Systematic attacks on the truth, supercharged through social media, trolling and cancel culture, have Americans angry, frustrated and unsure as to where to turn for knowledge. It’s a crisis of historic proportions, but author Jonathan Rauch argues we already have in place a structure from which to repel these assaults of disinformation. He locates it within the global network of professionals, experts and institutions that has transformed the human species into the sort of knowledge machine that can, for example, decode the genome of a new virus and design a vaccine on a global scale in a matter of days.
In his latest book, “The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth,” Rauch challenges readers to understand and defend this system’s potential for harnessing disagreement and disinformation. Rauch recently spoke with GoverningEditor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Governing: How serious is the crisis in America today? And what’s your outlook going forward?
Jonathan Rauch: It’s pretty bad. The last time we saw an epistemic crisis in America on this scale was probably the 1850s. That did not end well. Today is the worst it’s been since then. The outlook depends on ourselves. In the past, we’ve come out OK, but sometimes after some very severe and costly disruptions. This time, we’d like to come out of it OK but without the severe and costly disruptions. Whether we do that depends on if we play a smart game. We have to understand the Constitution of Knowledge — our system for drawing public conclusions about truth and falsehood — and we have to understand the attacks on it and do the things that work to counter those attacks.
Governing: We can understand the 1850s. Slavery was such a fundamental disagreement. Why are we here now?
Jonathan Rauch: I can’t resist pointing out that while slavery was the issue in 1860, Lincoln in his first inaugural address offered to let sleeping dogs lie. He even offered to write slavery into the Constitution, on the assumption that it would die out gradually, and thus prevent a war. The South would not even consider that offer, partly because it had been so heavily propagandized that it believed it was going to be attacked regardless.
We’re here now for some of the same reasons. There are people and organizations that earn profit and political power from using tools like mass disinformation and propaganda canceling. It’s very useful if you’re a demagogue. It’s useful if you want to divide a target population to weaken it, or insert yourself into its politics. It’s very useful if you’re a small numerical minority. All of these forces use the sophisticated tactics of information warfare to advance their power or just to make money. These tactics have been around a long time, but they’ve been turbocharged by social media. That’s been aided by the fact that we got complacent.
Governing: When did you wake up?
Jonathan Rauch: My initial shock came in the 2016 election campaign. First, we saw Russians manipulating our information space. They didn’t succeed in changing many votes, but they succeeded in muddying the waters about what was and what wasn’t true. They created division. Then we saw something that we had never seen before, an American politician using and adapting Russian-style mass disinformation in American politics. According to PolitiFact, about 25 percent of what Hillary Clinton said during the campaign was either false or mostly false. That’s too high, but not inconsistent with what we expect a politician to say on the campaign trail. The equivalent figure for Donald Trump was 70 percent. You don’t do that by accident. He was applying a Russian tactic called the Firehose of Falsehood, where you spew so many lies, exaggerations, conspiracy theories, half-truths and some truth that people don’t know what to believe. That demoralizes and angers people.
It’s an old tactic, but we’ve never seen it applied at industrial strength by an American politician. Among his first actions as president, he lied about the size of the inaugural crowd and about whether it rained during the inauguration. What he was doing was expressing total sovereignty over truth. He was letting us know that he will say whatever the heck he pleases, and we could believe it or not, but he would no longer be tied down to the Constitution of Knowledge. That’s when I realized that we were in a different universe.
Governing: Jefferson said, “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.” There appears to be no vigilance if 70 million people swallowed these obvious falsehoods.
Jonathan Rauch: Jefferson was wrong about that. We know a lot more than Jefferson knew about human cognitive apparatus and the many ways in which it betrays us. There are dozens of biases and cognitive flaws. The biggest is confirmation bias. We are much quicker to perceive and believe things that conform to our predisposition or increase our status. There’s also conformity bias, where we walk around like little antennas, seeing what the people around us believe and then believing that ourselves. You need a structure to force people to weigh ideas in a social organized way. I can’t see my flaws. You can’t see your flaws. But I can see yours and you can see mine.
