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).

One thought on “Elite Misinformation”

  1. If the film ‘The Madness of King George’ is to be believed, in 1788 it was observed that the monarch was completely off his rocker. There was, obviously, an entire system in place to carry on ruling the country: the monarchy was mostly just a fiction, so the Prime Minister and his cabinet, unfazed, gave the order that the King was not to appear in public: kept in Windsor, his mania could go unnoticed.

    However, the Prince of Wales thought it advantageous to step in for the monarch, and thus to displace the established order: he had ambitions of becoming regent: so he conspired to arrange for the public to be admitted to a royal levee, causing the whole pretence to fall apart.

    To understand the US constitution you have to realise it was based on the British Constitution of 1786, except that the monarch was to be elected and the length of his reign to be limited. If he misbehaved, he could be impeached. The American President is thus a monarch, but more subject to restraints than George III was.

    After the presidential debate, it has become obvious that this is not how the United States is governed. The President is senile, and the person challenging him is only three years younger and speaks in a stream of fact-checkable untruths. “A population of 330 million, everyone entitled to be President, and this is the best they can supply?” Obviously, the actual exercise of power lies elsewhere. Now it could be the Democratic and Republican parties, which would be something. On the other hand, it could be some unstable faction within those parties, which depends on who has most frequent access to the President.

    For those who do not hold with democracy, perhaps this is not a problem. But it is highly wasteful. Enormous amounts of money are being extracted from the public to secure the election of someone who does not rule the country, this function being really exercised by his “advisors”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *