Julian Sanchez header image 2

photos by Lara Shipley

A Closed Theory Case Study

October 30th, 2008 · 12 Comments

I’ve been watching, with a certain morbid fascination, the ongoing saga of the “Michelle Obama tapes” hoax. For those just tuning in, this began two weeks ago, when an obscure WordPress blog calling itself “African Press International” claimed that the would-be first lady had called them up to deliver a daffy self-destructive rant—in rather conspicuously stilted English—about white racists and Obama’s purported adoption by his Indonesian stepfather, a topic of keen concern to precisely nobody outside the fever swamps. To top it all off, she purportedly attempted to bribe the star reporters of API with inauguration tickets if they’d only start covering Obama favorably. Which would be a rare case of actual reporting if it had panned out, since the blog’s two year archives consist almost entirely of articles copied from real publications that report on Africa, notwithstanding API’s claim to have 19 journalists on staff.

The story was plainly, hilariously bogus on its face, but a handful of the medium-sized conservative blogs—including a few that you’d expect to know better—tentatively linked to it. Finally, someone at National Review actually checked with the Obama campaign, which of course dismissed the whole thing as a fabrication. The professional conservative press—and soon even most of the fringier sites—displayed the uniform good sense to stay away.

But a small community nevertheless emerged at the API blog, so eager to believe that something, somehow could change the dynamic of the presidential race that they were willing to overlook all the myriad glaring problems with the account.  When the site announced that it had an audio tape of this purported interview, they were ecstatic and howled for its release. Which would be forthcoming! But first… Well, there were vague “legal barriers” to be cleared up, as if a news organization could somehow be sued for publishing a recording of an interview. But they weren’t going to simply upload the “tapes” to their own site or, hell, YouTube, and let the media feeding frenzy begin. No, there then began a protracted search for the “right” news organization to transmit the tapes to. “Fox!” came the near-unanimous cry from the remaining believers. No other network could be trusted to actually air these bombshell recordings, so committed were they to promoting Obama.

Delay followed delay, and even more wildly implausible claims about the contents of this earthshattering tape were offered up. Of course, throughout the process, at each new delay, many who’d initially been gulled came to their senses, saw they’d been conned, and dropped out.  But the dwindling remnant began to form a kind of spontaneous community in the comment threads—and almost immediately began behaving like characters in some social psychology textbook.

Perversely, but in line with a well-established pattern familiar to sociologists, the more implausible the story became, the more the remnant seemed to take a sort of defiant pride in believing without evidence—or rather, despite all the evidence. Expressions of doubt were treated as a kind of moral failing. Convoluted rationales were invented to explain away all the obvious problems with the story. Skeptics were dismissed as “Obots,” and indeed, routinely accused of being paid shills of the Obama campaign sent to sow dissent.

Perhaps most bizarrely, these folks who routinely mocked the messianic pretensions of “The One” began developing something resembling a cult of personality around the shadowy “Chief Editor Korir” who provided their daily dose of hope. They gushed with love and support and gratitude. They expressed fear for his safety from the murderous Obama legions. They hailed him as shining example of the sort of intrepid journalism no longer practiced by the American “MSM.”

When API finally announced a deal had been struck for the tape to be aired on Fox News, there were cries of jubilation. When the site announced that Obama’s unnamed “Campaign Manager” had called to offer a $3 million bribe if the tape was squelched, the crowd was aghast, if not surprised. They offered their prayers for the Chief Editor’s safety when physical threats against API were added to the bill of indictment. There was a flurry of confusion after Fox itself confirmed that the story was a hoax, but faith returned with the announcement that naturally, the network was obfuscating in order to throw off nefarious forces determined to suppress the tape, and that it would air on Hannity’s show within 24 hours.

OK, so, why have I devoted all this space to the case of a handful of naive people who, desperate for something that might revive McCain’s chances, took leave of their common sense and bought into a spectacularly amateurish con that should have raised more red flags than the Kremlin? Well, because in a lot of ways this seems like a rather extreme case, in miniature, of what a lot of the right seems to be going through right now.  Consider this not-sure-whether-to-laugh-or-cry post from one commenter at API:

Imagine a blogless world during this election?

My gosh, every single one of us would have chugged the kool-aid by now, with the coverage that the msm has shoved own our throats.
Thank God for the internet.

That really does, intentionally, say it all, doesn’t it?  Many of us—myself and a lot of my old colleagues at Reason—have spent years celebrating the way the Internet has spelled doom for the old media gatekeepers. But we’re also seeing all the ways this sort of fragmentation, especially when bolstered by a narrative about the unreliability of the “MSM” or traditional “elites,” can create a closed epistemic universe. Not just an “echo chamber,” but an echo planet: a full-blown, self-reinforcing worldview that systematically blocks  dissonant information or, more ingeniously, judo-flips it and reparses it as verification.

