Recently, the Mercatus Center’s executive director, Dan Rothschild, sat down with Arnold Kling and Martin Gurri to discuss the post-truth phenomenon. The transcript, as well as the audio of that conversation, has been lightly edited for clarity.
DAN ROTHSCHILD: Welcome everyone. I’m pleased to be here moderating a discussion on the question of social epistemology and what some people are calling our post-truth age with people who are uniquely qualified to talk about it. Martin Gurri is a veteran CIA analyst, a visiting fellow at the Mercatus Center, and a George Mason University alum, I want to be sure to add. Martin is also the author of a recent piece on the Mercatus site The Bridge, “The Way Out of Post-Truth.” And he’ll be having a conversation with Arnold Kling, a senior affiliated scholar at the Mercatus Center, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and the author of most recently The Three Languages of Politics, which is now I believe on its third edition.
So, Martin, why don’t we go ahead and kick it off with you? Can you talk about what it means to be in a post-truth society? There’s a lot to unpack in that term, so let’s dive right in.
MARTIN GURRI: Yeah. The term itself is an old phrase that was resurrected in 2016, essentially by the intellectual and political elites to explain what on earth happened in Brexit and with Donald Trump, which of course for them was a tremendous disaster that needed to be explained. Post-truth began first in Britain. Always the concept has had kind of an English accent to it. It was a way of saying, well, these events could not have happened without reality having been warped in some way between the candidates and the electorates.
That is not the way I use the phrase at all. I think that’s perfectly acceptable if you want to say that, but I believe that it all goes back to the terrible question by Pontius Pilate, “What is truth?” We tend to think in terms of, “Well, truth is an accumulation of facts that are gathered by scientists and experts, and they pile up into a heap somewhere that we all agree to.” That’s just not the way the world works. Truth is a function of trust and pertains to the authority of the source. So, if tomorrow we came to think of scientists, for example, as being crackpots, then their pronouncements would have no more resonance than the TV commercial.
Now, we live in an era of zero trust. All our great institutions have essentially lost the trust of the public for various reasons that I explain in The Revolt of the Public. An era of zero trust—it’s a crisis of authority—is bound to be a crisis of uncertainty. And I think my definition of post-truth is essentially an endless number of perspectives. I believe reality hasn’t changed. I don’t believe it’s constructed. I don’t believe it’s soft and malleable; it’s hard. If you get run over by a truck, it hurts.
But perspectives, particularly in mediated reality, are infinite. They’re fragmented, and there isn’t a trusted authority in the room to settle the matter. Probably the most important function elites was to interpret the world for us, but we don’t trust that anymore. And I think a symptom of that is that we don’t really argue to persuade. We hardly even argue content, substance anymore. We argue to dominate. Our facts should dominate and your facts should be annihilated.
Literally, I think a couple of days after I wrote that piece for The Bridge, there was this fuss with Trump being fact-checked by Twitter. And I thought, “Okay, if I were to take a case study of what post-truth means to me, this would be it: he posts, he gets fact-checked. Zuckerberg, Mark Zuckerberg, the head of Facebook, says, “We should not be the arbiters of truth.” Elizabeth Warren jumps in and says, “Mark Zuckerberg, in this hate-spewing place—Fox News—has come out and said, ‘Presidents are allowed to lie.’” Meanwhile, Trump is passing this executive order saying, “Well, you people can either be heads of edited content or you can be neutral platforms, but you can’t be both.”
So, what Trump said in that original tweet, you can ask 99 people out of 100, they have forgotten that. Actually, it was a valid point. I mean, it was stated in normal Trumpian way with extreme words and so forth, but it was a question of the validity of mail-in votes. Everybody forgot about that. That was a legitimate question to be discussed. We’re not fighting my facts versus your facts.
ARNOLD KLING: So, there’s a lot to unpack there. I’d like to go back to this terminology “post-truth” because that’s a loaded term and people can get into a lot of difficulties over it. Let me throw out three types of truth. There’s God’s truth, what you call reality. There are private truths, what people believe in their own heart. And then there’s social truth, which is this truth that everybody accepts from authority.
An example would be the fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” So, God’s truth is, the emperor is naked. The private truths that people have, if people who are looking at it would say, “Well, I guess he’s naked.” But the social truth is that he’s got this wonderful set of clothes because the New York Times is saying he’s got a wonderful set of clothes, and everyone accepts that authority.
And I think what you mean by post-truth is that the social truth has broken down. There is no authority, and so we’re left with these private truths, and unlike the case of the emperor’s new clothes, the private truths, they can’t be grounded in reality. That’s a notion called naive realism, when you believe that what you believe is absolute reality because nobody has that kind of God’s perspective. So, you have these private truths, and they’re fractured, as you say. So, it’s like a Hobbesian war of all against all. David Weinberger has this phrase that for every fact there is an equal and opposite fact, and we’re in that fractured world.
To me what post-truth means is that we’ve lost the social truth of authorities. And I think that’s happened before. Hundreds of years ago, the religious authorities created social truth. And then the scientists broke in and broke that down. And now we’ve gone through this period where the journalists and the political leaders and other elites and academic elites gave us the social truth. And I think what you’re saying now is that they’ve, for whatever reason, lost their authority, and so we’ve just got these different private truths out there competing.
GURRI: Yeah. Actually, I think the comparison with the decline of religion and the rise of science is perfect. That’s a perfect example. I think that’s been described at times as being a disenchantment. We don’t see an enchanted world anymore. There aren’t any fairies in the woodlands, and there aren’t any spirits that we can appeal to. And I think that is exactly what’s happened many centuries later to essentially that 20th century industrial system of institutions and government. There has been a profound disenchantment for the same reasons, that some of the things that were being claimed, many of the important claims that the systems made, were found to be not so.
And the flip side of that, again, from what you were saying, which is I think really the mood most of us seem to be in today, is that fracturing and that private truth you’re talking about, we seem to be getting deeper and deeper into a very subjectivized perception of what truth should be. That’s sometimes described as an information bubble, but that’s false because that assumes that you are in a bubble but somebody somehow knows the truth. So, you are escaping from some gigantic truth by being in your bubble. There is no truth out there. We’re all retreating into ourselves.
When you look at—to talk about some terrible people—your random shooters, people who pick up a gun and start killing other strangers, innocent strangers, for no particular reason, and you read their manifestos and so forth, you realize that, first of all, they’re heroes to themselves. They are the most virtuous people to themselves that exist. They have no conscience about what they’re doing, whatever. And that’s true because the facts that they seem to be living in are so deeply subjective, they’re so deep inside their own minds, that the fact that they’re murdering people, that doesn’t even penetrate.
This is more than just politics. I think it’s a social pathology. There are associated pathologies of our society. The fact that the elites were supposed to be providing an authority for us to explain reality in terms that the rest of us can understand— And those of us who are old enough—and that would be me—can remember when in the 20th century you would read the experts, and they would explain things, and so forth. Then you would agree or disagree, but there it was. When that disappears, anything is possible. A great deal of nihilism can go through that open door.
KLING: I think a lot of people are inclined to just blame the dissidents for this. If we didn’t have cable and Fox News and crazy websites, we could go back to the New York Times. If everyone would just accept the New York Times, it would take care of itself. But I think you and I both agree we’re probably not going back to that. And if anything, that looks less appealing now than it might’ve 40 years ago because of a real deterioration in the traditional authorities’ abilities.
And one thing that struck me, I was rereading Joseph Henrich, The Secret of Our Success. It’s about how important culture is to us. You and I, as individuals, come into the world knowing nothing about how to navigate our complex world, and we learn from other people, from culture, and that in turn means we have to respect the prestige of authorities, teachers, and scientists, and so on.
But he also points out that the systems that create authority have a tendency to just break down over time, that people learn to game the system rather than achieving through merit. So, if you can imagine 30 years ago, to become a leading professor, or 50 years ago, you had to really show that you could attack the important problems in your field. Now you just game the system of getting research grants, and you kind of suck up to the right people, and you can become a leading professor. And you can sort of see the same thing in journalism. In journalism you used to have to work really hard to get a story. There was a lot of shoe-leather reporting. Now you get the impression that people just kind of sit back in their office with their journalism degree and pontificate, and they haven’t really done the on-the-ground work to produce a story.
So, there’s this question of whether the institutions that create these authorities or the prestige hierarchies aren’t working as well as they used to. So, let me throw out a few scenarios for the future, and we can talk about whether this is a near-term or long-term future. One is that we remain fractured, and it’s hard to imagine what that looks like. Another one is that the current institutions recover and reform, and they get their authority back. And the third scenario would be completely new institutions and new sets of authority, kind of the way it transferred from priests to scientists. So you want to comment on those scenarios and which ones you think you would want to see or we’re likely to see?
GURRI: Yeah. Want is one thing. I have no idea. I mean, when you look at analysis of system breaks, when system analysts look at the transformation of systems, when their constraints are essentially removed that create the systems, you have this moment of disorganization, which is where we are right now. And when you look at what ultimately happens, you can go one of two ways. You can reorganize on their different principals at the other end of this process, or you can just remain disorganized forever. The Roman Empire, after a certain point, never got its act back together. Much as everybody wanted it to, it just stopped being a thing.
I think we can’t go back. I have trouble seeing how that would be possible. I think you can impose some sort of lid on information and pretend that you now have authority by, say, mandating that social media has to say certain things or kind of like what they’ve done, for example, with the pandemic. You can take that one and that model where basically they, out of responsibility, decided that whenever questions were being asked about the virus, they would link to an authoritative institution like the CDC or the WHO, both of which, by the way, futzed around during the crisis tremendously but have the authority of being an institution.
So, what’s to stop government from saying, “Well, when we talk about politics, now you have to come to the federal government for the answer to that particular question because we’re the authoritative source for that particular reality.” I don’t think it’s going to happen, but if you did that, all you would create would be a false reality on top and a gigantic resentment at the bottom that would sooner or later explode.
KLING: Yeah. Let me amplify that for a second. What you’re doing is you’re replacing what was a prestige hierarchy, where people said, “Wow, these journalists have prestige, and these academics have prestige, and these leaders are legitimate,” with a dominance hierarchy. And that has the opposite effect of undermining people’s prestige when they engage in dominant behavior. So, that’s one scenario. Do you see a reform scenario?
GURRI: Yeah. I think to expound on what you said, and I used the word authority a lot and the questions of authority a lot. And just to make it clear, authority to me is the exact opposite of power. Power is dominance, as you say. Authority is, Arnold tells me something and whenever you tell me something, I listen to you because you’re a smart person. That’s authority. Yes, I think it’s going to be a mix. I would like for it to be, and I think it probably will be. And I hate making predictions because I’m always wrong. But the last two scenarios you presented, for authority to be regained, if we’re not going to end up in that permanent disorganization, fall of the Roman Empire mode, we need massive reform. Massive reform.
And it’s not hard to see which way it has to go. Government has to become flatter. It is now this gigantic pyramid that made perfect sense in the 20th century, and we’re now 20 years into the 21st. So, everybody’s used to dealing with Amazon. I mean, I’ve been living from Amazon. I would probably have starved to death and be disrobed in my own house if it weren’t for Amazon. Every kind of necessity they can do. Amazon is a gigantic number of procedures and processes that are totally invisible to you. All you have to say is, “I want this thing.” And it happens.
Government is the exact opposite. 20th century model is the opposite. Here are all these procedures, all these processes. Here are these forms. This is your account number. And you’re suddenly presented with this distance between you and the people you have elected, who seem to be creating arbitrary hurdles between what they’re supposed to do and what you want them to do. In so far as government approaches Amazon, and there was no reason in the universe why that should not happen in many cases—not every part of government can do that—I think you will have both a reformed government, which many of its current functions and current institutions will be slimmed down and made faster and more agile.
