One of the greatest challenges facing democratic societies in the 21st century is the loss of faith in public institutions.
The internet has been a marvelous invention in lots of ways, but it has also unleashed a tsunami of misinformation and destabilized political systems across the globe. Martin Gurri, a former media analyst at the CIA and the author of the 2014 book The Revolt of the Public, was way ahead of the curve on this problem.
Gurri spent years surveying the global information landscape. Around the turn of the century, he noticed a trend: As the internet gave rise to an explosion of information, there was a concurrent spike in political instability. The reason, he surmised, was that governments lost their monopoly on information and with it their ability to control the public conversation.
One of the many consequences of this is what Gurri calls a “crisis of authority.” As people were exposed to more information, their trust in major institutions — like the government or newspapers — began to collapse.
Gurri’s book became something of a cult favorite among Silicon Valley types when it was released and its insights have only become more salient since. Indeed, I’ve been thinking more and more about his thesis in the aftermath of the 2020 election and the assault on the US Capitol on January 6. There are lots of reasons why the insurrection happened, but one of them is the reality that millions of Americans believed — really believed — that the presidential election was stolen, despite a complete lack of evidence. A Politico poll conducted shortly after the election found that 70 percent of Republicans thought the election was fraudulent.
That’s what a “crisis of authority” looks like in the real world.
And it’s crucial to distinguish this crisis from what’s often called the “epistemic crisis” or the “post-truth” problem. If Gurri’s right, the issue isn’t just that truth suddenly became less important; it’s that people stopped believing in the institutions charged with communicating the truth. To put it a little differently, the gatekeeping institutions lost their power to decide what passes as truth in the mind of the public.
So where does that leave us?
I reached out to Gurri to explore the implications of his thesis. We talk about what it means for our society if millions of people reject every claim that comes from a mainstream institution, why a phenomenon like QAnon is fundamentally a “pose of rejection,” and why he thinks we’ll have to “reconfigure” our democratic institutions for the digital world we now inhabit.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Have elites — politicians, corporate actors, media and cultural elites — lost control of the world?
Yes and no. It’s a wishy-washy answer, but it’s a reality.
They would have completely lost control of the world if the public in revolt had a clear program or an organization or leadership. If they were more like the Bolsheviks and less like QAnon, they’d take over the Capitol building. They’d start passing laws. They would topple the regime.
But what we have is this collision between a public that is in repudiation mode and these elites who have lost control to the degree that they can’t hoist these utopian promises upon us anymore because no one believes it, but they’re still acting like zombie elites in zombie institutions. They still have power. They can still take us to war. They can still throw the police out there, and the police could shoot us, but they have no authority or legitimacy. They’re stumbling around like zombies.
You like to say that governments have lost the ability to dictate the stories a society tells about itself, mostly because the media environment is too fragmented. Why is that so significant?
When you analyze the institutions that we have inherited from the 20th century, you find that they are very top-down, like pyramids. And the legitimacy of that model absolutely depends on having a semi-monopoly over information in every domain, which they had in the 20th century. There was no internet and there was a fairly limited number of information sources for the public. So our ruling institutions had authority because they had a very valuable commodity: information.
So I was an analyst at the CIA looking around the world at open information, at the global media. And I can tell you, it was like a trickle compared to today. If a president, here or somewhere else, was giving a speech, the coverage of it was confined to major outlets or television stations. But when the tsunami of information hit around the turn of the century, the legitimacy of that model instantly went into crisis because you now had the opposite effect. You had an overabundance of information, and that created a lot of confusion and anarchy.
I’m curious how you weigh the significance of material factors in this story. It’s not just that there’s more information, we’ve also seen a litany of failures in the 21st century — from Hurricane Katrina to the forever wars to the financial crisis and on and on. Basically, a decade of institutions failing and misleading citizens, in addition to the deepening inequality, the deaths of despair, the fact that this generation of Americans is doing materially worse than previous ones.
How big a role has this backdrop of failures played in the collapse of trust?
I would say that what matters is less the material factors you mention than the public’s perception of these factors. Empirically, under nearly every measure, we are better off today than in the 20th century, yet the public is much angrier and more distrustful of government institutions and the elites who manage them. That difference in perception arises directly from the radical changes in the information landscape between the last century and our own.
With few exceptions, most market democracies have recovered from the 2008 financial crisis. But the public has not recovered from the shock of watching supposed experts and politicians, the people who posed as the wise pilots of our prosperity, sound and act totally clueless while the economy burned. In the past, when the elites controlled the flow of information, the financial collapse might have been portrayed as a sort of natural disaster, a tragedy we should unify around our leadership to overcome. By 2008, that was already impossible. The networked public perceived the crisis (rightly, I think) as a failure of government and of the expert elites.
It should be a truism that material conditions matter much less than expectations. That was true during the Great Depression and it’s true today. The rhetoric of the rant on the web feeds off extreme expectations — any imperfection in the economy will be treated as a crisis and a true crisis will be seen as the Apocalypse.
Take the example of Chile. For 40 years, it had high economic growth, rising into the ranks of the wealthiest nations. During this time, Chile enjoyed a healthy democracy, in which political parties of left and right alternated in office. Everyone benefited. Yet in 2019, with many deaths and much material destruction, the Chilean public took to the streets in revolt against the established order. Its material expectations had been deeply frustrated, despite the country’s economic and political successes.
