One of the more depressing features of our information environment is the growing tendency to combine absolute scepticism of the ‘mainstream media’ with absolute credulity in relation to anonymous people stumbled across on social media. It’s something you’ll have encountered at least a few times if you use Twitter or Facebook on even a semi-regular basis, often seen by a forceful dissemination of a demonstrably false idea wrapped up in a denunciation of the mass media. It’s hard not to infer that such people were equally credulous towards the media prior to their red pilling and that falling down the rabbit hole has simply reallocated their credulity rather than prompted a deeper evaluation of all sources. This extract from a piece on wellness motherhood influencers captures something important about how this holds together:
“Do your research” is the ultimate thought-terminating cliché, because it claims to empower the recipient to draw her own conclusions based on her own critical thinking and evaluation of source material, but in actuality, “Do your research” demands the exact opposite: total conformity to the speaker’s viewpoint. Montell says that it actually “shuts the interlocutor down by evaluating that they are clearly hopelessly uninformed.” “Do your research” takes advantage of our cultural understanding that “research” is typically associated with some sort of legitimate authority, but what qualifies as research varies widely. Peer-reviewed scientific studies are not equivalent to a few apocryphal links that serve to verify a cultish leader’s claims. Montell says, “There’s no specificity about what that ‘research’ is, of course—the phrase simply communicates that this person, by nature of their arguments, has surely not done it and needs to stop talking, stop thinking really, until they do.”
The phrase “do your research!” is ubiquitous across the subcultures which have popped up amidst platform capitalism’s epistemic chaos. As Sara Peterson points out in this quote, drawing on an interview with Amanda Montell, to call for someone to do their research is a superficially empowering response which is actually epistemically subordinating: it makes clear someone hasn’t done their research (in the way advocated) and suggests their views should be dismissed until they’ve willingly taken the red pill.
It often goes hand-in-hand with a feral empiricism in which the mediated constructed of reality is rejected out of hand in favour of what can be seen with one’s own eyes. This treats tweets, posts, memes and videos as something like sense data which are encountered without the gatekeeping of media elites, unless liberal big tech firms start to censor the free flow of this data because they don’t want people to know the truth!
Once you accept that, as Will Davies once put it, you’re not going to convert people who have gone flat earth who believe in QAnon by ‘hurling facts’ at them, it becomes crucial to understand these subcultures as cultural forms, which have emerged in the chaotic environment which social media platforms have generated. These problems will not be solved by fact checking because it’s precisely the ‘fact’ itself (as well as the experts whose authority underwrites this status) which is crumbling before our very eyes.