But I would be astonished if some new institutions didn’t come in there through the cracks and perform functions that government has been performing all along, and just kind of replace those. I wouldn’t even want to give it a for instance, but usually when there is that kind of a change, new things happen, in the way, I guess, that new media has replaced newspapers.
KLING: Could you see something similar in higher education? That there’s some new way that it—
GURRI: Totally. This is not just government. This is not just politics. I write about politics because, I guess, that’s what I did at the CIA and that’s what I know. But this is every institution that we have inherited from the 20th century in a state of crisis with regards to their authority. And none of them will regain any shred of authority with the public until A, they acknowledge this, which many of them refuse to for some reason, and B, reform. And if they don’t reform, then you have the opportunity of replacing them with something new.
KLING: It’s really interesting that you happen to bring up Amazon because, to me, Amazon is almost a unique organization. It’s not a 20th century organization with org charts and committees. Even, I think, other tech companies don’t really operate the way Amazon does, where instead of, again, these hierarchies and information flowing up and down the chain and all these efforts to organize it from the top and be able to see it from the top, instead being told you have to communicate. This department must communicate with that department, and here are your rules for communication, and here are all our procedures.
It’s like, you just set up yourself as an independent entity that’s a two-pizza model—a team shouldn’t be bigger than what could be fed on two pizzas. And then you just set up your interfaces so that you can operate completely independently, and all you tell other people is, this is how you interface with this module.
Imagine higher education that way. You wouldn’t have a Harvard or a Yale. You’d have this segment of a biology department saying, “Here, this is how you interface with us. Here’s how you can get our information. Here’s how you can put information into us.” So it doesn’t matter whether you’re teaching a hundred people on campus or 100,000 people around the world. That’s sort of how Amazon managed to scale. You can imagine maybe a university. I can imagine it’s hard. The here-to-there isn’t so easy.
GURRI: That’s true. But way back in 1995, if you had told me there’s going to be such a thing as Amazon or such a thing as Facebook, I would have said I have no idea what you’re talking about. Literally, we cannot imagine what might happen. I have a friend called Nicholas Colin, who is an entrepreneur in France, one of the smartest people I know, and he talks about quality at scale. And he gives the example of some French minister complaining about the yellow vest people, who are saying they want to be taxed less but they want more benefits. They have to choose between one or the other. They can either have quality or they can have scale. You either buy yourself a fur coat and you can’t scale that, or you get yourself something much less than that.
And he said that is exactly what entrepreneurial minds do. That’s what Amazon does. It gives you quality at scale. There is absolutely no reason— Everything in Amazon costs less and their service is better. And they do it for hundreds of millions of people. If Amazon can do it, why can’t the government do it? Why can’t these other institutions, like colleges and so forth, why can’t they do it? They can. Essentially, my belief, part of the tragic aspect of where we are today is, the elites that we have, the Yuval Levin idea that the institutions used to be formative. You went through an institution and they formed you.
So Walter Cronkite was formed by CBS News to be a certain kind of news person. Today it’s performative. You kind of use these institutions as your platform to express yourself and to be seen being important, and so forth. And I think these 20th century institutions are very comfortable for the elites. I think the tragic aspect is they don’t want to change. Whatever emerges at the other end of the disorganization, it’s got to be very different and much more uncomfortable for the people on top. Much more uncomfortable. Because we’re going to be very close to them. We’re going to be sitting right next to them. And we’re going to be saying, no, no, no, no, that’s wrong.
And I think the elites look at that, and they go, “That’s the last thing I want. Why did I climb this ladder, this pyramid, just to be in such a flat institution? No. I want my old 20th century pyramid.” And I think, until that changes— The first thing that has to change is the elite mindset. And honestly, as I’ve said many times before, if it doesn’t change, we have to change our elites.
ROTHSCHILD: So, Martin, you made the point a moment ago that institutions are either going to have to reform or they’re just going to be jettisoned by the wayside. Not asking you to make a prediction, but how do you see institutions that will be able to be reformed differing from those that are just going to be jettisoned? Is there something within an institution that will allow it to renew itself and not just be subject to the kind of nihilistic, tear-it-all-down pressures?
