David Atkins wrote an interesting analysis of how “epistemic closure” — the misnomer coined by Julian Sanchez to describe groupthink — led the National Rifle Association to create an advertisement that had a lie at its core: that the school that President Obama’s children attend has armed guards. Atkins writes,
When honest pundits try to piece together what happened to the American Right, one of the phrases that tends to get bandied about is “epistemic closure”, which is a really fancy way of saying that everyone on the Right gets their information from everyone else on the Right, with none of them leaving their information cocoon to see or care whether their information plays well with the broader public or is even accurate.
. . .
Now, it’s one thing to get information from sources that confirm your ideological beliefs. It happens to the most circumspect of us, and sometimes we bloggers relay false information that “seems” right and then are forced to retract. If we do it more than very occasionally, we begin to lose credibility. So even unpaid bloggers, if they’re any good, will do a little research to confirm what they’ve read lest they lose their audience. If they’re shown to be wrong, they’ll post an update with an apology and/or retraction. And they’ll do this level of research even if they’re churning out several posts a day at whirlwind speed.
But for a national organization like the NRA to have invested this much organizational time, money and energy into an ad campaign based on false information from a widely discredited source, without doing even the first steps to confirm the information that is the entire basis for the attack? That is inexcusable solipsism and epistemic closure of the first order.
I couldn’t agree more. Several years ago I quoted approvingly from commentary by Glenn Reynolds who runs the popular Instapundit blog. Reynolds wrote something that at the time I thought was fairly salient on the difference between mainstream media and alternative/non-mainstream media on the Internet,
The Internet, on the other hand, is a low-trust environment. Ironically, that probably makes it more trustworthy.
That’s because, while arguments from authority are hard on the Internet, substantiating arguments is easy, thanks to the miracle of hyperlinks. And, where things aren’t linkable, you can post actual images. You can spell out your thinking, and you can back it up with lots of facts, which people then (thanks to Google, et al.) find it easy to check. And the links mean that you can do that without cluttering up your narrative too much, usually, something that’s impossible on TV and nearly so in a newspaper.
So far, so good. One of the advantages of the Internet is the ability to quickly send readers off to judge for themselves whether or not you’ve accurately summarized some study or report, for example. When writing an article about some new study or other, no newspaper would have devoted the space (much less paid for the rights) to reproduce the study in its entirety. With the Internet, however, if someone makes a claim it is often fairly easy to check the veracity of that claim.
That’s what I assumed Reynolds was talking about, but he wasn’t. Rather, Reynolds and other bloggers seem to find stories that fit their ideologies and then follow the old “too good to check” mentality of some old school media.
For example, often what you’ll find on Instapundit is some proactive text with a link. But when you follow that link, what you often will find is a summary of an issue with a link to the source. But when you follow that link, it is often itself just a link to someone else’s summary and so on to the point where you may have to go through 5 or 6 links before you to get to the bottom of the rabbit hole.
It is possible to use Google to fact check some of these extraordinary claims, but Reynolds rarely bother to do so, and often neither do those he’s linking to. While they were raging against the mainstream media’s techniques, conservative bloggers ended up largely embracing and extending them.
After all, even on the Internet doing actual research to validate a claim can take some time, and any delay in getting out a hit piece on one’s ideological enemies is something right wing bloggers apparently can’t afford. The other problem is that such research might end up either disproving the claim outright or at least revealing it to be much more nuanced than originally claimed. Neither are outcomes conducive to the hermetically sealed environment that ideologues insist on building for themselves.
This is where I would offer an objection if I were reading this on some other blog. Yes, the right has built itself an echo chamber, but surely leftists and liberals often engage in similar behavior. Just go read DailyKos or similar sites for awhile and you’ll see plenty of similar examples.
True enough, but Reynolds and others set themselves as being a more accurate, thoroughly fact-checked successor to the mainstream media. Instead, they helped kick old school media to the curb only so they could go on to make the same mistakes and engage in the same ridiculous practices. Meet the new Dan Rather; same as the old Dan Rather.