Our Consensus Reality Has Shattered

A whirlwind of uncertainty landed on us this year, and it’s stirring up extremism.

An illustration of a fire extinguisher with tiny people crowding around it.
Getty / The Atlantic

We will remember 2020 as many things. The year we spent alone. The year we spent online. The year so many died. The year of protests. The year of QAnon. The year of domestic terrorism. The year of the election.

Most of all, perhaps, it is the year of not knowing. Is it safe to send my kids to school? Can I go to the store? Should I vote by mail? Do I still have a job? Is it safe to go to work? Can I afford to stay home? Is it safe to exercise? To fly? Do I still have to wipe down the mail? The groceries? What does the CDC say about that? Can I trust the CDC anymore?

A whirlwind of uncertainty landed on us this year, and it threatens to rip the country apart. We have been struck by an unexpected and little-understood disease, explained in wildly contradictory terms by doctors, politicians, pundits, friends, families, and internet weirdos. The pandemic is an enigma unfolding in real time, where yesterday’s certitudes become tomorrow’s grave mistakes.

All of this is taking place within a profoundly broken information ecosystem. We grope, blindly, forced to independently assess a bewildering barrage of seemingly factual claims that arrive on our doorstep daily, with the lives of our children, parents, lovers, and neighbors hanging in the balance.

All of this is bad enough on its face, but its secondary effects could be disastrous. When people don’t know what’s real, they turn to others for reassurance. But in a world overrun by social media, that process results in a smorgasbord of confusing and conflicting inputs, a problem deepened by the Trump administration’s relentless three-and-a-half-year assault on the very notion of truth.

When no clear, authoritative source of truth exists, when uncertainty rages, human nature will lead many people to seek a more stable reality by wrapping themselves in an ever-tighter cloak of political, religious, or racial identities. The more uncertainty rises, the more alluring that siren call becomes. And some Americans are responding by seeking out exclusive, all-encompassing identities that are toxic and fragile—and hold the seed of violent extremism.

We don’t like uncertainty. We’re wired that way. It’s a survival trait. We need to know. But our knowledge is incomplete, our senses fallible. We can’t always answer the important questions. When that happens, we seek a gut check from the people around us.

The gut check goes by various formal names—constructivism, the social construction of reality, or simply consensus reality.

The sociologist Anthony Giddens wrote that our perception of reality depends on feedback from people we trust. We have to check our facts against the perceptions of others. The more people who agree on a fact, the more we understand it to be real. “Knowledge resides in consensus, rather than in any transcendent or objective relationship between a knower and that which is to be known,” Giddens argued in 1991, although the idea goes back further still.

Objective reality is presumed to exist, and it may enforce its strictures tangibly—for instance, through COVID-19 death tolls and hospitalizations. But objective reality is apprehended through consensus. We do not set out, individually, to count the dead. We trust others to do it for us. When our enveloping social consensus agrees that 200,000 Americans have died, it becomes a fact. It becomes real.

Discerning the consensus has never been a perfect solution to uncertainty, because it’s never entirely clear who can be trusted, and even those we trust may let us down.

The consensus may be objectively wrong. Everyone may agree the world is flat, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. The consensus may be unstable. Many people once agreed that the world was flat, and now most people agree that it is not.

Perhaps most importantly, the nature of the consensus depends on who you know. Even today, surrounding yourself with people who believe that the world is flat is eminently possible. The more people you know who believe it, the more likely you will believe it as well. But if you move, or make new friends, the consensus may again change around you.

The instability of the consensus has always presented a challenge, but in today’s globally networked world, realities collide around us every day, sometimes dramatically—even violently—opposed in their verdicts on values, opinions, and facts.

For three years, the Trump administration’s drumbeat of lies and manipulations has eroded confidence in government data. The accuracy and truthfulness of the federal government on matters large and small came under constant assault, literally from day one, on issues such as national security, foreign diplomacy, and even the humble weather forecast.

The government is the custodian of a remarkably large amount of mundane information about the weather, public health, crime, and the economy. These data points normally tick along invisibly, underwriting a stable consensus and a consistent picture of living conditions in America.

Those days may be over. The fact that it happened in front of our eyes did not diminish, but rather accentuated, the impact. A president who was capable of drawing a new storm track on a weather map with a Sharpie was capable of anything. More than capable of inundating the nation with lies by the thousands. More than capable of training an entire nation to question everything and trust nothing.

But our deteriorating consensus reality didn’t start with Trump. The president is as much its product as its author.

The rise of the internet, and especially social media, had already created a volatile and unwelcoming environment for the idea of objective truth.

