Susan Campbell (opinion): Do facts still exist in the internet age?

Illustration about Jan. 6 hearings

Illustration about Jan. 6 hearings

Jennifer Kohnke / Jennifer Kohnke

If you are among the millions who’ve been watching the hearings of the Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 Attack on the United States Capitol, you may fall into one of two camps.

People in one group watch so they can understand what happened that day in 2021 when Americans, in an attempt to disrupt a fair election, stormed the Capitol.

People in the other (most likely larger) camp watch because they believe they already know what happened, and they’re listening to testimony and watching videos strictly to affirm what they already believe is true.

Jordan R. Youngblood, an Eastern Connecticut State University associate professor of English, said that these days, we tend to treat facts as do attorneys. We draw our conclusions, and then we go in search of information that proves we’re right. And that information — which may not be factual — is served up in an online echo chamber we and the algorithms created. Where once nutty notions could live and die with individuals scattered around the country, now those people find a community in the fertile ground that is the internet. They share conspiracy theories, egg one another on, and sometimes, commit violence because the web told them to.

Youngblood, whose research is in video games, sexuality, and gender, has given off-campus talks about some of the concepts he teaches, including digital rhetoric, or the study of how we persuade, engage, and communicate with one another in a tech-driven landscape. These day, content-gathering algorithms and the ability to share or retweet or use the like button all help form our beliefs, he says.

When information is used strictly as a means to fortify one’s argument, it isn’t a big leap to ignore information that doesn’t bolster that argument, said Youngblood. And so here we are, witnesses to an ugly moment in history that some of our fellows (maddeningly) do not acknowledge.

Some people have refused to watch the public hearings because the facts presented there challenge their beliefs. Despite all evidence to the contrary — they may believe that the former president should still be in office. Though we have emerging evidence that the former president’s own advisers and family know that he lost, there are loud hold-outs who cling to the lie.

The night of the first televised hearing, Youngblood said some of those committed-to-the-lie turned to two of the former president’s staunchest supporters to tell them what to think, and Fox News accommodated them by skipping commercial breaks to allow Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity to float nonstop fetid nonsense. As a headline in “The Guardian” said: “As America watched Capitol attack testimony, Fox News gave an alternate reality.”

Embracing an alternate reality allows some conservatives to claim the deadly insurrection was actually a constitutionally-protected protest.

You wouldn’t hand a knife to a toddler, but people who didn’t grow up online — non-digital natives, if you will — are using social media when they have no idea how it works, sometimes with disastrous results. They have abandoned reality and succumbed to the gamification of American political conversation, which sees discussion primarily as, as Youngblood said, “a metrics-driven process of gaining the highest number of comments, shares, and engagement.”

“Truth can be largely ignored or bent in the effort to earn clout among the active online base,” he said. “In numerous instances among conservative politicians, for example, the goal is purely to be noticed and obtain visibility for one’s personal brand rather than produce laws or bills.”

Look, he says, at the short career of Madison Cawthorn, who admitted after he was elected that he was more interested in “comms” (communication) than legislation. Look at Marjorie Taylor Greene (whose anti-Semitic comments and advocacy of violence against Democrats lost her her House committee memberships) and Matt Gaetz (who was concerned enough about his own bad behavior that he sought a preemptive pardon from the former president). People ill-suited for public consumption have built political careers making outlandish statements online, Youngblood said. Who needs facts — or, as Youngblood says, even policy — when your goal is strictly owning the libs?

Will we ever get back to embracing the same set of facts? Would, say, removing the ability to like or retweet encourage more discourse? Or would that discourse be every bit as fruitless as arguing whose religion is better? As Youngblood says, conservatives are responding to far-right conspiracy theories (Pizzagate comes to mind) that demand action. Is there a way to lower the fever?

But take heart. Twenty million or so people watched last weeks’ opening hearing. That was less than the number of people who tuned into Biden’s inauguration but nearly twice as many who watched the former president’s impeachment trials. And that number doesn’t include viewers on C-SPAN or some streaming services. As Youngblood said, the hearings could sway someone who is still undecided. They’re out there and they’re watching, too.

Susan Campbell is the author of “Frog Hollow: Stories from an American Neighborhood,” “Tempest-Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker” and “Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism and the American Girl.” She is Distinguished Lecturer at the University of New Haven, where she teaches journalism .