Thus, if there’s a spate of news stories that reflect poorly on Republicans, that’s not a reason to reconsider whether they deserve your allegiance, but another data point confirming the bias of the MSM—and the worse it looks, the more egregious the bias. If a conservative as thoughtful and eminent as Charles Fried decides McCain has gone off the rails and Palin is an insult to the office she aspires to occupy, it just goes to show that you can’t trust “elites,” even when they purport to be conservatives. They’re exiled from a “real America” that contains an ever tinier fraction of the population. All the old signifiers of credibility and expertise are inverted and made markers of suspicion. In the new media context, it’s not just that like-minded groups exhibit confirmation bias and groupthink, but that the tethers to reality are cut entirely because the very criteria for what counts as a confirmation or a disconfirmation are jettisoned. And these strategies of isolation proliferate over time precisely because they’re so successful at preserving the social groups that adopt them… at least in the near term.

None of this is an intrinsic pathology of the right—substitute “bourgeois” for “elite” or “mainstream” and you’ve got the closed theory par excellence: Marxism. Hell, Rush Limbaugh actually slipped and said bourgeois in one of his recent jeremiads. But right now that’s the group where this is most evident. Recall Jane’s Law: “The devotees of the party in power are smug and arrogant. The devotees of the party out of power are insane.” We can amend that to “out of power, or clearly on the verge of being.”

I’ve never classed myself as a proper conservative of any sort, and indeed, over the last eight years my tendency has been to increasingly  see allies on the left, if only as a counterweight to the monstrous excesses of the Bush administration. But unlike my friends who march under the progressive banner, I have no desire to see the Republican party relegated to permanent—or even persistent—irrelevance.

I’m going to cheer their coming defeat at the polls precisely because it’s clear that a corrective is in order: They need a time-out to think about what they’ve done. But I’m terrified they’ll spend the next two-to-four years concluding that they erred only in not indulging resentment and celebrating ignorance enough, in not being intransigent enough, in not demonizing their opponents enough. Because if they do, we’re looking at eight years of Democratic supermajorities in Congress under a Democratic executive.

I’m not going to pretend that the political answer is to tack hard libertarian—I have no illusions that the right policy agenda is, by some sort of wonderous Leibnizinan coincidence, also a big electoral winner. But if the shrinking conservative remnant believes that it’s only libertarians and latte-sippers who’ve been turned off by the trifecta of crude populism, fundamentalism, and militarism that has recently been ascendant, they’re in for a still ruder awakening in 2012.

Tags: Horse Race Politics · Sociology



12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Michael B Sullivan // Oct 30, 2008 at 1:55 am

    There’s a relatively mature strain of criticism/worry about modern media trends that suggests that people can use the cool web tools that we all love to create for themselves their own personal echo chamber, sorted to exactly confirm their own biases and nothing else. (The “homophily trap”). For example, it’s something that Ethan Zuckerman worries about regularly, and, though I don’t have other links handy, I’ve seen the worry expressed in a half dozen other places.

    I think it’s a valid concern, and I’m not sure that it is most evident in the lunatic fringe of the right (though they certainly do experience it). I think that you see it in a serious way in the progressive movement right now, where people are working hard to convince themselves that a boost in Democratic fortunes clearly brought on by a disastrous war proves that there’s huge enthusiasm for socialized healthcare. Really?

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Oct 30, 2008 at 2:25 am

    Sure, of course — in a way I’m echoing stuff I’ve been reading for a decade, though I was a lot more dismissive of it then. (In retrospect, I probably owe Andrew Shapiro a drink…) What I think is especially toxic now is the marriage of the echo chamber to an ideology or narrative that works to insulate those like-minded groups from any cognitive dissonance.

    And it’s not that I think progressives are immune to this by any stretch, but at this particular historical moment, I don’t think we’re seeing the mainstreaming of batshit loony there to the same extent it’s showing up on the right.

  • 3 Michael B Sullivan // Oct 30, 2008 at 2:59 am

    Jeez, could I have used the word “worry” any more in that last post?

    I agree, of course, that to the extent that people on, say, Matthew Yglesias’ site are falling into an echo chamber, it’s one that’s considerably more sane than the various Obama conspiracy theories. I guess what I’m saying is that for all that the more centrist/less insane homophily traps are, indeed, far more realistic, that doesn’t necessarily make them less pernicious or less inclined to discard reasonable criticism. Indeed, I think that you could argue that an echo chamber that doesn’t spiral into wild insanity is more troublesome in that it has more of a chance of being big and getting things done, while being equally incapable of recognizing the limits of its world-view.

    (I also don’t mean to single out the progressives like they are particularly prone to this. I just happen to visit those sites, so examples are fresh on my mind. I imagine that these dynamics are at play in almost every online community right now, and I’ve seen arguments that it’s actually happening in physical space as well.)

  • 4 Melly // Oct 30, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    Loved the piece. I, too, have been following this “story” with the same morbid fascination, even posting a few times. Personally, I hope the election does marginalize the type of people I see on that site. Their ignorance, fear-mongering, thinly-veiled racism, and narrow world view do not represent (I hope) the majority. Did you see the guy who posted about not letting his kids play with other “liberal athiest” kids? That was classic.

