Our ‘Bespoke Realities’

A New York Times essay by David French recently considered the differences between belief in what he termed “confined” conspiracy theories and what he aptly labeled “bespoke realities.”

As French pointed out, lots of people have suspicions or doubts about official reports of  phenomena like UFO sightings, or official explanations of events like the assassination of JFK, but those suspicions are limited to specific situations. As he says, that’s nothing new.

But in recent years I’ve encountered, 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.

What we are seeing these days is something different, and infinitely more troubling.

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 vaccines are 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 choice to save America.

These are not individuals who simple believe in one or another conspiracy theory.  These are folks who’ve gone all the way down the rabbit hole. French adopts the term “bespoke reality”  from his friend Renée DiResta.  “Bespoke,” of course, is a word that we most often associate with tailors–usually British –who create clothing fashioned specifically for a given customer. The residents of French’s “bespoke realities” operate within a world created and maintained just for them, a world with “its own norms, media, trusted authorities and frameworks of facts.”

The essay took me back to Eli Pariser’s warning in his 2012  book, “The Filter Bubble.” Filter bubble was Pariser’s term for the informational environment produced by the algorithms that allow content to be personalized to each user–algorithms that bias or skew or limit the information an individual user sees on the internet. We all inhabit those information “bubbles” to a greater or lesser extent. As French wrote,

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.

Thoughtful folks can and do escape these bubbles, at least partially, by purposely accessing a wide variety of sources having different viewpoints, but confirmation bias is a strong element in most of our psyches.

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.”

On the Internet, “you can always find evidence, real or imagined, to validate your priors.” You can also protect yourself from information contrary to your preferred worldview.

It isn’t difficult to identify the people who have chosen to occupy an alternate “reality;” you see them often in comments to Facebook posts, and even in occasional aggressive–if factually deficient– posts by trolls to this site.

The urgent political question is: how many Americans occupy a “bespoke reality” that is inconsistent with demonstrable empirical fact? And how many of them will go to the polls to vote their bespoke realities in November of 2024?


  1. What makes science the most reliable human knowledge about reality?

    Indeed, not because I studied and applied it throughout my career.

    It’s the scientific method.

    Here’s what generative AI, based on the collective knowledge of humanity, says:

    The scientific method is a process for acquiring knowledge that involves careful observation and skepticism. It’s been used in science since at least the 17th century.
    The scientific method involves the following steps:

    Ask a question
    Research (follow these steps:)

    Form a hypothesis
    Test the hypothesis
    Analyze the results
    Draw conclusions
    Communicate the results

    Carry out further scientific inquiry (more research based on the teachings of previous research)

    In science, “testing the hypothesis” means only one thing. Repeatedly measuring reality even if it is way, way, way beyond human senses because it’s too big (the universe), too small (quarks), too fast (the speed of light), too slow (geologic formations), before us (The Big Bang) or, wait a minute, in the future?

    The future is a particular case because it is yet to happen. But, the most reliable inference is to take causes and effects that have always occurred in the past and assume they will always occur.

    Human behavior is a special case of the reality from hard, invariant data because culture sways (though slowly) how humans see abstractions like “average.” They require a particular language, statistics.

    Human big brains have collectively figured out the mathematics of statistics, too.

    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.”

    What if it’s not based on the Scientific Method? How do we know it’s reality, realistic, repeatable, reliable?

  2. The term “You cannot prove a negative.” may be true regarding the UFO deniers, etc., but disproving the political negatives spewed by the current group calling themselves Republicans, can easily be disproved by research. This has been true since long before AI became the newest source for “truth”…which by the way has already been found lacking in “truth” is some cases.

    “No one is above the law!” The most blatant negative lie in the media today as after the world watched Trump & Co. spread sedition and carry out treason and the law is allowing the slowdown in our highest courts to give him the time to continue his presidential campaign, moving us closer and closer to dictatorship. They have acted on the World Stage and their “Bespoken Realities” will move their conspiracy theories to the Supreme Court of the United States to prove Trump & Co.’s negatives to be truth.

  3. Good disease diagnosis. What are the best remedies? Not vague generalities or wishful thinking. What solutions are:
    – Specific
    – Realistic
    – Effective
    – Sustainable
    – Constitutional

  4. Rural northern Indiana is infested with loyal Fox and Newsmax viewers. They are trumpers to the max. They do as they are told to by their media sources and loyally vote straight ticket R. No need to investigate/research who is running for office because they’ve been told Dems just want to raise taxes on their hard earned money and give it away to lazy people that don’t want to work.

    They’ve all been told this repeatedly for years so how could it not be true?

  5. This is more supporting evidence for Rebecca Costa’s theory that humans are still operating with a neo-lithic brain that is all too willing to accept those things that feed their short-term needs.

    The scientific method refutes that ancient situation, if only everyone would use it…

  6. What are “truth seekers” drawn to? If they prescribe the scientific method or critical thinking, it doesn’t matter since they will eventually arrive close to the truth as long as they keep asking questions.

    Bard suggests to avoid getting trapped in bespoke realities:

    + Seek out diverse perspectives: Make an effort to expose yourself to information that challenges your beliefs. This could involve reading news sources from different perspectives, following people on social media with different viewpoints, or talking to people who disagree with you.

    + Be critical of information: Don’t believe everything you read or see online. Be skeptical of claims that seem too good to be true, and do your research to verify the information before sharing it.

    + Engage in civil discourse: Talk to people with different viewpoints respectfully and constructively. Be open to listening to their perspective, and try to understand why they believe what they do.

    Those who don’t seek these principles are conclusion-seekers, not truth-seekers. Bam, I’ve concluded, now look for confirmation. It’s the feedback loop of a closed mind.

