Elite Misinformation

I kind of like Matthew Yglesias. He comes out with some wild things occasionally, but mostly he’s careful and reasonable, even though I don’t share his values.

Now I understand him a bit better, including some of the wild stuff. His main problem is that he is spectacularly naive.

His recent piece, “Elite misinformation is an underrated problem” is, in itself, a good piece. He notes that “misinformation” research is embarrasingly one-sided, and draws attention to a couple of claims that have been widely circulated in mainstream elite media, which are somewhere between misleading and outright lies.

Good stuff. But then he says, “There’s lots of this going around”.

No! There’s not “lots”. This is absolutely fucking everything you read. All of it. From all sides. All the time. He’s still describing them as if they’re the exception. Everything is exaggerated, nobody is honest. Except him. And me. Sometimes.

It’s the universality of exaggeration and misleading information that makes it impossible to hold anyone responsible.

If what you say is 80% false, because everything you read is misinformation, or if what you say is 85% false, because everything you read is misinformation plus you exaggerated a bit yourself, what’s the difference? Can anyone really blame you?

If someone hears something deliberately misleading, and repeats it in such a way that it is factually false because they believe the thing that was deliberately implied but carefully not said outright, is that their fault? This is the real damage of the situation that we’re in. It’s not that “we” are being consistently lied to by “them” — it’s that everyone including “them” believes a ton of stuff that isn’t true.

I write on the morning after the first 2024 presidential debate. Everyone I read in my ideological bubble, including a few outsiders like Yglesias, are saying that Biden did disastrously badly. I didn’t watch it and am not going to. But many people are saying “they must have known he was like this.” But most of them probably didn’t. They know their opponents lie and exaggerate (they do!). Their friends were telling them it was OK.

I’m inclined to suspect it was always like this, but there are clues that it might not have been. In Britain, before my time, it was spoken of as a rule that a Minister would resign if it was shown he had “misled the house” even once. Something like that, applied not only to politicians but media too, is the only way to be different, since it’s impossible for holding anyone accountable for telling untruths while swimming in an ocean of untruth. And there isn’t a way to get there from here. (Actually my guess is that the rules were always applied selectively, but as I say it was before my time).

The ocean of untruth is what makes it impossible to change, too. You can appear wise and balanced, like Yglesias, by picking one or two things that your side is promoting and pointing out the weaknesses. But if you go through every single thing said, and rule out a third as simply false, and identify the misleading implications and exaggerations of the other two, you are massively harming your side, and your opponents will just pile in gleefully while repeating all their own lies and half-truths.

(Possibly Yglesias knows this, and that is why he is pretending to be naive. My interpretation is that he’s serious, though).