Pandemic politics, QAnon, and a note on the elections

[The following is the original English text of my interview with Jeff Yates of Quebec’s ICI Radio-Canada. The French-language translation can be accessed at https://ici.radio-canada.ca/nouvelle/1745790/martin-gurri-revolt-public-entrevue.%5D

The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear that the traditional information ecosystem is gone. People have been writing to us asking us what is going on, why their normally regular friends are suddenly sharing weird conspiracy theories, rejecting any information coming from the government or from scientists and advocating for the arrest of all politicians. So I was thinking I would put their question to you: what do you think is going on? What I think is interesting is that, in Quebec, the government’s response to the pandemic was initially very popular. But as the pandemic wore on and its bumblings came to light, popular opinion veered sharply against it. We now have a very mobilized and vocal resistance movement.

Well, I am far from an expert in Quebec politics, but what you are describing is a global and long-running development – so let me answer from that perspective.

What you call the “traditional information ecosystem” was simply a product of the industrial age. The old landscape was a desert of information. Institutions like government and media held a semi-monopoly over what little there was, and sold it in exchange for legitimacy and credibility. These institutions spoke with authority from on high. We listened and applauded with various degrees of enthusiasm – but it never occurred to us that we could talk back.

The digital earthquake that began rattling the world around the turn of the millennium unleashed a tsunami of information against this system, and it has never recovered. According to the scholars who measure such things, the year 2001 doubled the volume of information accumulated in all previous human history. The year 2002 doubled 2001. That trend has continued – if you chart it, it really does look like a stupendous wave, a tsunami. I was in CIA’s office for global media analysis at the time. Behind the tsunami, we watched the levels of sociopolitical turbulence suddenly increase in places like Egypt that had been dormant for decades. And we asked the same question you did: “What on earth is going on?”

What is going on is a crisis of authority that is battering the institutions we have inherited from the industrial age – government, media, business, science, the university – as a system that based its legitimacy on information scarcity is unable to cope with overabundance. What is going on is that the public is now talking back in spades: experts, pseudo-experts, ordinary people, extremists, frauds, cranks, an uproar of voices around every attention-worthy topic as discussion is conducted within a digital Tower of Babel.

The public that once applauded politely turns out to be in a surly and mutinous mood. Every falsehood and failure of the old system has been laid bare by the tsunami. Every unfulfilled promise by the elites who run the institutions, every act of corruption or sexual predation is now out in the open, center stage, for all to see. So the public takes to the streets or votes for populists who offer to “drain the swamp.”

The first political effects of the new information landscape were felt as early as 2011, with the sadly misnamed Arab Spring, the indignados of Spain, and Occupy Wall Street here in the US. All those movements were organized online. 2016 saw the triumph of Brexit and Donald Trump. By 2019, I could count at least 25 major street revolts around the globe, from Hong Kong to Barcelona and from Bangkok to Santiago, Chile. Then came the pandemic, and the political deep freeze of the quarantine.

The behavior of the institutional elites during the pandemic recapitulated all the causes of the crisis of authority. They spoke with confidence from on high, as if they alone possessed the relevant information – but in fact the institutions of government and the health establishment lumbered slowly, handicapped by bureaucracy and a maze of regulations, while the digital public tracked the progress of the virus at the speed of light. The elites claimed to have the technical expertise to protect the population – but in fact they contradicted each other and not infrequently the same expert contradicted himself. In the US, for example, Dr. Anthony Fauci denied the need for a quarantine then a few weeks later mandated one; he also flip-flopped on the need to wear protective masks. The elites wrapped themselves in the mantle of science – but science isn’t a religion, and scientists turned out to have as many opinions as politicians. Thus the noise surrounding Dr. Didier Raoult in France, advocate of hydroxycloroquine treatment, who railed against “the tyranny of the methodologies” and has been labelled a “medical populist.”

All of these hesitations and contradictions might have passed unnoticed in the 20th century. In the digital age, however, the confusion of the elites sets the information agenda. The public’s anger was a pre-existing condition – if not in Quebec then certainly elsewhere. The lockdown placed a lid on the anger, but that only built up pressure. We should not be surprised that the lid has blown open and protests have resumed.

The 2011 uprisings which are central to your book all seemed to stem in part from the 2008 market crash. You write in the final chapter that the one thing you might have gotten wrong is the speed at which the crumbling of institutions was going to happen. What role do crises like the market crash and the COVID-19 pandemic play into the metacrisis of authority? Do you see things speeding up even more?

No, I don’t actually think that the crisis of authority stems in any degree from the financial collapse of 2008. As I said above, my take is that the crisis has been caused by the lack of adaptation of the great modern institutions to the digital information landscape. There is an evident need for a structural reconfiguration of democratic government, but also a need for an elite class that has a clue. Elected officials seem to imagine that they are still carrying on in the 20th century. They make claims that can be easily falsified and act inappropriately in ways that will be inevitably found out.

