Corrupted infrastructures of meaning: post-truth identities online
Catherine R. Baker and Andrew Chadwick
False and distorted beliefs are widespread in contemporary societies. In 2018, almost a third of the US population did not believe in the safety of vaccines (Wellcome Trust 2018). In stark contrast with earlier predictions that social media would enhance rationality in the public sphere, a troubling array of communities based on what we term post-truth identities have now set sail online, unmoored by fact-based discourse. From ‘anti-vaxxers’ to #MGTOW (‘Men Going Their Own Way’) supporters, from ‘flat-Earthers’ to Obama ‘truthers’, from 9/11, *#QAnon’, and ‘#Pizzagate’conspiracy theorists to proponents of scientifically unproven ‘miracle cures’for pandemics and terminal diseases — many such online communities have achieved remarkable levels of public prominence. In this chapter, we offer some explanations why.
Our overarching argument is that post-truth identities emerge from a confluence of individuallevel and contextual factors. Cognitive biases that shape how individuals encounter and process information have recently been granted freer rein as a result of changes in the technological basis of media systems in the advanced democracies. 1’ost-truth identities rely upon what we term corrupted, self-initiated infrastructures of meaning that are animated by emotional narratives and repositories of cherry-picked, misrepresented justifying ‘evidence’. These infrastructures are, in part, enabled by the unique affordances of social media for decentralising, but also algorithmically organising, the production and circulation of socially consequential information. And yet much of the infrastructural scaffolding exists on the broader internet, away from social media platforms, in dedicated folksonomic settings. These infrastructures of meaning also provide ready-made materials that mainstream media organisations can use in their reporting, which further contributes to the spread of false and distorted beliefs and the formation of identity among both existing supporters and new recruits.
We adapt the term infrastructure of meaning from its fleeting appearance in Weinberger’s optimistic web 2.0 prophecy Everything Is Miscellaneous (2007, 171—172). This is how he described it:
For the first time, we have an infrastructure that allows us to hop over and around established categorizations with ease. We can make connections and relationships at a pace never before imagined. We are doing so together. We are doing so in public . . . Each connection tells us something about the connected things, about the person who made the connection, about the culture in which a person could make such a connection, about the sorts of people who find that connection worth noticing. This is how meaning grows . . . This infrastructure of meaning is always present and available, so that we can contextualize the information we find and the ideas we encounter.
In this chapter, we jettison Weinbergers optimism and instead turn the concept of an infrastructure of meaning to critical use for making sense of post-truth identities. As we show, the ability to ‘hop over’ ‘established categorizations’ (in Weinberger’s terminology) also enables the production of distorted systems of internally coherent classifications that are designed to enhance in-group coherence and systematically mislead. The culture and sense of belonging that derive from public connection can also enable signaling, legitimising, and giving license to false and distorted beliefs. Unaccountable modes of algorithmic prioritisation in search and social media platforms often bring such beliefs to audiences far beyond the core adherents. ‘Always present’ contextualisation also enables online post-truth communities to selectively attend to information that promotes falsehoods and bigotry while marginalising contradictory evidence.
Post-truth identities have developed in a long-term context of declining trust in established media and political institutions and growing cynicism towards authority and expertise among significant segments of the public. There has also been a generational shift in the transnational modes of connectivity available to those who hold conspiracy mentalities and extreme ideologies of hatred and who wish to build networks with like-minded others across the globe.
But in addition to these macro-structural changes, we suggest that attention ought to focus on how post-truth identities come to be formed and maintained at the micro level, in everyday life. Here, drawing upon the social identity theory tradition in social psychology, we assume that identity is inextricably bound up with group formation and group belonging (e.g. Tajfel 1982). All kinds of conspiracy theories are active at any given time — consider, for example, the false belief, widespread in the UK, that the coronavirus epidemic of 2020 was caused by the installation of5G radio masts by Chinese telecom companies. But the fact of a conspiracy theory’s existence does not automatically lead to the formation of post-truth identities. Instead, post-truth identities are distinguished by their remarkable and disturbing resilience over time, which makes them particularly important objects of study. Online, such groups build shared identities through the selective production of knowledge, norms, and values. In this context, we define ‘knowledge’ in neutral terms, as a process involving the justification of beliefs. The process of identitybuilding depends heavily upon self-initiated, online infrastructures of meaning, not least because such groups only fleetingly see themselves represented in mainstream media coverage. Identity-affirming knowledge, norms, and values are continuously and publicly constructed by those who congregate in post-truth communities on mainstream online platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. Identity affirmation may, in turn, be reinforced by the major online platforms’ commercially driven, personalised recommendation affordances, such as Google search’s autosuggest, YouTube’s autoplay, and Facebook’s news feed. Such affordances contribute to shared experiences among believers but can also make it more likely that larger audiences will be exposed to falsehoods as part of everyday searching, reading, viewing, and sharing. At the same time, it ought to be recognised that much post-truth discursive identity work happens in online spaces away from social media platforms — in forums, wikis, email lists, podcasts, and alternative news sites. And finally, this identity work is itself also boosted from time to time by celebrity endorsements and news coverage by professional media organisations. We illustrate these themes with three examples: ‘anti-vaxxers’, ‘flat-Earthers’, and ‘incels’.