In 2016, virality, social spread, and repetition is all that’s required for people to believe something is true.
Between the hours of 3 AM and 5 AM Friday morning, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump went on a tweetstorm in which he was, you know, just saying that maybe Hillary Clinton helped former Miss Universe (and a target of Trump's misogyny) Alicia Machado become a US citizen "so she could use her in the debate."
Is that true? Almost certainly not—but in this election season, truth and facts hardly seem to matter. Trump's attacks on Machado are just the latest data point in an election cycle that has seen wild speculation, rampant exaggeration, and outright lies become accepted as fact by huge swaths of the electorate on both sides of the aisle.
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If we're living in a post-factual era, how did we get here? Vincent F. Hendricks set up the Center for Information and Bubble Studies at the University of Copenhagen to study how individual and media behavior online has created a reality where virality, social spread, and repetition is all that's required for people to believe something is true.
"If you look at the things Trump is addressing, it feeds into people's fear, anger, and indignation. And those are very good fuels for online viral transmission and proliferation," Hendricks told me. "The number of retweets or likes or up votes give a very strong signal for what is 'true,' independently of whether or not that's actually the case."
"Facts are only used insofar as they are opportune for your political agenda"
While "facts" haven't gone totally by the wayside, the way we cherry pick facts to make alternate realities has created a political system (and a culture) where we can't have rational arguments because we can't even agree on a baseline of truth.
"Facts are only used insofar as they are opportune for your political agenda," he said. "Otherwise they are skirted or basically disregarded. The facts are no longer the gatekeepers of the truth."
The internet has made it so easy to find like-minded people who believe what you do—if you're a white supremacist, you can go post on Stormfront—that it's easy to create "bubbles" of truth, or what's true in your mind, at least.
"One of the things you get out of getting people together who are in agreement—it's not that they become more nuanced in their points of view, they just become more polarized and so they rehearse the arguments they agree with with each other to the extreme," Hendricks said. "So you have Trump beliefs, and you have Hillary beliefs, and those two sorts of beliefs don't have much of an intersection."
Radio Motherboard spoke to Hendricks about this week's debate and about his new book, Infostorms, which explores how our likes, upvotes, retweets, coupled with social media algorithms and brash politicians with a disregard for the truth are redefining rational society.