In December 2018, historian Niall Ferguson argued that the political polarization of today’s world mirrors the religious turmoil of Reformation period in the 16th century. The Internet, he claimed, is analogous to the printing press.
“Nothing has happened like the impact of the personal computer and the Internet,” Ferguson said, “since the advent of the printing press.” He continued, “If you look at the impact of these two technologies, it’s incredibly similar. The effect of the technological innovation is drastically to reduce the cost of producing content and drastically increase the volume of content.” Ferguson then cites a best-selling book from the 15th through 17th centuries, the Malleus Maleficarum, Hammer of Wickedness, as a “good example of fake news.” The book described how to find and burn witches on the stake. Fake news indeed.
In Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties, journalist Christopher Caldwell makes a similar claim when he describes the consequences of living in a digitalized world. The computer has allowed people to access more information than at any other point in human history. But that does not necessarily mean humans will have greater access to truth. Computers likely brought about the opposite: more noise, no signal. This is from the section “Postmodernism: the authenticity of Banana Republic”:
As Americans’ new machines were recording reality with ever more precision, irrationality and even superstition were on the rise. This is not as paradoxical as it sounds. Acquired knowledge obeys a Malthusian logic: Each new fact brings a handful of new questions, which, when answered, bring a handful more. Facts grow arithmetically, but questions grow geometrically. The result is a deterioration of certitude. The closer we get to the truth, the less confident we are in our possession of it.
Whether or not Ferguson and Caldwell overstate their arguments, their analogies might prove useful in understanding the politics of 2020 and beyond. Take the two Republican congressional candidates who allegedly believe the outrageous, creepy, but widely discussed QAnon conspiracy theory: Marjorie Taylor Greene in Georgia, and (allegedly) Florida’s Laura Loomer. It seems Greene and Loomer have used the Internet phenomenon to pin themselves as authentically anti-establishment in order to court as many fringe voters as possible, and create media buzz for their campaigns. Their tactics worked — to a certain extent. Loomer will likely lose the general election. Greene, however, could be going to Congress.
House GOP conference chair Liz Cheney described the conspiracy as “dangerous lunacy that should have no place in American politics.” She’s right. But the age of QAnon politics could just be getting started. Who knows how many more insane conspiracy theories will hatch, grow, and infect the mainstream? With the Internet, a politician can use fake news to attack fake news; launch tweetstorms lambasting Big Tech; provide hope by spreading fear and superstition. One can form a platform and suggest good policy, or, as Steve Bannon once said, “flood the zone with s***.”
Will this become the baseline in politics? Will mainstream, digital campaigns be driven by conspiratorial impulses, gas-lighting, and memes cooked up on fringe chat-boards? However much change the Internet brings in this decade — for politics and all other aspects of life — what is certain is that Ferguson’s analogy and Caldwell’s observation are signals in the noise. There is hope still yet. Ferguson, though, is more dubious. As a matter of fact, he is quite frightened about an increasingly digitalized public sphere. “It is not a funny analogy,” he said, “it is a bloody terrifying analogy.”