The Problem With ‘Self-Investigation’ in a Post-Truth Era

No one would argue that Edgar Welch, the 28-year-old North Carolina man who loaded his car with weapons in early December and drove 350 miles to liberate the children he believed were being held in the basement of a Washington pizzeria, was a model citizen or even necessarily sane. But after a tragedy had been averted and he was in police custody, Welch transformed himself into something of an unlikely sage, stumbling on a surprisingly resonant explanation for the misguided quest that sent him ricocheting from internet conspiracy theories to armed vigilantism: He had decided, he said, to “self-investigate.”

At first, it sounds like a useless neologism: Aren’t all investigations self-investigations? But in today’s morass of disinformation — the “post-truth era” — the phrase reveals a radical new relationship between citizen and truth. Millions of people like Welch are abandoning traditional sources of information, from the government to the institutional media, in favor of a D.I.Y. approach to fact-finding. What they are doing is not quite investigating. It is self-investigating.

The phrase twins the American virtues of truth-seeking and individual resolve and suggests, at least superficially, an appealing, bootstrapping approach to information gathering. But an investigator tries to get to the bottom of things. For the self-investigator, there is no bottom, in large part because self-investigation — as I am defining it here — is confined to the internet. Proceeding from the assumption that the so-called experts are not to be trusted, self-investigators are pushed and pulled by the churn of memes and social media, an endless loop of echoes, reflections and intentional lies. With only themselves and their appetites as a guide, they bypass any information that doesn’t suit their predisposition and worldview. The self-investigator’s media diet is like an endless breakfast buffet, only without the guilt: Take what you want, leave what you don’t.

Our most famous self-investigator is, of course, our incoming president, Donald J. Trump; perhaps no one is more committed to embracing and trumpeting unproven claims from the internet. Six years ago, as he flirted with the idea of running for president, he became especially preoccupied with a theory being advanced by a right-wing extremist named Joseph Farah. A self-described ex-Communist, Farah presided over a nonprofit organization, the Western Center for Journalism, which was dedicated to promoting “philosophical diversity” in the news media, and now runs a popular website, WorldNetDaily, which bills itself as “America’s Independent News Network.” The Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that monitors U.S. hate groups, has a different point of view, calling Farah “the internet king of the antigovernment ‘Patriot’ movement.”

Somewhere along the way, the democratization of the flow of information became the democratization of the flow of disinformation.

Farah had floated plenty of specious arguments in the past, among them the claim that gay men orchestrated the Holocaust and that Muslims have a 20-point plan for conquering the United States by 2020. But the Farah campaign that captured Trump’s imagination held that America’s first black president, Barack Obama, might have been born outside the United States. Trump talked about this notion almost nonstop; he even said he was considering sending private investigators to Hawaii to prove that the president’s birth certificate was a forgery.

Farah later said he was surprised that a “multibillionaire” would make so much time for a side project like this. But single-minded persistence is the essence of self-investigation. Trump, for instance, also continued to insist on the guilt of the Central Park Five — five teenagers, four black and one Latino, whose convictions in the 1989 rape and beating of a jogger were later overturned — long after they had been exonerated by DNA evidence and the detailed confession of a serial rapist. Indeed, when Trump finally decided to let the birther issue go at an event at his new Washington, D.C., hotel in September, he also accused Hillary Clinton of starting the whole controversy. He was closing one self-investigation but providing fresh fodder for another.

The great promise of the internet was that it would bring democracies together, giving more people more access to more information, all beyond the control of any single authority. Curious citizens could develop a more nuanced understanding of what was going on; voters would be better informed; we would ferret out the truth from the bottom up and greater freedom would be the inevitable result. Way back in 1993, the activist computer programmer John Gilmore argued that the internet “interprets censorship as damage and routes around it”; as recently as 2011, activists still held out hope that access to Facebook and other social media could help bring about a peaceful revolution in the Middle East.

But somewhere along the way, the democratization of the flow of information became the democratization of the flow of disinformation. The distinction between fact and fiction was erased, creating a sprawling universe of competing claims. The internet can’t route around censorship when the people who use it remain in their own closed information loops, which is nothing more than self-imposed censorship.

A universe of competing claims is the perfect environment for the rise to power of a politician who has made a career of championing his own truths and manufacturing his own realities. Not that Trump will be our first president who likes to operate from a closed loop. Richard Nixon was broadly dismissive of the State Department and the “Ivy League liberals” at the C.I.A., relying instead on the wisdom of J. Edgar Hoover, the more like-minded head of the F.B.I.

In the age of Trump, data and evidence are just some unwanted roughage down at the end of the buffet.

Preserving the flexibility to pick and choose facts carries obvious strategic benefits. In the aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, President Bush and his senior aides wanted to be sure they received the intelligence they needed to justify their case for going to war in Iraq. They accomplished this by dismantling the information-filtering process that had been in place for decades. In its place, they created so-called “stovepipes” that fed raw intelligence from the field directly into the White House, thus routing around layers of professional analysts. Those bypassed analysts might have noted that much of the intelligence underpinning the administration’s assessment of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction came from completely unreliable sources. Or they might simply never have passed on the intelligence in the first place.

But why accept someone else’s truth when you don’t have to? In 2002, a “senior adviser” inside the Bush administration told the journalist Ron Suskind (for an article later published in this magazine) that the mainstream media were part of “the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” But that’s not the way the world works anymore, the adviser explained. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

The adviser’s airy dismissal of discernible reality was weird and shocking when it was published in 2004, but today it feels a bit naïve. In the age of Trump, you don’t need to act to create your own reality; you can just tweet, whether it’s bogus crime and unemployment statistics or made-up accusations of widespread voter fraud. For that matter, you don’t even need to tweet; you can just retweet. In a world with no universally recognized standards for truth — a world in which journalists engaged in the study of discernible reality are dismissed as “dishonest” and “corrupt” — everything is fair game. Maybe Clinton’s campaign chairman takes part in occult rituals in which bodily fluids are consumed, maybe he doesn’t. Who’s to say, really? “U decide,” as the incoming national-security adviser, Mike Flynn, wrote in a tweet with a link to a post claiming that Clinton’s hacked emails contained enough evidence to put her away for life on charges including “sex crimes with minors.”

In the age of Trump, data and evidence are just some unwanted roughage down at the end of the buffet. Bush may have taken a selective approach to intelligence, but Trump, in his ongoing self-investigations, ignores it altogether, rejecting the daily national-security briefings traditionally provided to presidents-elect by the C.I.A. Even speaking under the cover of anonymity in a completely unguarded moment — is there such a thing as a guarded moment for Trump? — it’s impossible to imagine him drawing a line between “the reality-based” world and the conspiratorial world of self-investigation that he and his fellow travelers inhabit. It’s a distinction that he doesn’t recognize.

Edgar Welch was different. At a certain point, he stopped looking at the internet. All his hours in the Pizzagate feedback loop ultimately drove him not deeper down the rabbit hole, but out into the real world, where he could do some primary research. He was concerned that something very bad was happening in that pizzeria in Washington. When he decided to check it out for himself, and maybe even do something about it, Welch the self-investigator became an actual investigator, albeit a badly deluded, dangerous one. What he discovered — though not before he had fired off a couple of rounds, frightening a lot of people and possibly landing himself in prison for several years — was that he had been gorging on a lot of lies. Or, as he later told a reporter for The New York Times, coining another memorable phrase for our age, “the intel on this wasn’t 100 percent.” That, at least, was 100 percent true.

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