On the Fringe

CapitolReflectionvia_WilliamBeemIt’s not that I didn’t know Alternate America existed. I knew it did. I knew people believed a whole host of things that, to me, didn’t reconcile with the evidence. Yet, I make of point of being willing to change my mind when presented with solid evidence for a different position, so I assumed, wrongly, that most people would reasonably do the same. Outside of a few hot-button issues where emotions override facts, I figured truth was inherently stronger than fiction, however convenient.

Now that idea seems naïve. Of course the truth is not stronger. Of course the evidence is not convincing to those who don’t want to be convinced. Why did I think it was? The clash between America and Alternate America has been seething beneath the surface, erupting in localized ways, for decades. And yes, Alternate America has been losing a lot of battles, but in response they’ve also been tightening their boundaries and reinforcing their narratives.

That was a smart choice for people who care more about protecting their beliefs than they care about correcting them. Ideology is stronger than truth. I thought it was stronger by a little bit; but it seems to be stronger by a great deal. Mix a potent ideology with a well-chosen narrative, and people will happily ignore their lying eyes.

I’ve been trying to understand how people could possibly believe that host of things that doesn’t match the evidence. But that was the wrong question; the question I should have been asking was “what are the narratives?”

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You Won’t Believe Why People Can’t Stop Themselves From Writing Breathless Vacuous Headlines

clicks_viaTimFranklinActually, you probably will believe why, because those punchy gasping headlines are usually wrong. They exaggerate, misrepresent, and often flat-out contradict the content. When there is content, which there often isn’t, because most of the time it is just a dressed up meme or an embedded YouTube video dumped between fifteen ads and a couple paragraphs of partisan nonsense.

But maybe I do have something new to tell you: the click-bait writers aren’t the problem. The problem is us. And that includes you.

Yes, you. You are the problem.

Well, probably not “you” who are reading this. But if you shared something with a crap headline recently, maybe you are! See, there’s plenty of crap content and crap headlines. Every time we share something sloppy, we are giving it tacit approval. Every time we click on something with a crap headline, we are putting our stamp of approval on that nonsense.

I get it. It goes to the lizard brain. It’s easy to get caught up in “this thing that JUST happened [well maybe kinda not really]” or tease ourselves with that thing that “you won’t believe!!!!!.! [although you already do or you wouldn’t be looking at this anymore]” because hey, excitement is fun and cheap and the world sucks.

Unfortunately, it’s not just for enjoyment. It’s becoming the way we learn about the rest of society. We can easily find ourselves hate-clicking pieces about “Trump’s latest plan to create fascist America!” or “The sneaky way liberals are trying to distract you from real America’s problems!” We’re the ones gasping, having the vapors, and fainting over another meaningless tweet. We’re the ones frothing on the keyboard and hitting “like” and “share” before our rational brain has even caught up to the consequences.

It’s like eating candy, only a little more so—because after a few years of it, it’s becoming hard to find real information hiding in all the junk food. Not because filter bubbles and fake news, just because we indulge our urges too much, and that’s how markets work.

And that’s how markets fail. They meet our base desires, even when those base desires are bad for us. They fill our wants, but not our needs. What we need is good, thought-provoking information about what is true and how other people think about it. But what we want is to be endlessly distracted by things that are unchallenging, either because we already agree with what they mean, or because they mean nothing at all. We want to be high on the emotion, but then move on with no consequences.

There is, however, a consequence. The consequence is not only that we are bad at telling what is true, because we do not exercise the skill. The consequence is not only that we are outraged and distracted simultaneously by sickening caricatures of real events.

The consequence is that we are creating more of them. We are not just falling for the exaggerated version of reality, we are seeking it out. We want it, and we don’t restrain ourselves.

We hold the moral ideal that truth will come out on top eventually. But truth and lies don’t have power—we do. There is no absolute value in the truth, just a question of what we ask for.

The headline I put on this piece is actually pretty accurate.

You won’t believe it: because you’re the problem.

The lies are what we click on: so we’re the ones writing them.

And we can’t stop ourselves.

Because we like to be breathlessly outraged, and we care more about feeling right than being right.


Image Credit: Tim Franklin Photography