Welcome to Our New ‘Bespoke Realities’

I’ve known conspiracy theorists my entire life. In fact, there’s probably a little bit of conspiracy theorist in each of us, myself included. (Don’t get me started on Game 6 of the 2002 N.B.A. Western Conference Finals.) We’re naturally drawn to mysteries, rumors of secret backroom deals and tales of intrigue. Some dive in more deeply and recklessly than others, but showing an interest in the story behind a story isn’t just human nature, it can also be a sign of healthy skepticism, and an unwillingness to take official or conventional explanations at face value.

When I was growing up, the father of one of my friends was fascinated by the J.F.K. assassination. Another friend’s dad devoured accounts of U.F.O. encounters. They weren’t weird or worrisome or dangerous men, just quirky and interesting. Under no circumstance were they a threat to American democracy.

But in recent years I’ve encountered, both in person and online, a phenomenon that is different from the belief or interest in any given conspiracy theory. People don’t just have strange or quirky ideas on confined subjects. They have entire worldviews rooted in a comprehensive network of misunderstandings and false beliefs.

And these aren’t what you’d call low-information voters. They’re some of the most politically engaged people I know. They consume news voraciously. They’re perpetually online. For them, politics isn’t just a hobby; in many ways, it’s a purpose.

There is a fundamental difference between, on the one hand, someone who lives in the real world but also has questions about the moon landing, and on the other, a person who believes the Covid vaccine is responsible for a vast number of American deaths and Jan. 6 was an inside job and the American elite is trying to replace the electorate with new immigrant voters and the 2020 election was rigged and Donald Trump is God’s divine choice to save America.

Such individuals don’t simply believe in a conspiracy theory, or theories. They live in a “bespoke reality.” That brilliant term comes from my friend Renée DiResta, the technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, and it refers to the effects of what DiResta calls a “Cambrian explosion of bubble realities,” communities “that operate with their own norms, media, trusted authorities and frameworks of facts.”

It’s not just Twitter and Facebook. It’s not just cable channels or talk radio. It’s ubiquitous. Take YouTube, for example. DiResta writes that in 2019, YouTube hosted more than 8,000 channels with more than a million subscribers apiece. This means YouTube alone is sending a tsunami of content into the public square, algorithmically curated to provide subscribers with exactly the videos it predicts they’ll like.

Combine vast choice with algorithmic sorting, and we now possess a remarkable ability to become arguably the most comprehensively, voluntarily and cooperatively misinformed generation of people ever to walk the earth. The terms “voluntarily” and “cooperatively” are key. We don’t live in North Korea, Russia or the People’s Republic of China. We’re drunk on freedom by comparison. We’re misinformed not because the government is systematically lying or suppressing the truth. We’re misinformed because we like the misinformation we receive and are eager for more.

The market is very, very happy to provide us with all the misinformation we like. Algorithms recognize our preferences and serve up the next video or article that echoes or amplifies the themes of the first story we clicked. Media outlets and politicians notice the online trends and serve up their own content that sometimes deliberately and sometimes mistakenly reinforces false narratives and constructs alternative realities.

Then, as consumers interact with one another in these like-minded online spaces, they not only form new communities, they also begin shared journeys of discovery that construct, brick by brick, their new political, social and religious realities.

As DiResta writes in her upcoming book, “Invisible Rulers: The People Who Turn Lies Into Reality,” “Bespoke realities are made for — and by — the individual.” Americans experience a “choose-your-own-adventure epistemology: some news outlet somewhere has written the story you want to believe, some influencer is touting the diet you want to live by or demonizing the group you also hate.”

In a media ecosystem so large and full of nooks so precisely tuned to your biases and desires, you can always find evidence, real or imagined, to validate your priors. Just as important, you’re also protected from receiving any information that might cause you to question those priors.

Countless people have asked me, for example, why Republican voters remain so loyal to Trump in spite of his eye-watering displays of corruption and misconduct. And while there are certainly some people who support Trump even though they know chapter and verse about his misdeeds, vast numbers of others are shockingly ignorant of all that he’s done. Their bespoke reality simply doesn’t include that information.

But don’t think for a moment that bespoke realities are confined to the right. On Wednesday, video segments raced across the internet featuring utterly bizarre public statements from a City Council meeting in Oakland, Calif. The council was debating a resolution to call for a cease-fire in Gaza and, in response to a suggestion that it include a condemnation of Hamas, far-left progressives took to the mic to make a series of astonishing claims, including that Israel “murdered their own people on Oct. 7” and that those who opposed them were “old white supremacists.”

Sometimes bespoke realities can yield a false consensus across partisan lines, even if different communities make the same mistakes for different reasons. For example, consider the fascinating reality that huge percentages of Americans have extremely negative views about the economy in spite of a considerable amount of good economic news. Americans are far more negative about the broader economy than they are about their own personal finances.

Republicans of course receive a steady stream of negative information about “Bidenomics.” They’re constantly told that the economy is in a state of crisis. But what of everyone else? Republican disapproval alone can’t fully explain why consumer confidence is roughly at the same place as it was at the height of the Great Recession, even though the economy is growing, unemployment is low and inflation is slowing. During the Great Recession, by contrast, the economy was shrinking, unemployment was soaring and there was real concern that the entire global financial system was on the verge of collapse.

But if you’re a politically active progressive, your curated feeds may be full of critiques of “late capitalism” and examples of economic failure and injustice. As a result, both Bidenomics-hating Republicans and socialism-curious progressives are shockingly negative about an American economy that certainly has problems but is still the envy of most of the world.

In fact, I’d argue that the more politically engaged you are, the harder it is to avoid bespoke realities. The most politically engaged of us are going to spend a disproportionate amount of our spare time perusing political media, much of it online. And each algorithm will notice our political preferences and try to feed us content that matches those preferences.

Understanding this dynamic helps us better understand one of the most interesting and troubling studies of our modern political moment. In June 2019, the group More in Common released a study demonstrating that Americans are wrong about their political opponents in a particularly destructive way: They believe them to be more extreme than they really are. Moreover, those who consume political media were more wrong about their political opponents than those who consumed no media at all. Those who follow the news “most of the time” were roughly three times as wrong about their opponents as those who follow the news “hardly at all.”

Bespoke realities help explain why many of my peers describe friends and parents as “lost” or “gone.” They may be physically present, but they’re psychologically and intellectually in a different world entirely — so much so that their kids and confidants have a hard time relating to them.

It’s important to recognize that no person or movement is immune to the temptations of bespoke reality. We’re all vulnerable, including me, and we should not presume that we possess the innate character, wisdom and insight to avoid the comfortable falsehood in favor of the difficult truth. Rather, I recognize that I’m vulnerable and take specific steps to try to challenge my priors.

That means following as many or more people who disagree with me as agree with me. That means reading the best and smartest people I can find who disagree with me. These practices help both challenge me and humanize my opponents.

Unless we strive to be self-aware, and sometimes even when we do, we fall prey to our own human nature and the algorithms designed to feed us our expressed preferences. Bespoke reality is the path of least resistance. It’s what feels natural. It’s what feels comfortable. Understanding the real world, by contrast, requires effort. It requires us to challenge ourselves. And it requires us to accept an alarming reality: In the midst of this “Cambrian explosion” of information and outlets, our own curiosity and quest for insight — the very tools on which we’ve relied to dig for the truth — can instead lead us astray.

This post was originally published on NY Times

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