“No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.”
In that spirit, the New York Times has cast itself in the role of Morpheus, offering us the red pill and inviting us to see just how deep the rabbit hole of political partisanship goes. In their article “Why Objectively False Things Continue to Be Believed,” authors Amanda Taub and Brendan Nyhan probe the mysteries of why people would choose to believe lies that have been thoroughly debunked–using, naturally, Donald Trump’s claims that Barack Obama wiretapped him as a touchstone:
Partisan polarization is now so extreme in the United States that it affects the way that people consume and understand information — the facts they believe, and what events they think are important. The wiretapping allegations could well become part of a partisan narrative that is too powerful to be dispelled.
Mr. Trump, perhaps unconsciously, has grasped a core truth of modern politics: that voters tend to seek out information that fits the story they want to believe, usually one in which members of the other party are the bad guys.
This is indeed true. Part of it is a need for people to define themselves through their associations–a kind of tribalism in which people assert their own goodness through shared beliefs. The downside is that a lot of people think that if they’re good, that must mean that those who don’t share those beliefs are, by definition, bad.
If you’ve ever read Scott Adams’ blog, you’ll also recognize this as a symptom of cognitive dissonance. Adams believes that human beings aren’t rational, and make emotional decisions that they justify with evidence only after the fact. Since people’s brains aren’t wired to handle contradiction very well, they will always reject evidence that doesn’t support their decisions. Now I’m not sure I totally buy this hypothesis, but I’ve had enough political arguments on Facebook to know that there’s something to it. When confronted with contradictory facts, people often resort to screaming or changing the subject. Just ask Bill Nye.
Even when myths are dispelled, their effects linger. The Boston College political scientist Emily Thorson conducted a series of studies showing that exposure to a news article containing a damaging allegation about a fictional political candidate caused people to rate the candidate more negatively even when the allegation was corrected and people believed it to be false.
As anybody who has seen #FakeNews get tweeted a million times while the correction gets 16 retweets and maybe a mention on Carrot Top’s blog, well duh. Like Rose McGowan said in Scream, “You can only hear that Richard Gere gerbil story so many times before you have to start believing it.”
And it’s here where you start to see that people like Taub and Nyhan are actually architects of the Matrix, rather than brave heroes trying to break people out of it. After all, how many times have the news media crafted a narrative that isn’t true just to advance a particular agenda? Their demonization of Donald Trump literally has some people scared that he’s going to round them up and put them in concentration camps. It doesn’t stop there, either. How about the mythmaking that was “Hands up, don’t shoot”? It’s led to an all-out war on cops, making it even more difficult for cities to hire law enforcement officers. And what about climate change? In the space of twenty-five years, we’ve gone from fears of a new ice age to an all-out attempt to convince the public that we’re all gonna fry–if the rising seas don’t drown us first. Never mind that none of the doom-and-gloom predictions are even close to coming true. We must believe. We must remain terrified. Such is the power of illusion, even when the facts are readily available.
The point is, people believe what they want to believe–and all of us are guilty of it, at least to an extent. And with social media enabling us to live in our own little bubbles, the problem isn’t going away soon. That’s what makes the collapse of trust in the mainstream news media such a loss–and why it’s vital that they begin the long, hard work of restoring it. Maybe then, people will finally see their own Matrix for what it is, and find a way to break free of it.
So far, though, I don’t see any signs that it’s happening.