To the expanding debate about whether “institutions” will come to the rescue of American democracy, allow me to suggest two additional readings: Dissent’s recent piece on the rise of conspiracism “without the theory,” and Wired’s investigation of how Facebook is coming to terms with its political clout. Together, they not only suggest a broader understanding of institutions than is common in public discourse; they also serve as a reminder that in this new Gilded Age, our political fate depends not only on institutions, but to an unsettling degree, on individuals.
First, the new conspiracy theorists. In Dissent, Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum detect something distinctly different about the conspiracism that now emanates from the White House and dominates conservative media. On first glance, it seems to operate with a certain aimlessness, or even laziness: It “dispenses with any explanations or evidence” and “offers only innuendo and verbal gesture, as exemplified in President Trump’s phrase, ‘people are saying.’” As a result, its accounts of dark, hidden machinations cannot restore meaning or order to a chaotic world, as conspiracy theories usually seek to do. It abandons the ambition “to function as any sort of explanation” and “carries us beyond partisan polarization to epistemic polarization, so that Americans are in conflict about nothing less than what it means to know something.” In the short term, the corrosive influence of these theories—government scientists are lying about climate change! Three million illegal votes were cast for Clinton! Sandy Hook was a false flag operation!—may prove useful to conservative goals. But over time, they threaten to undermine not only liberalism, but democracy, with its reliance on specific “institutions, processes, and standards of justification” that enable us to govern ourselves.
Interpreted broadly, we might see Facebook as one of these institutions. At the very least, we need to see it as a place where the new conspiracism is rapidly and widely disseminated. Through some combination of naïveté and a desire to avoid political scrutiny (filtered through the quasi-libertarian utopianism of Silicon Valley) Facebook took an agonizingly long time to understand its own role in these trends. Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein’s Wired piece explains why, and suggests that the company still has a ways to go. The delay can be explained, in large part, by the sluggish awakening of Mark Zuckerberg himself. After having long insisted that Facebook is merely a platform for information—and dismissing the charge that fake news on Facebook “influenced the election in any way” as “a pretty crazy idea”—Zuckerberg and his company have faced a series of public reckonings that have made it impossible for Facebook to sustain its self-exonerating mythology.
The company has proposed changes (among other things, it says it will do more to boost legitimate news instead of right-wing propaganda), but Wired does not leave the reader with the impression that Zuckerberg has thought sufficiently about whether he is doing enough to combat the kind of epistemic breakdown described by Muirhead and Rosenblum—a problem over which he has enormous, perhaps unparalleled, influence. Perhaps business demands are posing an obstacle to him. As Wired reports, Facebook has grown increasingly nervous about the risk of antitrust agitation from the “content providers” whose fates can be sealed by tiny, invisible tweaks to its algorithm. Understanding that print and electronic outlets could help bring unwelcome regulatory scrutiny to his company, Zuckerberg has had to make new friends with other media CEOs, whose platforms could make trouble for him. Of course, Zuckerberg himself—the earnest builder of “global community” with a carefully managed do-gooder political image—would never engage in the seamy business of creating fake news, propaganda, or anything else that could undermine democratic institutions.
But he’s got a company to run, which explains why late last year, Zuckerberg joined some new friends at News Corp for dinner and raised a glass to none other than Rupert Murdoch. “He spoke charmingly about reading a biography of the older man,” Wired reports, “and of admiring his accomplishments.” That’s some role model. It will be a long time before American institutions recover (if they ever do) from the malevolent influence of Rupert Murdoch’s accomplishments. There’s a tempting fantasy that Zuckerberg’s apparently center-left sympathies will make him a more responsible steward of his awesome power than Murdoch has been. But that’s simply a mistake; both of them are, first and foremost, moguls. In the long run, it would be best to diminish the decisive power of Facebook and Murdoch-style media conglomerates on our public life. But until that happens, perhaps we could convince Zuckerberg (in the interest of his professed idealism) to read a less admiring biography of his predecessor. It’s the least he could do for all of us.