Suspending disbelief in political media
Or, a theory of why people let themselves be demeaned and lied to by political media figures
Edited by Sam Thielman
Of the many topics on which I find myself unwillingly fixated, an especially painful one is the degree of contempt for their audiences that so many political content producers demonstrate. Horribly, that contempt usually serves them well.
Over the last couple of weeks, filings in Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation lawsuit against Fox News have given the general public plenty of examples of this contempt. During and after the 2020 presidential election, Fox News executives, reporters, and on-air personalities were acutely aware of how ludicrous the popular election-denialist conspiracy theories all were, but they pushed those lies to their audiences all the same, and reaped the rewards.
This cynicism is not unique to Fox News. Caolan Robertson, who shot a documentary film for conspiracist Alex Jones, told Hatewatch that Jones “portrayed himself as a master manipulator in private, bragging that he could sell ‘dick pills’ and that his fans would ‘buy anything.’” Though countless politicians and media figures have built personas on their criticisms of “wokeness,” we often see them fall apart—verbally, not financially—when asked to explain what they actually mean. And do I even need to mention Steve Bannon, who is somehow still a titan of conservative politics even after spending time in prison for scamming his followers?
One of the truest things that former President Donald Trump ever said was this: "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters, OK? It's, like, incredible.” In wake of the Capitol riot, and in light of the Republican base’s ever-burning adoration for Trump, that shocking 2016 campaign statement seems as self-evident as ever.
This phenomenon is bipartisan, though more pronounced and at higher levels on the modern political Right. There is no shortage of conspiracy-minded liberals who turned their Trump-bashing into profit, but party leadership doesn’t usually serve them juice for their conspiracy theories on silver platters. Republican Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, by contrast, gave Fox News host Tucker Carlson exclusive security footage from the Capitol riot, which Carlson then used to downplay the attack..
An absurd amount of money and attention has been extracted from our political process by people who are fundamentally bullshit artists. They have burned through vital institutional and grassroots resources that might otherwise be used to productive ends.
This always brings me back to the same question: “Why do people let themselves get treated this way?” If the “marketplace of ideas” was indeed a healthy exchange (or actually really existed as it is so often described), surely audiences would abandon those sources of information they learn to be disreputable and inauthentic. But they don’t.
If you’ll forgive me for citing L.M. Sacasas two newsletters in a row, I think his theory of online information consumption gives us a lot to consider. In an essay about narrative collapse, Sacasas proposes that, in the time since our lives were first engulfed by the internet, humans have come to experience communication “both in novel social contexts and in a form that bears greater resemblance to a database than a story.”
For eons, humans have made sense of the world through narratives, or larger stories told by trusted narrators. But in our digital age, Sacasas argues, we often encounter our information as looser pieces of information existing in fragments, often decoupled from the narratives that would help us make sense of them in that more traditional sense. It’s not that narratives don’t also exist online, of course. But Sacasas suggests that the wider “database experience” warps how we interpret those narratives, finding them “as just so many entries in a database of information.”
“At the level of user experience, using the internet feels more like navigating across the open sea than driving along a paved road,” Sacasas wrote.
That’s a bit heady, but I do think it’s an insight applicable to our thinking about audience contempt in political media.
The author behind the posts that ignited QAnon conspiracy theories made countless predictions that turned out to be utter bunk, including that Hillary Clinton was going to be arrested in October 2017. But if we consider Sacasas’ database theory, fixating on these obviously ludicrous prediction failures risks obscuring a larger picture of how a volume of imageboard posts transformed a portion of the Republican base.
In the database model, the job of “Q”—consciously or not—was to provide a collection of starter data points and larger thematic narratives to their readers, who would go scramble the internet for further validation and later take pride in having done their own research. In this sense, Q, or Carlson, or Jones, acts as an authoritative sherpa, sending audiences off into the pipes where further sludge awaits them. In our new, larger systems of information flow, the job of these folks is that of recruiters and radicalizers, rather than providers of goods or services.
The internet’s development and conquering of our lives has occurred much faster than our ability to adapt and make sense of it all. That’s why the database experience of the internet can feel so grating: We simply aren’t built for it. So even if a narrator like Carlson plays a different role in the spread of information than someone similar may have played 30 years ago, compelling narrators will continue to draw audiences, no matter how discombobulated our information ecosystems become. Only now, instead of transmitting facts—or even lies purporting to be facts—these new narrators assume a type of entertainment and motivational role.
Some forms of entertainment, like stage acting, require viewers to temporarily suspend disbelief in what they’re seeing. Last month I saw a production of “Toni Stone”—a fantastic play about the first woman to play professional baseball. The stage was decorated as a faux home plate at a ballpark, and the set was shifted and transformed to accommodate scenes that occurred off the field. I was never under the impression I was watching a baseball game, or that a set of bleachers actually transformed into a team bus.
But to be able to interpret the narrative of the play, I had to temporarily, willingly suspend my disbelief. And I did just that, because I wanted to follow the story and leave the theater having been entertained.
Today, it is in some cases enough to simply pretend to be a source of authority on whatever topic one may choose, whether it is COVID-19 science or foreign policy. Audiences crave narrative in a sea of data points and enjoy suspending their disbelief if doing so will get them the stories they crave, especially when that authoritative voice can entertain them.
Who doesn’t love a good show?