The financial crash of 2008 and the pandemic of 2020 have been moments of great clarity, when the claims of competence of the elites and the experts have been exposed as hollow. The rhetorical style of the industrial age was utopian: if only we mix the right amount of data with great enough power, we can fix the human condition. That illusion should have vanished when the Soviet Union went out of business but, perversely, it has clung to political debates in democratic societies. We should know by now that human knowledge is frail and limited. A little humility in elite rhetoric would go a long way towards restoring trust.

As for the speed of change, guessing faster is probably the smart thing to say. I believe we are in the very early stages of a vast transformation from the industrial age to something that doesn’t even have a name yet. In this migration into the unknown, across a bizarre and tempestuous landscape, everything will appear too fast and too dangerous.

But I would not despair. My friend Antonio Garcia Martinez tells a parable: what if you had asked Europeans what they thought of the printing press during the 30 Years’ War – a conflict in which millions died over minute differences in belief, exacerbated by the availability of printed books and pamphlets? The answer might have been that the printing press was the most dangerous and destabilizing invention in human history. It was early days. The printing press became a liberating force, helping to propel revolutions in science and democratic government. It’s early days for digital technology as well – let’s not give up on it quite yet…

One of the more bizarre aspects of the last few months is the explosion in popularity of the QAnon conspiracy theory. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a sort of mishmash of many different conspiracies, which posits that all institutions are secretly run by pedophile satanists and that Donald Trump is fighting a clandestine war against them, which will see hundreds of thousands of them sent to prison or executed. To me, it clearly fits your definition of a nihilist movement. On the other hand, its proponents believe in a sort of institutional revival, if you will; that Donald Trump will save the institutions by eliminating the evil people within them. They also glorify the power of the State (as personified by Trump). As an aside, this conspiracy theory is very popular in Quebec, and some observers were horrified to see people marching with Trump 2020 flags in Montreal during anti-mask protests along with Quebec flags. Quebeckers are openly saying they wishTrump would come arrest our politicians and make things aright. What’s your take on this? Isn’t there a glaring contradiction?

The QAnon frenzy is a surface (and probably transient) manifestation of a tectonic collision in the depths.

The public now has a voice and is a leading player on the political stage: but the public is fractured. The public is many. That is what happens in the digital environment – free rein is given to a multiplicity of opinions. Every potential leader, organization, or positive program is thus divisive.

An angry public can only unify and mobilize by standing against the established order, with no alternatives in mind. The crowd in Tahrir Square stood against the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, with no thought of what should follow. Black Lives Matter protesters today stand against systemic racism, with no proposals how to end it. Taken to an extreme, the idea can be embraced that sheer destruction is a form of progress: my definition of nihilism.

Because elites and their institutions have failed to channel the impulse for change, the public, when looking to bestow its political favors, has searched for signals of non-elitism, of political incorrectness, of outrageousness in the face of the old norms. That’s how you get Trump in the US and Bolsonaro in Brazil. They looked and sounded nothing like elites.

In a crisis of authority, this process has no logical end-point – no proposition that is too outlandish, preposterous, or absurd to be a motive for action. True authority isn’t based on power but on trust. Truth isn’t some Platonic form but a statement from an authority you trust. When such authorities go extinct, the game is thrown wide open to every kind of weird theory of the world, particularly when the fun of the game entails horrifying the elites and calling attention to yourself. That’s how you get QAnon.

None of this has anything to do with institutional revival. It’s all against, on steroids. It all verges on nihilism and possibly crosses that line. I don’t know enough about QAnon to judge. An interesting question is whether the people who mouth these improbable theories actually believe them. That would be another discussion – my take is that most of them don’t believe, and use the very weirdness of the theories as markers for a community that is oriented ferociously against. For evidence of how this works I would point your readers to Hugo Mercier’s excellent book, Not Born Yesterday.

With the American election less than two weeks away, faith in the electoral system seems to be waning. Both sides allege that the election won’t be fair; either the Republicans will intimidate voters at the polls or seek to declare victory before the votes are counted, or Democrats will steal the election with mail-in voting fraud. Where do you see this going? Is there any scenario in which this is just a regular election? What if it’s not?

Actually, I don’t do prophecy. The present is hard enough to figure out. The future? Forget it…

On the other hand, speculation is cheap, and the post-election possibilities are interesting. The received wisdom is that the mail-in vote will delay the count. I have no idea whether this is right – but if so, it will add to the stress and storm of the moment. If Trump wins, there will be a massive uproar as there was in 2016, and for the same reason: everyone expects him to lose. If Biden wins, our politics will look something like three-dimensional chess, with the young warriors of the administration trying to displace the aging Boomers, while the baton of resistance is passed to the Trumpist/Tea Party warbands on the right.

But your question has to do with the sanity of the American people and the solidity of our democratic institutions. In such cases, a good mental exercise is to separate the monstrous noise from the media, digital and mainstream, and of the politicians who thrive in that noise, from the reality of people’s relationship to the democratic process. And having said this, I’m going to make an act of faith and add: while there is no such thing as a “regular” election, I don’t expect this one to be remembered for its irregularities.

And I say that knowing that this is precisely what that monstrous media noise will claim.

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1 Response to Pandemic politics, QAnon, and a note on the elections

  1. Pingback: The destruction of trust in media and the golden age of analysis | Praktisch gesehen können wir uns viele Theorien schenken

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