No Jack Dorsey, Twitter Fact-Checking Won’t Free Us From Our Baseless Convictions
On Tuesday evening, Jack Dorsey announced that ranking far-right paranoiac Alex Jones, while freshly shunned by platforms like iTunes, Spotify, and Facebook, would still be welcome on Twitter.
In the chippy style cultivated by founders in over their heads, @jack insisted that Jones had, for now, cleanly navigated Twitter’s shifty ethical goal posts. Dorsey went on: Really, it’s up to Jones’ critics on Twitter to make sure the man who once proposed that Jennifer Lopez go to Somalia where she’d “get gang raped so fast it’ll make her head spin” doesn’t get his facts wrong.
“Accounts like Jones’ can often sensationalize issues and spread unsubstantiated rumors,” tweeted @jack, “so it’s critical journalists document, validate, and refute such information directly so people can form their own opinions. This is what serves the public conversation best.”
Virginia Heffernan (@page88) is an Ideas contributor at WIRED and the author of Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art. She is also a cohost of Trumpcast, an op-ed columnist at the Los Angeles Times, and a frequent contributor to Politico.
Document, validate, and refute. Well, I was a fact-checker, let me try my hand: The pop star Jennifer Lynn Lopez (born July 24, 1969), according to her publicist, does indeed go by “Jennifer Lopez,” with that spelling, as well as the sobriquet “J. Lo.” And—still validating here—Jones does in fact perseverate on rape and other forms of sexual violence, and his wish to see Lopez harmed seems sincere, as it’s consistent with his history of exhorting violence, including on the actor Alec Baldwin and of course the grieving families whose children were massacred in 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut.
So Jones’ advocacy of gang rape for named individual checks out. But @jack: Does my validation better help “people form their own opinions”? Yeah, no. Peoples’ opinions—do I really have to spell this out?—are not grounded in fact, and never have been.
In fact, in honor of @jack’s demand for more validation of Alex Jones by journalists, today is the day—finally—to stop being surprised that human beings harbor and espouse beliefs contrary to fact. Have we ever done otherwise? People park their freaky faith anywhere: lucky baseball caps, far-flung conspiracies about crisis actors, grain brain, immaculate conception. Lately, of course, converts are flocking to the very coherent cosmology of QAnon; it involves Satan, baby blood, and of course Tom Hanks.
Richard Rorty, the American pragmatist who died in 2007, called the cluster of beliefs that ground a person’s identity a “final vocabulary.” These cherished memes—in the original sense of that word—may include airy Buddhist slogans or fragments of the QAnon farrago. Alone in our beds, we fundamentally don’t care if these beliefs reflect empirical truth. Our minds select final vocabularies for the same reason our bodies select other traits: They set us apart (giving us a competitive advantage) and help us fit in (giving us the safety of the pack).
As Rorty put it in Contingency, Irony, Solidarity (1989):
“All human beings carry about a set of words which they employ to
justify their actions, their beliefs, and their lives. These are the
words in which we formulate praise of our friends and contempt for our
enemies, our long-term projects, our deepest self-doubts and our
highest hopes. They are the words in which we tell, sometimes
prospectively and sometimes retrospectively, the story of our lives.”
In The Death of Truth, Michiko Kakutani, the Pulitzer Prize–winning literary critic, makes a different argument. She says Americans have collectively ceded truth to bots, trolls, Fox News, internet lunacy groups, and poststructuralism. The subtitle of her book is Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump, and it’s plain she’s not using a general epistemology to evaluate beliefs in our time. Instead, the widespread failure to hold only beliefs that accord with fact is, to Kakutani, new.
Something is certainly new. America’s executive branch is overseen by a scorched-earth truth denier. At the same time, people still say with straight faces that one presidential candidate in 2016 deserved to lose because she once got sick, or maybe “Benghazi.”
But, when Hillary-is-Satan is part of a group’s final vocabulary, an x-ray of Clinton’s lungs, notarized by a bipartisan committee of radiologists, won’t ever persuade them she’s in the pink of health. In Kakutani’s understanding, that’s because today’s Americans are uniquely blind to empirical evidence. I’m not so sure. Instead, with Rorty, I suspect people don’t settle on their beliefs because they apprehend reality as it is—impossible—but because they are creating a private aesthetic that makes them feel happy and whole.
