Confusion Is the Point
As long as we continue to rely on social platforms for clarity, we’ll never find it
By now, you know a version of the story. In one telling, a large group of MAGA-hat wearing teenage boys from a Kentucky Catholic school are aggressors; in another, they’re not. As Julie Irwin Zimmerman wrote at the Atlantic, what you see in the video of the boys from Covington Catholic surrounding Nathan Phillip this past weekend in Washington, D.C., probably depends on a number of things that are already decided. “The story is a Rorschach test — tell me how you reacted, and I can probably tell where you live, who you voted for in 2016, and your general take on a list of other issues,” Zimmerman wrote.
But something beyond the biases we carry is at work here. Namely, how we became aware of the incident: on social media. A Rorschach test assumes the paper it’s printed on has no effect on the image we’re trying to interpret. But social media — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram — is not a blank sheet of paper. It has its own agenda. It wants to keep us guessing.
On Monday, CNN reported Twitter suspended one of the accounts that helped the original, cropped, video (which was lifted from the Instagram account of someone who was there) go viral. That account was supposedly run by a high-school teacher in California — a woman named Talia with the handle @2020fight, who’d garnered 40,000 followers. The clip “she” posted was shared thousands of times and had views in the millions. But CNN discovered the account’s user photo was actually that of a blogger in Brazil, raising questions about its veracity and purpose.
Molly McKew, an information warfare researcher, told CNN: “This is the new landscape: where bad actors monitor us and appropriate content that fits their needs. They know how to get it where they need to go so it amplifies naturally. And at this point, we are all conditioned to react and engage or deny in specific ways. And we all did.” She later tweeted: “I think there’s even more to this story. But we’ll see as time goes on.”
Seeking more context has come to mean finding further ammunition for one side of the argument.
This search for further context used to be a sign of an open and enquiring mind. In some cases, such as McKew’s, this is likely still what it means. But for many others engaged in the unending daily information war, seeking more context has come to mean finding further ammunition for one side of the argument. And there’s already too much to work with.
For starters, there are more videos. Videos that show, from different angles, and at different times, the mob of boys surrounding Nathan Phillips as he sang. There are videos that show the Covington students being taunted prior to the encounter with Phillips by members of the Black Hebrew Israelites. There is also video purportedly showing the Covington boys shouting at young women. That eight-second clip is shaky. In it, we see a group of young men, probably some of the same boys, in their MAGA hats and then a young woman, exasperated: “I’m so tired already.”
There are prior incidents that suggest a record of risible behavior from the school, including when some students from the school donned blackface-like makeup at a basketball game. There is also the matter of a high-powered PR firm stepping in to represent the Covington students, and of Nick Sandmann — the young man at the center of the frame, and thus the controversy — landing an interview on the Today Show.
And there is, of course, the @2020fight account — perhaps a bad actor, a deliberate misinformation channel or bot, or perhaps not fake at all.
All of it one more attempt at figuring out what’s really going on. All of it, to some extent, context.
We’ve learned a lot since 2016 about the social platforms we use, and about the context we find on them. We know, for instance, about the possibility that a foreign power may use these networks to spread lies and half-truths. We know, too, about the artificial metrics and the spuriousness of a viral event. We know how issues are amplified to a level they might never have enjoyed — for better and worse. We know how easily we can be manipulated and tricked, or forced to immediately question what we see, even if we’re pretty sure we know what we saw.
Yet here we are again. Angry, divided, and — above all — confused. How does this keep happening?
Here’s the thing. No matter how much we hear about manipulation and misinformation, we will never stop using the platforms that are subject to it. In fact, the opposite is true. We will use them more. Our thirst for information can now only be quenched by a steady stream — of posts, tweets, and recycled content. We are desperate to go back to the well for more because, we all agree, there must indeed be more — more angles, more opinions, more perspectives, more reasons. We thirst for context.
The lessons of 2016, of misinformation and manipulation, have not been learned because, on the platforms, all information is still treated the same way. We will absorb whatever is there — whether it’s been deceptively edited or not. As long as it’s information, it will flow. Gluttons, we will guzzle. And this is entirely by design.
We are caught in a contextual death spiral.
Information networks like Twitter and Facebook were created to feed us endless supplies of information. They sold us the promise of grasping, at any moment, all the world’s information from all possible perspectives. We accepted these platforms happily, assuming we would know what to do with all the thoughts and ideas they provide.
We were wrong. Rather than bringing us a clearer picture of our world, platforms have left us utterly and completely bewildered. Yet, instead of questioning social media’s original promise, we carry on, mistakenly believing the solution to this problem will come with even more information. We are caught in a contextual death spiral — a bottomless gyre in which we tumble forever disoriented, helplessly drinking water to save ourselves from drowning.
As long as we continue to rely on these platforms for clarity, we’ll never find it. They are not designed to deliver anything but pure information, which fuels our desire for more. There are no answers in the depths, no matter how far down we go. We are trapped — and that’s the point.
Back in October, amidst the furor over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination proceedings and the brutal way in which Christine Blasey Ford was treated, Atlantic writer Adam Serwer suggested that cruelty is what fundamentally binds Trump to his supporters — in other words, “the cruelty is the point.”
In a similar fashion, we are bound to our information networks, our social platforms, by something equally basic: not cruelty, but confusion. Confusion is what keeps us coming back, what keeps us addicted, and what keeps us asking for more.
The confusion is the point.