GURRI: Yeah, that’s a really, really good question. And I am just dipping into that. I’m talking to this other very smart person called Alicia Juarrero. She’s an expert on systems. Just systems and how they organize, how they disorganize. There’s a mathematics of this almost. Actually, there is, which I don’t know by the way. If you put a gun to my head, I couldn’t do it. Might as well shoot me.
The answer is I’m just beginning to learn about how this works in terms of high level, but from the sociopolitical perspective, it’s pretty clear. The digital dispensation is about bottom up. Some system has to exist where the government is fed information. And not just government, political institutions—say political parties—are fed information from below, from its community, and shapes its agenda, not just by saying, ” Well, there’s 10 of us here in this room, and we are the commissars of truth, and you people who are the rest of our community go out there and tell this truth.”
No, no, no, no. It’s going to be like Reddit or it’s going to be like Wikipedia, some kind of mix between top and bottom where there’s a deep interaction between the people who form the community, in terms of setting the agenda for the community.
KLING: So, I guess we need to speculate maybe about, again, where will this social truth come from? It just seems unlikely that the New York Times recovers its role. Does Google step into that role? Or is there no such role? What are the conditions or the requirements for authority to reemerge? I just keep coming back to—
You need systems that cannot be gamed in the same way that the current systems have been gamed. I think we’ve just gotten to the point where the current systems are rewarding the wrong kind of behavior. Like you say, the performative behavior and signaling in some sense. So when it becomes so easy to signal that people can get into these positions of authority in academia, journalism, politics without having developed the ability to really help society arrive at social truth. So, I keep thinking we need just better systems for sorting out who gets to be in a position of authority or who gets listened to. That might be the simplest way to put it. We need some new systems for deciding who gets listened to.
And you point out that there’s a lot of knowledge at the bottom that isn’t breaking through, and I see that. For a while, I was just obsessively following the virus crisis stories, everything from what people were writing on Medium to these research papers that were appearing all of the sudden. And you could see, often as not, somebody who is completely outside the field but just a smart person would latch onto something. And then a few weeks later, maybe the CDC or some authority figure would say, “Oh, maybe there’s something to that.” Not because they read what this oddball wrote but because they finally figured it out for themselves.
And three weeks in this virus crisis time was a lot. That was a big lag, and if they had a system in place that could have gotten the outlier information to them sooner, they could have been much more effective. So, their ability to shut out these voices at the bottom is a bug and not a feature for these people.
GURRI: Yeah, I think the whole pandemic crisis is a good example of—I won’t say post-truth—but of our inability to get at the truth. Okay? Because I think in part our expectations are unrealistic, and I would say one quality that I would want to have in the reorganized system would be what used to be called scientific modesty. In the olden days, scientists were supposed to be very modest about their claims because they knew that truth was an evolving thing. Our ignorance is far more profound, and it will always be. Human condition is mostly ignorance. What we know is a tiny, little drop in the universal bucket.
And so, speaking from that modest perspective, it’s a little bit like the person that stands back from you, and you tend to lean forward. The person who leans forward—which is what everybody did during the crisis—they said, “I’m leaning forward and I’m telling you what’s what.” You tend to lean back. You kind of go like, “Well, maybe so, maybe not.” And of course, when then you say things and change your mind and say the opposite three weeks later or whatever—as happened with every authority that I can think of during the pandemic crisis—then the fact that you’ve been talking from such arrogance of authority becomes destructive, becomes destructive of truth.
KLING: In fact, about a week ago, I assembled my personal post-mortem on the thing. I called it a Virus Crisis Diary, and I got a few comments on it. And the comments were: “He admits when he was wrong,” and I thought, gee, that wasn’t my central point. But I guess it just comes as such a surprise to people. So it reminds me of something—I think this is something you’ve said—that our current systems really select for confidence, that is, people who express their views with great confidence. And yet that’s exactly the wrong person you want to select, at least in this kind of environment. So, why is that? How do we end up with that? How do we end up with something different?