What the Constitution of Knowledge does is what Madison did in the U.S. Constitution, and that is to force people to cooperate and compromise. No one has a monopoly on policy or politics. We’ve got to force people to deal with each other, even if they don’t want to. When we do, the result will be more than the sum of the parts. It’s exactly what science does. Science and academics, journalism, law and government — those are the big four of the Constitution of Knowledge. They set up systems where you as an individual can’t just put something in a textbook that you feel is true. You’re going to have to persuade a lot of other people. They’re going to say, “Well, have you considered this or that?” They’re going to have a contrary hypothesis. What will come out at the end probably won’t look like what you started with, but it’s going to be better.
That’s where knowledge comes from. Individual irrationality, combined with our ambition or desire to be proved right, gets harnessed by the system to produce knowledge even if individuals in the system are wrong. It’s incredible when you think about it. You create a system in which you have self-interested factions and individuals. They’re often grubby, and sometimes they’re corrupt. You push them so that their ambitions have to counter each other and they have to contend with each other and compromise. Madison’s genius was understanding that this system could provide you with a creative and stable and working government.
Governing: But what if someone like Donald Trump says, “I never signed on to that. I don’t believe in peer review. I’m entitled to my alternative facts. I never accepted this thing that Jonathan Rauch has outlined.” There’s no enforcement except the will of the people.
Jonathan Rauch: There’s a lot of enforcement of the Constitution of Knowledge. It uses positive incentives. For me as a journalist, the Pulitzer Prize is an example. For academics, there are various awards and citations. But the biggest prize of all is adding something to the canon of knowledge that people will associate with you for all time. Journalists can do that, and academics can do that. You write that paper, and it gets cited again and again. That’s fantastic prestige. On the other hand, if you decide that you want to be a historian who just makes things up, you may get punished. More likely, you’ll just be ignored. If you don’t follow the rules of the system, you simply fall by the wayside. The magic of the Constitution of Knowledge is that you don’t need jail. You just start ignoring people, and they are no longer able to contribute. They’re no longer able to foul the epistemic environment. They sit on the sidelines.
Governing: But there are millions of people who have decided that these standards are not only unenforceable, but that there’s a path to power that doesn’t require being respectable or responsible.
Jonathan Rauch: If some random individuals believe the election was stolen, that’s not a crisis. A certain number of individuals in every election believe it was stolen. But what happens if the office of the presidency, plus conservative media, plus social media, plus the politicians of most of an entire political party, run a concerted and organized disinformation campaign to persuade the country that the election was stolen? That is information warfare waged from the inner sanctums of the U.S. government against the American people by American actors in a systematic and organized way.
We have to view that as being in a different category from random people believing random, wacky things. This is where it becomes worrisome. When an entire political party is not only failing to resist Russian-style disinformation but is actively introducing it into American politics and running on it on the next election, then you have serious difficulty in maintaining your democracy.
Governing: How do we dig out?
Jonathan Rauch: The good news is that, No. 1, humans are pretty good at adapting. No. 2, we hate to live in an epistemically polluted and manipulated environment where you don’t know what’s true and what’s false. And No. 3, reality does ultimately matter. These things are the tools we have to work with, and if they do work, it will be because of an all-of-society, multi-institutional response where all kinds of institutions and individuals that are part of the reality-based community push back in their own spheres.
The big one, of course, is social media. Social media was designed to grab attention regardless of truth value. It turned out to be better at propagating falsehoods than propagating truth. It turned out to be ideal for disinformation and canceling. It’s created a toxic environment for its users and for the country. Social media companies are now aware of that. They weren’t five years ago. They were in denial. Now they’re working very hard on policies, but more importantly on product redesigns, to make the system less manipulable. It’s a difficult problem. They have divided motives, but they’re working on it.
We’re also getting a lot more sophisticated about understanding how information attacks work. We know that the Russians and Chinese and Iranians tried to worm their way into our information networks and pull some of the same disinformation stunts in 2020. They almost universally failed because we have so many more watchdog places now that are alerting the media companies. We presented a much harder target to foreign disinformation in 2020. We still present a soft target to domestic disinformation, but people are better than they used to be at understanding the risks of online misinformation and disinformation.
You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the new Governing podcast, “Listening to America.” Clay’s new book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing firstname.lastname@example.org or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.