So how to explain the widespread embrace in the US of truly rancid beliefs? Rorty might say we haven’t lost sight of facts—we’ve lost sight of baseline human imperatives: (1) reduce stress on ourselves, (2) try common sense first, (3) be humane.
Most of us stick to these marching orders, not because we’re ultra-virtuous or have especially good heads on our shoulders, but because we want to avoid suffering and pursue personal advantage. Our beliefs may be unverifiable, but they don’t—by design—doom us to barking eccentricity, and they even make life go more smoothly. Say you lose your phone and decide it’s because you’ve forgotten your St. Christopher medallion, or because Mercury’s in retrograde. Parking your belief in occult forces that scramble your possessions might save you from the savage self-blame known to secular phone-losers. Belief in the essential goodness of others, or a universe that bends toward justice, or the unbreakable bonds of family—all these benign if unverified beliefs are adaptive, and tend to help you both define yourself and fit in.
But other beliefs are counteradaptive. They don’t help but hurt the believer by depressing him, hyping him up, making him unemployable, unlovable, suspicious, anxious, mean. Counteradaptive beliefs isolate the faithful in increasingly dark basements of the internet and—in praxis—often end tragically. Two extreme examples: Edgar Maddison Welch, who shot up a pizza place, and Lane Davis, who seems to have murdered his father. Both men are in prison right now because they believed that by firing guns they were stamping out phantom pedophiles who were part of a Byzantine leftist network.
Alex Jones himself, of more twisted beliefs even than Welch and Davis, faces defamation lawsuits that, if not decided in his favor, could ruin him financially. His status as a “cult leader,” in the words of a lawyer for his ex-wife, Kelly Jones, has already cost him primary custody of his children.
There are also quieter, more daily examples of humans doing themselves harm by adopting counteradaptive beliefs.
In the current issue of The New York Review of Books, Rachel Pearson, a resident physician in Idaho, discusses people who identify as sufferers of “chronic Lyme disease.” Unlike patients for whom a tick bite has set off the symptoms of traditional Lyme disease, those who suffer from “chronic Lyme” (which Pearson believes is misleadingly named) “may have no plausible laboratory, clinical, or epidemiological evidence of exposure to the bacterium.”
“Chronic lyme,” writes Pearson, is “an identity as much as a biological category.”
The conviction that one’s symptoms are caused by tick bacteria, when no medical evidence of infection by tick exists, doesn’t serve the patient. People without a bacterial infection who identify as having chronic Lyme—instead of, say, “fatigue, fever, and body aches”—set themselves at odds with medical science, which itself causes distress. Furthermore, the chronic Lyme self-diagnosis, when reinforced by opportunistic “healers,” Pearson writes, can lead to dangerous long-term treatment with wide-spectrum antibiotics—and even risky surgery to excise the disease that’s not there.
Pearson aims to listen to patients describe their experiences while not quarreling with them about the source and mechanisms of their suffering. She doesn’t argue questions of belief with them. For treatment she recommends placebos (which are damn effective), including acupuncture and massage.
Today the praxis of neo-Nazis, racists, and the #pedogate obsessives seems to imperil everyone. But, in spite of Kakutani’s legitimate outrage at howler beliefs that are closer to sci-fi than sanity, hammering fundamentalists with facts makes no difference because their beliefs—just like our own—aren’t based in facts.
Instead, the Pearson treatment for confused beliefs might work for more than chronic Lyme. Believers in everything from anti-vax to QAnon to infectionless Lyme disease need to be heard and not harangued for the usual reason that everyone likes to be heard. But listening to counteradaptive beliefs is especially important: because the quickness with which people move to silence their beliefs is often marshaled as proof that they’re true.
True believers should not have beliefs wrested from them. They may need to be gently nudged to try simple things that universally relax the body and lift the mood—Pearson’s placebos. Finally, the practice related to the beliefs—getting yearlong IV antibiotics or shooting one’s father—can be discouraged as poisonous, self-destructive, impractical. We drop faulty beliefs not when they’re disproven by scientists or lawyers, but when—and only when—they cost us our relationships, our professional standing, our freedom, and even our chances for survival. We’re humans in a world of natural selection. The prospect of exile, isolation, and death can be keenly persuasive.