It’s a weird time to be alive.
COVID-19 cases in the United States are declining, but vaccination rates are stalling, too. In places such as India, the pandemic rages almost unabated. Parody cryptocurrencies and meme stocks, driven by billionaire tweets and Reddit threads, have flummoxed Wall Street and minted and destroyed fortunes by the second. Hackers hijacked regional pipelines, causing a gas shortage and demanding a crypto ransom. The government is reexamining previously dismissed coronavirus origin theories.
Then, of course, there are UFOs. The sci-fi fliers have gone from fringe conspiracy theory to legitimate matter of national security in just months. Even former president Barack Obama has admitted the existence of recordings of flying objects that experts cannot explain.
Put together, these disorienting events can create precisely the sense of confusion that disinformation researchers, fact-checkers and swaths of the mainstream media try to bulwark against. Lately, the task feels increasingly difficult as many of the world’s biggest real-life stories are complex and constantly evolving topics, where today’s fantastical theory could become tomorrow’s truth. Perhaps the best answer for now is to slow down and learn to live in a bit of uncertainty.
Online especially, these already complex topics are shaped by and mapped onto our biases and identities. The pandemic is a glaring example. Think of the reversal on mask guidance. Think of the renewed interest in the theory that the coronavirus originated from a “lab leak.” Ongoing investigations or phenomena become ideological talismans. Consider, too, many of the winding, major news stories of the past few years: Two presidential impeachments, Jeffrey Epstein’s jailhouse death, unidentified flying objects or even projections about inflation.
What these stories share is that our knowledge of them is sometimes partial and constantly evolving. We’re often relying on authorities who also don’t have all the information or may disagree with the consensus in their fields. In many cases, the public must depend on government and law enforcement for transparency and truth — which shouldn’t inspire much confidence. Journalists and researchers who lack deep knowledge are left to rely on experts, yet not blindly follow experts’ every word.
It’s even harder when long-held conspiratorial fodder veers into plausibility, as with UFOs. The information gatekeeper in this scenario, the U.S. government, is in a no-win situation. In the unlikely event we learn that UFOs are proof of alien life and that this knowledge was withheld from the public for generations, public trust would implode. If the government’s forthcoming report on the subject is stingy with details, it could birth a whole new set of theories. And if the report suggests there are simply objects in the sky we cannot explain, interested parties will suggest deception there, too — that the UFO phenomenon is really our terrestrial enemies’ covert surveillance and the government is using sci-fi intrigue to obfuscate. There’s a conspiracy behind every door, if you’re looking. Which is why we ought to treat the UFO story with humility and caution.
I asked Michael Caulfield, a digital literacy expert at Washington State University at Vancouver, for his advice when subjects of conspiracy collide with reality. “People struggle with issues where the answer is legitimately that we probably need better investigation of something,” he told me. “In general, if experts are truly uncertain about an issue, your quest for certainty might not be the best use of your time. It’s OK to say, ‘Experts are uncertain right now, I’m going to keep half an eye on this while they figure it out.’ ”
We don’t actually live in a post-truth world. It just feels that way because the systems we’ve built — social media, traditional media — reward strong emotions and definitive conclusions. So if we feel increasingly like we’re living in a sci-fi future, we ought to embrace it and design for it. After all, the future has always been uncertain.
— Charlie Warzel is a journalist who writes “Galaxy Brain,” a newsletter about technology, media and politics.
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