Just to be clear, when you talk about this “tsunami” of information in the digital age, you’re not talking about more truth, right?
As Nassim Taleb pointed out, when you have a gigantic explosion of information, what’s exploding is noise, not signal, so there’s that.
As for truth, that’s a tricky subject, because a lot of elites believe, and a lot of people believe, that truth is some kind of Platonic form. We can’t see it, but we know it’s there. And often we know it because the science says so.
But that’s not really how truth works. Truth is essentially an act of trust, an act of faith in some authority that is telling you something that you could not possibly come to realize yourself. What’s a quark? You believe that there are quarks in the universe, probably because you’ve been told by people who probably know what they’re talking about that there are quarks. You believe the physicists. But you’ve never seen a quark. I’ve never seen a quark. We accept this as truth because we’ve accepted the authority of the people who told us it’s true.
I’m starting to hate the phrase “post-truth” because it implies there was some period in which we lived in truth or in which truth was predominant. But that’s misleading. The difference is that elite gatekeeping institutions can’t place borders on the public conversation and that means they’ve lost the ability to determine what passes as truth, so now we’re in the Wild West.
That’s a very good way to put it. I would say, though, that there was a shining moment when we all had truth. They are correct about that. If truth is really a function of authority, and if in the 20th century these institutions really had authority, then we did have something like truth. But if we had the information back then that we have today, if we had all the noise that we have today, nothing would’ve seemed quite as true because we would’ve lacked faith in the institutions that tried to tell us.
What does it mean for our society if an “official narrative” isn’t possible? Because that’s where we’re at, right? Millions of people will never believe any story or account that comes from the government or a mainstream institution.
As long as our institutions remain as they are, nothing much will change. What that means is more of the same — more instability, more turbulence, more conspiracy theories, more distrust of authorities. But there’s no iron law of history that says we have to keep these institutions the way they are. Many of our institutions were built around the turn of the 20th century. They weren’t that egalitarian or democratic. They were like great, big pyramids.
But we can take our constitutional framework and reconfigure it. We’ve done it once already, and we could do it again with the digital realm in mind, understanding the distance we once had between those in power and ordinary citizens is gone forever. It’s just gone. So we need people in power who are comfortable in proximity to the public, which many of our elites are not.
I do want to at least point to an apparent paradox here. As you’ve said, because of the internet, there are now more voices and more perspectives than ever before, and yet at the same time there’s a massive “herding effect,” as a result of which we have more people talking about fewer subjects. And that partly explains how you get millions of people converging on something like QAnon.
Yeah, and that’s very mysterious to me. I would not have expected that outcome. I thought we were headed to ever more dispersed information islands and that that would create a fragmentation in individual beliefs. But instead, I’ve noticed a trend toward conformism and a crystallizing of very few topics. Some of this is just an unwillingness to say certain things because you know if you said them, the internet was going to come after you.
But I think Trump had a lot to do with it. The amount of attention he got was absolutely unprecedented. Everything was about him. People were either against him or for him, but he was always the subject. Then came the pandemic and he simply lost the capacity to absorb and manipulate attention. The pandemic just moved him completely off-kilter. He never recovered.
But we’re in a situation in which ideas, whether it’s QAnon stuff or anything else, are getting more hollow and more viral at the same time — and that seems really bad moving forward.
I’m not quite that pessimistic. You can find all kinds of wonderful stuff being written about practically every aspect of society today by people who are seeing things clearly and sanely. But yeah, they’re surrounded by a mountain of viral crap. And yet we’re in the early days of this transformation. We have no idea how this is going to play out.
There has always been a lot of viral crap going around, and there have always been people who believe crazy stuff, particularly crazy stuff that doesn’t impact their immediate lives. Flat earthers still get on airplanes, right? If you’re a flat earther, you’re not a flat earther enough to not get in an airplane and disrupt your personal life. It’s not really a belief, it’s basically giving the finger to the establishment.
It’s a pose.
Yeah, it’s a pose of rejection. QAnon is a pose of rejection. There are very many flavors of it, but what they have in common is they’re saying all these ideas you have and all the facts you’re cramming in my face — it’s all a prop for the powerful and I’m rejecting it.
It’s an important point because a lot of us treat QAnon like it’s some kind of epistemological problem, but it’s not really that at all. It’s actually much more difficult than that. And even if we set aside QAnon, the fact that the vast majority of Republicans still believe the 2020 election was fraudulent speaks to the breadth of the problem.
Right, it’s a problem of authority. When people don’t trust those charged with conveying the truth, they won’t accept it. And at some point, like I said, we’ll have to reconfigure our democracy. Our politicians and institutions are going to have to adjust to the new world in which the public can’t be walled off or controlled. Leaders can’t stand at the top of pyramids anymore and talk down to people. The digital revolution flattened everything. We’ve got to accept that.
I really do have hope that this will happen. The boomers who grew up in the old world and can’t move beyond it are going to die out, and younger people are going to take their place. That will raise other questions and challenges, of course, but there will be a changing of the guard and we should welcome it.