ROTHSCHILD: And if I could ask just to put a little nuance on that, is this a supply-side issue or a demand-side issue? Is it that scientists and experts are going out there and they come out with no humility, or is it that that’s what people want to hear? That the demand has been for utter certainty for people, and anyone who expresses any doubt or, God forbid, later changes their mind about something is viewed as having been in error to begin with, and everything else that they say can therefore be summarily dismissed.
GURRI: Yeah, I think honestly, it’s both. I think it’s both. I think our elites have been trained in that 20th century mode, which is, “I am an authority and you will listen.” But the public wants that. When you look at public responses to crisis in general, to issues in general, they don’t want somebody who is hesitant and who is modest. They want to be told, “I know. I’m going to take care of you. Sit back. I’ll do it.” However, this is where our elites are failing us. I mean, after all, the elites should set the model.
And I think there is a way of being modest and being persuasive. It hasn’t been done yet, but it used to be done by scientists. It’s not like this has got to be invented out of whole cloth. By the way, this confidence, I have been quoting you on that, Arnold. And I had this conversation with a French MP and a British thinker called David Goodhart, brilliant guy. We were talking—we were doing one of these Zoom things—and they were talking about the difference between Trump and [French President Emmanuel] Macron.
And I said, “Okay, we select our leaders for confidence. Can you think— How different are Trump and Macron?” They are probably the two most confident men on the face of the earth. I mean, they share that trait 100%. So, the populist, the more like the liberal establishmentarian, and still and all, when you hear them talk, they are the voices of confidence, and they tell you what’s going to happen, even though they are as wrong as they are right.
KLING: So, in the end, it’s almost like we’ve met the enemy and he is us. We want these super confident people. We don’t want people who like me write and say, “Well, I was right on this, wrong on that. Right on this, wrong on that.” Like Trump, if he ever admits he’s wrong on something, I think the world will come to an end. I don’t know Macron as well, but if he’s got that same quality, that’s—
GURRI: Macron wanted a Jupiterian presidency. That’s the way he called it. He wanted to be Jupiter; he wanted to be Zeus. If anybody can compete with Trump when it comes to confidence, it’s got to be him. It’s astonishing. They think they’re so different and in many different ways, they’re the same. So, yeah, again, I insist though, the enemy is us. The public, it is not up to us in many ways to set elite standards. It should be up to the elites to look— A truly elite class, a class that is excellent, which is what elite is supposed to mean, that is admirable, that is the kind of person that you would want to be in some sense— In the olden days, people pointed to presidents, and they were always the most admired and so forth.
A class of true elites would realize that circumstances demand a different adaptation. The way to express authority today is not to stand on a great big rostrum with a seal of some kind in front of it encased in a suit and make these confident utterances, because you’re going to be found out. You’re going to be found out. So, you’re going to lose your authority immediately. I think what you have to do is engage. You have to engage and say, “Well, this is what we think.” And as you know, Arnold, the only way that we arrive at anything remotely like truth is by trial and error. There are no gigantic set of principles you can go to and say, “Well, this is what truth is.” No.
We go one step and that’s the wrong place, we will go the other way, okay? Government is like that and has always been like that and ought to be portrayed as being like that. And I think an elite that we could respect as an authority would convey that. That is not an impossibility. That is just a function of a very poor level of leadership in our elite class.
KLING: Yeah, I think that we maybe have lost some of that sense of truth as something you pursue in academia, and I think that in some ways, it starts there. If people going to colleges and universities don’t get this sense of pursuit of truth, and I like your point that look, we only know a drop. Because if you look at the history of science, it’s a history of mistakes in some sense. People had the wrong idea about chemistry, and I think even I learned the wrong idea of really how atoms are constructed, how they’re organized. But those things keep changing, and we’re just unlearning mistakes over time. That sense of knowledge is something that’s always provisional—I just don’t think that that’s conveyed well enough on campus these days.