  7. I would say it depends on what your algorithms collect? I intentionally try not to go into anything very political or newsworthy on my social media. My feed is filled with funny people, animals, and just talented people. Since I have “cleansed” my Algorithm in this way I am much happier.

  8. Nice to talk “factually” about this…BUT…I would humbly suggest this is truth overwhelmed by culture – a culture of “curated everything” deadly mixed with “whatever I want”. Track this through the generations and it is getting worse in the youngest.

  9. Oh, Lester. I have to wonder what your news feeds you about the failings of young people. You are so focused on this topic and so persistent in trying to persuade us that everything bad is all their fault. I think you are another victim of those algorithms.

  10. Oh, Sharon. Not sure whether you trust Pew or not, but here goes regarding where various age groups get the most of their news – Nov 15, 2023 report:

    – 65+ Facebook 16%, YouTube 15%
    – 50-64 Facebook 22%, YouTube 22%
    – 30-49 Reddit 40%, Facebook 40%, Instagram 38%, x 38%, TikTok 38%
    – 18-29 Reddit 48%, TikTok 44%, Instagram 42%

  11. Interesting discussion, and timely for me, anyway. Just last night I was at a Holiday event (I still call them Christmas parties) and was speaking to the wife of one of the attendees. She’s from Texas, but has now lived in the midwest for many years. Somehow the conversation turned to how Southerners and Northeners (I’m a Yankee by birth, and have lived in the Midwest most of my life) view the Civil War. To her and her friends, it was the War of Yankee Agression, Sherman was a war criminal, and until the 1980s and most certainly nowadays after Trump, the South was an occupied country. That, she said, was her history. I’ve heard this line of thinking many times as my work took me to Alabama and Georgia, in particular. I corrected her comment about “her history.” History is not mine, or yours. History IS. How we interpret history may vary, and history is generally written by the victors, but at the end of the day, History IS. We just choose to skew it.
    These folks the articles talk about have discarded history. And the present reality. They are in their own world. You can show them time and time again they are wrong, the history is not what they believe. But they won’t change.
    By the way, the lady with whom I was speaking acknowledged that after years of living in the midwest, she has a very different view of the world from the one she and her friends shared growing up. She now, as I put it for her, appreciates history.

  12. Lester. I accept the numbers you provided but am not convinced they support your persistent dim view of young people. Culture does change, of course and people tend to gain a broader perspective as they mature. No argument there. Nevertheless, I think young people today are neither better nor worse than the older generations were in their youth. Maybe you were born wise, but I certainly wasn’t and I don’t buy the idea, eternally pushed by the elderly, that youngsters are going to the dogs.

  13. Tim S

    I learned from Cultural Anthropology that humans evolve in terms of relationships at the speed that culture allows.

    I learned from Project and Supply Chain Management that all problems occur at interfaces between, not within, systems. Relationships are such an interface.

    I learned from design engineering that a system is whatever you want it to be in order to study it. They are bounded (have borders to separate them and anything from goods to ideas to money to weapons of wars get passed through boundaries from one “system” to another.)

    I learned from experiencing other cultures that culture defines how “we” do things around “here”, “now”.

    Those are universal concepts.

    As a form of life we physically change and grow and flourish according to our DNA.

    As a species with big, capable brains we are held back in relationships with others by culture.

    Current examples are the relationships between Israel and Gaza, Russia and Ukraine, potentially China and Taiwan, in the US between corporations and government or the wealthy and poor.

  14. Lester, the kids are so very far advanced compared to the older generation alive today. I know you can’t see this from your perspective, but I am in a position to know them, and I can assure you, the younger the age group, the more educated, worldly, and realistic they are.

    My only question is, will they become the sort of damned fools that today’s older people have become in general? Will they also succumb to propagandistic appeals to their own egos as their dreams and cognition fade, or will they be the saving grace we all wish them to be?

    I can assure you, from their point of view, if they could see all of us off into the sunset sooner rather than later, they would, and then they could begin rebuilding America into something better than it ever has been.

  15. Over it and Sharon – the bottom line coming: “See if/how young people vote” – recent history is not good.

  16. Lester, younger voters supported Democrats overwhelmingly in the 2022, 2020 and 2018 elections per Pew Research. Republicans have the edge with voters over age 50. Yes, a lower percentage of younger voters vote.

    It’s not a question of how they vote, and the Democrats will try to register as many young voters as possible heading into the 2024 election.

    What do Republicans do? Fail to invest in education, make it more difficult to vote, take away their right to healthcare, question where young people get their information.

  17. I am counting on the Republicans to double down on their cultural war and totally alienate the voters 50+ who regularly vote in higher numbers. When these older voters realize that said Republicans are coming after their Social Security and Medicare then the statistics will change in the favor of the Democrats.

    So lets get the facts out there. Speaker Johnson wants a Commission to evaluate changes to Social Security and Medicare. Chip Roy, Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, et.al. want these programs cut. We Seniors have to be the ones to whack these moles and send them back where they came from. They are NOT our Saviors!!

  18. Regarding the debate about “Those younguns,” Benjamin Franklin bemoaned the downfall of the then “younger generation.”
    These “Bespoke Realities” are scary, just as yesterday’s Christian voucher topic was, and I expect , they are related in one way, or another. Anyone who believes that Trump was “sent” to save us is almost certainly of the Christian faith, and already invested in his/her favorite fairy tale view of the universe. Would that be another form of a “Bespoke Reality,” just one that is culturally supported?

  19. “Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way? Oh what’s the matter with kids today?”. From ” Bye Bye, Birdie.” That’s the Greatest Generation, talking about Boomers.

    And so it goes!

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