  • 5 digamma // Oct 30, 2008 at 3:27 pm

    Atlas Shrugs is now alleging that Barack Obama’s biological father is actually Malcolm X.

    No, really.

  • 6 Will // Oct 30, 2008 at 4:07 pm

    I realize that conspiracism isn’t the exclusive provenance of the Right, but perhaps an ideology that is generally suspicious of centralized power inadvertently attract a disproportionate number of conspiracy theorists? Wasn’t that part of Richard Hofstadter’s thesis in “The Paranoid Style in American Politics?”

  • 7 Will // Oct 30, 2008 at 4:08 pm

    “. . . inadvertently attracts . . .”

  • 8 Lester Hunt // Oct 30, 2008 at 6:28 pm

    Julian, Excellent piece as usual. The most frightening question of all, as you suggest, is whether the Republicans will draw the right conclusions during their richly deserved time out. The fact that, after eight years of a warmongering “moderate” they saw fit to nominate another one does not bode well. It is, as they say on Wall Street, bearish, very bearish.

  • 9 Craig // Nov 1, 2008 at 11:04 pm

    I partly agree – there is a dangerous anti-elitism in republican circles; and it is magnified by the ‘don’t trust the MSM meme’.

    But at the same time any reasonably fair observer of this election would have to conclude that the MSM is biased in Obama’s favor.

    To take just one example – Obama has all sorts of dubious associations, yet we hear far more about Trig Palin’s paternity than what Obama was doing on a board with Ayers or how he managed to not hear Wright’s Afro-racism for 20 years. Nor has the MSM pushed him on why his story of his connection to Ayers has changed several times – first he was ‘a guy I knew in the neighbourhood’ etc.

    In contrast to this disinterest in Obama’s past, the MSM has given Joe the plumber a rectal exam; hyped the alleged craziness of those who got to Republican rallies (while ignoring the vile things said about Palin by the o-bots); and covered Cindy McCain’s use of prescription drugs in detail but refused to release a tape which may tell us where the next President stands on the Israel-Palestine question.

    I am a sceptical libertarian but watching the media coverage has made me more sympathetic to McCain than I otherwise would be.

    And as for your despair at Republican “militarism” – would that be the same blood-thirstiness that removed two brutal dictatorships from power in recent years. We definitely need to stop doing that! Better to elect Obama so he can go and negotiate with a Holocaust denier who wants nukes.

  • 10 Julian Sanchez // Nov 2, 2008 at 12:23 am

    If you find the Iraq war remotely defensible at this late date, I’m not going to bother arguing that point with you. Some of the other points are fair—the average journalist’s personal preference for Obama likely is shaping coverage. Some less so. Obama actually never said Ayers was “just” a guy who lived in my neighborhood — that shows up in quotation marks a lot, but it’s wrong. He said Ayers was “a guy who lived in my neighborhood who…” and then went on to mention some of the organizations they’d both worked with. In some of the other cases, I think they probably took a look and decided there was nothing very interesting there — though certainly you could argue that their view of what’s “interesting” is part of the bias. I’m certainly not going to deny there is a net media preference for Obama that shapes coverage, but in a perverse way, I think the effect of this has been in part to persuade some people there must be dark secrets lurking in the stories “the MSM won’t cover” (enough), even if the reason is there isn’t that much story there. Every time Stan Kurtz whines about how the MSM has failed to shower attention on his latest earthshattering investigative report, I go and look and find myself thinking: “Really? That’s all you’ve got? Why *would* anyone pay attention?”

  • 11 Tybalt // Nov 3, 2008 at 12:11 am

    “Obama has all sorts of dubious associations, yet we hear far more about Trig Palin’s paternity than what Obama was doing on a board with Ayers or how he managed to not hear Wright’s Afro-racism for 20 years.”

    Do we really? The Trig Palin stuff – which is genuinely nutzoid – I don’t think I’d have heard at all if it weren’t for reading Andrew Sullivan, who is hardly the “mainstream media”. The Ayers/Wright stuff I hear several times every day on cable news, which is unavoidable because for a while every McCain surrogate in the country mentioned it several times per interview.

    I think your preconceived notions of the mainstream media are making you hear things in the coverage that aren’t there.

  • 12 Julian Sanchez // Nov 3, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    Oh, yeah, ditto to Tybalt: The idea that the mainstream media have given even a fraction as much attention to weird theories about Trig’s paternity as Ayers or Wright is just bizarre. I don’t think I’ve seen the former anywhere but at Sullivan’s and a few progressive blogs. Ayers and Wright have both been subject to plenty of coverage from the “liberal” media — just not as much as some McCain supporters think they merit. But if there’s a bias at work there, it seems to be toward fresh stories — they talked about Wright and Ayers for a while, and then they move on unless there’s some new hook.