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?Comments