Farhad Manjoo has a story in the Times today about Joan Donovan and the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard, which she directs. The center has been compiling databases of information manipulation techniques, and they have just published the Media Manipulation Casebook, which you can find online. Perusing these case studies, Manjoo writes
Every day I grow more fearful that the number of those Americans will be large enough to imperil our nation’s capacity to function as a cohesive society.
Sometimes I worry about this, too. But other times I wonder how new any of this is, and whether our situation is as bad as it has been at some times in the past. Modern history is full of crazy beliefs, from the Great Fear during the French Revolution to magical water of the Mau Mau revolt against the British in Africa. Consider that in 1919-1920 the US was convulsed by a "Red Scare" that led to hundreds of violent attacks on immigrants, mass deportation of immigrant activists, and outright massacres of black citizens who were said to be joining the anarcho-communists in a war against white America. Nothing of comparable magnitude has happened over the past few years.
On the other hand there really was a Russian Revolution, and some immigrants really were left-wing agitators. So while the effects were much worse than, say, QAnon, you could argue that at least as it applied to European immigrants the Red Scare was more grounded in reality. So is there any sense in which our situation is worse than that? Are internet-driven conspiracy theories in some way more insidious, more dangerous, more complete than old-style conspiracy theories spread by newspapers or word of mouth?
Right now I feel like, no, they are not. Perhaps political craziness waxes and wanes somewhat over time, but it is always with us. We are irrational creatures, driven by tribalism and fear. We are going, sometimes, to believe crazy ideas and do crazy things. And if there is something weirdly insidious about the Internet as a way to coordinate and spread lies, and has so far not had any effects as awful as old conspiracy theories about Jews and slave revolts.
And it's not like the non-conspiratorial media are free from lies or manipulation. I personally found our national determination to invade Iraq in 2003 every bit as weird as QAnon, and a lot more alarming, And how about the belief on Wall Street that mortgage-backed bonds were safe? That did a lot more damage than QAnon has.
We all have to be on guard against false and foolish beliefs, all the time, and that includes things being pushed by "mainstream" politicians and newspapers. I don't say this to dismiss the danger of violent ideas being spread over the Internet, which have already led to many deaths. I just don't yet see that the Internet will lead to greater divorce from reality than we have already seen at many other times and places.