‘An age of manufactured nihilism’: A writer details the disquieting assault on truth from Trump, Bannon and Putin
The term “information overload” has been around since at least 1964, when it was used in the Bertram Gross book, “The Managing of Organizations.” But the concept — being overwhelmed by too much information — is alive and well in 2020. And journalist Sean lling, in a think piece published in Vox this week, takes a look at some of the ways in which information overload can affect politics.
“We live in a media ecosystem that overwhelms people with information,” Illing explains. “Some of that information is accurate, some of it is bogus, and much of it is intentionally misleading. The result is a polity that has increasingly given up on finding out the truth.”
Politically, information overload can manifest itself in different ways, according to Illing.
Some people, feeling overwhelmed, don’t know what to believe and ignore politics altogether; others only rely on sources that cater to their biases.
“We’re in an age of manufactured nihilism,” Illing observes. “The issue for many people isn’t exactly a denial of truth as such. It’s more a growing weariness over the process of finding the truth at all. And that weariness leads more and more people to abandon the idea that the truth is knowable.”
Illing cites Steve Bannon as a perfect example of someone who uses information overload as part of his political strategy. Bannon headed Breitbart News before becoming, in 2017, chief strategist for President Donald Trump’s administration — and in 2018, Illing notes, Bannon reportedly said, “The Democrats don’t matter; the real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Illing adds, is also a master of “flooding the zone” —and so is White House Adviser Kellyanne Conway. Illing observes, “We don’t need a master puppeteer pulling the media’s strings. The race for content, the need for clicks, is more than enough. Bannon or Conway can shake things up by feeding nonsense into the system.”
Although the term “information overload” was being used decades before the internet was created, the concept is more relevant than ever in an era of smartphones, laptops, e-mail, social media and text messaging. Trump, according to Illing, “can dictate an entire news cycle with a few unhinged tweets or an absurd press conference.”
“What we’re facing is a new form of propaganda that wasn’t really possible until the digital age,” Illing asserts. “And it works not by creating a consensus around any particular narrative, but by muddying the waters so that consensus isn’t achievable.”