophisticated algorithms that maximize “engagement” at all costs by feeding users ever more inflammatory content, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the rest of them don’t simply entertain, inform, or “connect” us. As New York Times reporter Max Fisher writes in his book The Chaos Machine, “This technology exerts such a powerful pull on our psychology and our identity, and is so pervasive in our lives, that it changes how we think, behave, and relate to one another. The effect, multiplied across billions of users, has been to change society itself.”
Spending so much time burrowing into such websites, I came away with a deep sense of just how addictive they are. More than that, they rewire your mind in real-time. I felt it myself. I fear that there’s no path out of our strange, increasingly conspiratorial moment, filled with viral lies and rampant disinformation, without rewriting the algorithms that increasingly govern our lives.
The Lost Art of Saying Hello
Still, I’m under no illusion that Tweets and memes can adequately explain the schisms in American life and this country’s descent into a more embittered, polarized, us-versus-them cultural moment. Nor can Donald Trump, who is as much a product of the strange Internet world of conspiracies as a cause of it. They are, in fact, the ever-more-virulent symptoms of a country in which it’s not enough to disagree with your opponents. You also have to demonize them as subhuman, criminal, and alien, while, in the process, doing genuine harm to yourself.
In what still passes for the real world, how else to explain the prominence of conspiracy theories like QAnon or the current far-right trend of accusing someone, especially anyone who disagrees with you, of being a “groomer”? Or how do you account for the existence of a seemingly inextinguishable belief now lurking in our world that one of the country’s prominent political families, the Clintons, are also prolific serial killers who have slaughtered dozens, if not hundreds of people? Or the explosion of those baseless claims I spent all that time exploring about the murdered Seth Rich, claims that would haunt his family for years, denying them even the space to grieve for their own son?
No amount of late-night online sleuthing was going to provide an answer to the larger social ills afflicting this country. Indeed, the more time I spent online, the greater the chasm appeared — so vast, in fact, that I began to wonder whether it could ever be bridged. Nor is this a malady that can be dealt with by politicians or governments, important as they are. It runs even deeper than that.
When I think about the root causes of such societal drift, I return to a phrase I read in a 2021 study that described a “national friendship decline.” According to that survey, “Americans report having fewer close friendships than they once did, talking to their friends less often, and relying less on their friends for personal support.” The data wasn’t all grim. More than four in ten respondents said that they had made a new friend during the pandemic. Still, the lockdowns and self-isolation of these Covid years had exacerbated what the survey’s authors called a “loneliness epidemic.”
When I think about those endless Twitter rants and Reddit screeds I encountered, I envision lonely people hunched over their computers in empty apartments, posting and scrolling madly (sometimes in the most literal sense) deep into the night. Loneliness and social isolation, of course, can’t explain away all the mad conspiratorial rants you find on the Internet, nor are they the sole cause of the brittle, increasingly dangerous state of American politics. But it’s so much easier to resent and rage against a perceived enemy if you’ve never met them or anyone like them, so much easier to cast the other side as the out-group or the villain if you’ve never shared a meal or a coffee or a phone call with them.
I mention that “loneliness epidemic” only to underscore my belief that healing the schism in our culture and politics will require something more difficult and yet simpler than major policy reforms or electing a new generation of officials. Don’t get me wrong: both of those are needed, on both sides of the proverbial aisle. Today’s politics too often resemble a race to the bottom, as politicians rush to outflank their rivals and whip up their constituencies (often using social media to do it). All the while, powerful interest groups, their lobbyists, and a growing billionaire class shape (or sink) the kinds of wholesale changes needed to reboot our political system.
Yet our problems run deeper than that — and the solutions can’t be found in Washington, D.C.
One answer is finding ways to knit back together an unbearably frayed nation. Neighborhood groups, book clubs, sports leagues, civic associations, labor unions, religious groups, whatever it is, the surest way out of this stubborn conflict must come through the simplest of gestures — human connection. The lost art of saying hello.
Tech executives love to talk about the value of “connection” and their goals of “connecting” the world. Almost two decades into the social media era, we should know better than to believe those empty paeans used as cover for the relentless pursuit of profits. Now more than ever, it’s time to step away from those weapons of mass disinformation.
I don’t care much for New Year’s resolutions, but if I did, I would say: let’s make 2023 the year of logging off. Get to know your neighbors and colleagues. For my part, I’ll work on not thinking of those everyday strangers, or even those tiny avatars on the Internet, as them. Instead of fearing them, I’ll think I say hello.
This column is distributed by TomDispatch.