GURRI: Yeah, or certainly not at all in our politics. Now in my little essay for The Bridge, I talk about the information sphere, which is my term for all the sources of information, digital or not. I think that’s like Aegean stables that have to be cleaned out. I think there is a lot of pathology in the information sphere when it comes to how it deals with facts, how it deals with— I mean, the whole incident with Trump was to me, in a weird way as an analyst, it was a terrible thing to happen, where these people are yelling at each other and lose track of what it was that they were arguing about in the first place, right? I think we need to take certain measures to sort of detoxify the information sphere.
I think part of that means looking at the news differently than we do. I think we tend to assume that— Or let’s put it this way. The news presents itself in the same manner that it did in the 20th century, as the voice of authority, and there’s this whole almost ideology built around it. I think we just need to demystify that. The news is just a source of information. They will rise and fall according to whether they satisfy the needs of the public. And I don’t even mean necessarily in the sense of political bias. I think part of what the news should do—
Sometime in August of 2016, there was a report—it wasn’t even an editorial—on the front page of the New York Times that said when you have a candidate like Trump that is so dangerous, he will be covered in a different way. So, I think the news have pretty much decided where they stand in politics. That’s fine. I think that only follows a model that many other countries do, where you can have news from a political perspective but don’t pretend to be objective. Don’t pretend to be the ultimate sort of Olympian source of neutrality and so forth. I think social media, actually all the digital platforms, Google included, need to detoxify as well. And in their case, I think the whole incident with Trump is a perfect example. Should presidents be fact-checked? Well, honestly from my own humble perspective, why not? Right?
Trump to have been fact-checked? Again, from my humble perspective, why not? Well, has anybody else been fact-checked? No. So then, you need to give reasons. I think these social media platforms live and die by their algorithms, and Trump’s argument back to them—and it has some merit—is, “You’ve never done this before, and it seems to be contrary to your terms of service.” So their algorithms and their rules are totally opaque to us.
Much of our democratic process happens on these platforms—the debate, the discussions, the yelling back and forth. And yet, they shape information in ways that are completely, and on principle, opaque to us. I think they need to learn to start giving reasons. If you’re going to fact-check the president, that’s perfectly okay by me. Give a reason. Give a reason and then you’re accountable for that reason. You have given an account for yourself.
KLING: Yeah. Well, you’ve mentioned a word that I think is really important here—it’s accountability. If you think about the systems that work for creating social truth, there are systems where there’s— I got this from David Brin, a science fiction writer. They have competition and accountability. So, a market, for example, has competition. People go off and build their own businesses, but then they’re ultimately accountable because if they don’t satisfy customers, they don’t make a profit. The legal system has competition and accountability. The two sides go off by themselves, try to make their best case, and then ultimately it gets resolved by the judge and the jury.
I think the challenge with some areas of social truth, the ones that we’re talking about—politics and journalism—is how do you create the accountability and resolution? The 20th century solution was to say that whatever CBS said was right. They were the referee. They were not one of the competitors in that sense. Now they’ve become a competitor. They’re running the race; they’re not judging the race. And what kind of new system of accountability would emerge to resolve that so that there is a social truth and we’re not just having different partisan, private truths?
GURRI: Yeah, that’s a good question. And I think honestly what’s going to happen— Well, again, let me stop myself from making a prediction. I think one possible way forward is the newspapers. The old traditional sources—the newspapers and the news broadcasts, the 20th century news—are going to become what those things have been, for example, in France, which I know pretty well, always, which is the mouthpieces of certain political ideologies and perspectives. So, in France, the two great newspapers are the Figaro, which is the conservative or the right as they call themselves, and you have Le Monde, which is the left, and they make no bones about it. That’s who they are. And I think that’s going to happen.
Interestingly, it is not an impossibility that the great social media platforms may become a lot more because they’re now the ones that have to compete for bodies. They’re the ones that really are; they’re the game. The news are on the margins now. They have the prestige, but they’re on the margins. The social media platform—you’re talking billions of people—may become more of the attempting to be anodyne and objective in the same old way that Walter Cronkite might’ve wanted it to be.
