the dystopian circle of belief

Welcome to the circle

Wednesday 16 August 2023 10:00 PM

Recently I read and shared an opinion piece by senior Australian journalist Peter Hartcher who concluded that, despite the efforts of some, Trumpism had not taken root in Australian soil. The writer made several observations of the character of Australian culture and governance which have enabled our nation to withstand the package of distortions that make up the Trump phenomenon.

On more recent reflection I'm less confident in Hartcher's analysis. I don't think he's entirely wrong, and nor do I believe Trumpism has colonised this country's public discourse to the extent it has the US'. But I am now even more troubled than I already was by what has happened to the national conversation even in the current decade alone. This is the decade in which the Post-presidential Donald Trump has arguably attained a level of demagoguery even the presidency didn't quite afford him. Not least his mounting list of civil and criminal indictments have afforded him a unique martyr status in the eyes of Republican loyalists. Lying pays, it seems.

The decade has thus far been dominated globally as well as locally by Covid, which brought in its wake a tsunami of misinformation particularly about vaccines. Whilst the virus itself has begun to recede (though not to the extent the popular imagination would have it), the wave of misinformation is anything but abating. The rabbit hole is filling at an alarming rate, if my online public engagement is anything to go by. (I'm open to suggestions on how the tsunami and rabbit-hole metaphors might be harmonised).

For instance one phenomenon I'm observing in current antivax discourse is one I've come to call the "closed information circle". It seems to me to be a rightwing conspiracist reaction to the prominence of formal fact checking. (Or at least, the former appeared on my radar a little after the latter). So thinking back several years when the hottest social media war front was the science of climate change, both sides came to battle armed with opposing claims from opposing claimants to external authority. In contrast more recent engagement on the Covid / vaccine front suggests an entire distrust in any external authority. My more conservative interlocutors rate any mention of fact-checks as positively risible, in the shared confidence that all fact checkers and their published findings come with an inherent left bias, and thus cannot be trusted. Coupled with this seems to be a positive disinterest in whether "the truth" can even be verified externally at all. Instead, all that matters is that it's believed by others in the circle. That's what I mean by the "closed information circle". It seems reasonable to at least ponder whether this apparent approach to truth and reality would have flowered as it has without Mr Trump's unabashed propensity for lying "from the top", aided by his followers' unquestioning allegiance to the inherently unverifiable claims of QAnon and similar movements.

If the global theme of the decade has been Covid and vaccines, the local (Australian) theme of this 4th (or 3rd?) year of the decade has been the proposed Indigenous Voice to Parliament and the approaching Referendum upon it. I'm certainly not the first to note with much concern the character of the "NO" campaign, led by the alternative government, the federal opposition. It doesn't help that the Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has in my view gravely failed to take account of the power of misinformation over public discourse and indeed democracy itself in the digital age. Thanks to that failure conspiracy theorists have scarcely needed even to work up a sweat. But leaving that aside, there's something alarmingly Trumpian about a movement that seems not to so much as care either whether what it asserts is true or even to appear to provide corroborating evidence. 

Welcome to the dystopian Trumpist future of post-objectivity. I for my part will be voting "YES" for the Voice and promoting the "YES" case. But this is not a good year (or decade) for truth in public discourse.