KLING: There’s no there, there. There’s no editorial page. You say it’s totally opaque; it’s algorithms. I don’t see them just jumping into that same role. What I see them doing is elevating some people at the margins that you wouldn’t have heard before at all. You can now find them. What I see them doing is facilitating lots of competition, way more competition than there was in the 20th century. But what I don’t see is the centripetal force or the coming back together and saying, okay, well, how do you compare these views and arrive at some notion of, I’ll go with truth. How do you get any kind of social truth out of all that competition? How does that sort out?
GURRI: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think the online world is implicitly— To me, the ideal of the online world is Reddit. In Reddit everybody votes on the story, and the story rises according to what people think of it in these little sub-Reddit communities. So you get a lot of strange things that just by their very strangeness bubble up to the top, right? I think what’s broken now is that the top layer, the people who used to be the authorities, have not acknowledged that the world has changed and there is competition. They feel like they’re still the authorities.
The dysfunction happens where you have this world where everything bubbles from the bottom up, and you have to look at it as for what it is—those who can persuade you that something is interesting and persuasive, and for whatever reason, you vote up to the top. There ought to be, then, the experts, engaging and saying, “Yes, but on the other hand, that silly story just voted up is fun but not really very accurate.”
They will not engage. They just speak ex cathedra; they speak from authority. And of course, when they do so, they’re found out. What that enormous churning tide of information at the bottom of the digital world does is it just finds every mistake you have made. It exposes every time you say one thing and then the next day say another. It puts it all out there. So that if you are an authority, you have to live with that. You can’t pretend that you didn’t do that.
And I think, again, I hate to keep barking on the same note, but it’s the elites. They have to engage. They have to engage. We have to find a way. I think for me in the end this is what you might call a personnel question, not an issue question. We have to somehow find a way to promote people to elite positions, and by that I mean by giving them our attention, by giving them our entertainment dollars, whatever you want to call it, that engage with this churning digital mass. And between the two, I think you could become—
As I said before, it’s always going to be mostly ignorance, and human beings don’t like ignorance and tend to fill ignorance with a lot of hooey, a lot of stuff. And that was always mostly going to be there, always, mostly has been there, and that is not going to change. But when things matter, maybe we can get an elite class that engages, and not by saying, “You’re wrong because I’m an authority.” But by saying, “Well, let’s talk about it. Let’s debate this issue. Let’s say, ‘This is the facts I’ve got. These are the strange things you were saying. How do the two mesh up?’”
KLING: Well, it’s interesting you mentioned Reddit. I mean, places like that I think of as you have reputation systems. In some sense, Google page rank is a reputation system. And so, you’ve got all these things online, and maybe ultimately some of these reputation systems will work in the sense that enough people say, “Wow, if you got to the top of this reputation system online, if your argument made it to the top, it must be a pretty good argument. If your scientific theory, made it to the top, it must be a pretty good scientific theory.”
GURRI: Or at least it is worthy of engagement. So, there it is. You made it to the top. It’s worthy of engagement. Instead of having these two separate worlds in which the people who hold all the places of promotion and so forth and the scientific establishment live in one world and then the big digital mass lives in an entirely different world, and it’s like they’re at war with one another. My hope, I keep hoping this isn’t part generational. It’s remarkable to me as a baby boomer what a tremendous hold the baby boomers still have on modern society. I mean, it’s astounding to me.
And I’ve gotten more fond of my generation as I’ve grown older. I never thought much of us to begin with. I’m looking at the young people, and I have the old person’s wonder, and say, “What’s going to happen next?” But the one thing young people do have is they know that they can’t just stand up in front of a TV camera and say, “This is so. This is the way it was on May such and such 2020. Because why? Because I’m Walter Cronkite and I’m saying so.” That isn’t going to happen. So partly generational, partly it’s up to us. If we’re taking as that is correct the elites who determine authority or try to determine authority have a very close relationship to the public that listens to them, we in a sense select them. And I think that’s very true.
ROTHSCHILD: I think that’s a great place to leave things. So Martin Gurri, Arnold Kling, thank you so much for joining us, and please be sure to check out Martin’s essay “The Way Out of Post-Truth” at mercatus.org/bridge.