Communities of specialized interest and questionable intention sprang up like weeds, as they always had, but now they grew faster and more capable of bridging geographic divides, nourished by a stream of algorithmic rankings and automated recommendations. Credibility could be granted through a blue checkmark or earned through earnest prolixity, or if all else failed, purchased from retweet and follower farms.

Social media revolutionized the art of finding consensus. The numeric nature of such platforms lent itself to easy scoring, and the business incentive of the firms that operated them was always to boost every point of view, to give credibility to every opinion and theory and fantasy. These sites operated as judges with their fingers on the scales, inexorably biased toward indiscriminately promoting content, any content, all content. All clicks were created equal. All posts were entitled to a shot at virality.

They monetized the consumption of content, with business models built only to amplify. That amplification was predicated on engagement, and engagement was explicitly framed as evidence of an emerging consensus. Bookmarks became favorites and favorites became likes. And despite what anyone says, retweets are endorsements—when viewed statistically at scale. The social media companies made fortunes from virality and engagement, becoming both cultivators and arbitrators of consensus, and thus of knowledge itself.

How much engagement does it take to make an alternative fact credible? One hundred thousand retweets? Fifty thousand likes? Ten thousand shares? These numbers were within reach for virtually everyone, and even they are overkill. For some people, seeing 100, 50, or 20 is enough. In a small group—a chat room or a Telegram channel—affirmation from 10 people might be sufficient to tilt someone toward violence, because consensus is more powerful when it is found among others you trust. We listen most closely to chat members, friends, family, and colleagues. We value most dearly the opinions of people from the same neighborhood, or from the same religion, or from the same race.

The health of consensus reality was dire enough before the arrival of the novel coronavirus.

The pandemic would have presented a challenge in any information environment. COVID-19 was new and not well understood. Scientists tested and reported on hypotheses in real time, even as people started to die. Amateur epidemiologists sprang up by the thousands to “educate” their peers about the virus’s threat, or lack thereof, but even good information was bad.

News outlets swarmed toward important and necessary scientific research that came with caveats you could drive a truck through. These studies were crucial steps toward developing real knowledge through the scientific method, but most were miles away from being settled knowledge.

Many Americans consumed them voraciously, seizing on every hint of peril or glimmer of hope, only to face contradictory guidance a few days later. Amateurs and professionals alike argued over which studies were better, leveled by the online playing field.

But while good information was bad, bad information was much worse.

New COVID-specific conspiracy theories exploded across social media, even as the president of the United States suggested that people inject themselves with disinfectant. Nation-states and domestic political actors sought to exploit the chaos with disinformation campaigns, even as a wave of nationwide protests further complicated the information landscape.

Early concerns about the politicization of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention matured into justifiable panic as the Trump administration actively undermined the work of government scientists in the middle of the crisis. Even less irresponsible figures contributed to the uncertainty—for instance, by telling Americans that masks would not help contain the virus, only to later reverse that advice.

In addition to the mystery of the disease itself, its secondary effects dramatically increased uncertainty for most of the country—suddenly and unexpectedly wiping out millions of jobs and setting the stage for a massive surge in evictions, poverty, and homelessness, distributed unequally across demographic groups.

In the context of mysterious lights seen in the sky, uncertainty can be fun—but most of the time, it’s not so abstract. Mysterious lights are rare, but we think every day about how we’re going to pay the rent.

COVID-19 pushed a teetering nation off a cliff of uncertainty, leaving Americans with a staggering number of questions, worries, and unknowns.

Consensus is a tool for reducing uncertainty, so it becomes much more important during times like these. But in the current information environment, the search for consensus is fraught. When we reach out to others for a gut check, we find a new level of chaos—multiple competing realities, often in violent conflict: Masks are good. Masks are tyranny. Vaccines will save us. Vaccines are dangerous. Trump is making the pandemic worse. Trump is saving the economy.

There are a million other points between these poles, and to the left and right of them. What the consensus looks like depends on whom you talk to.

Some people are better at living with uncertainty than others and can navigate a landscape of contradictions more comfortably. But most of us will seek to reduce uncertainty by turning to the people we trust the most: people who are like us, people with whom we can identify, what social scientists refer to as an in-group.

The in-group is not a designation of power or popularity. It’s simply your group. Anyone who’s not in your group is part of an out-group. In-group identities can be defined in any number of ways, but the most common involve politics, nations, religions, races, genders, and sexual orientations.

Scholars have long understood that people tend to have favorable feelings about others who are part of the same in-group. We identify with in-groups because we understand that they are filled with people like us—who hold similar opinions, listen to similar music, enjoy similar foods. Because they’re more like us, we relate to them more easily and agree with them more often than we do members of our out-groups.

A related effect is equally venerable, but less understood. People who associate with in-groups tend to develop negative attitudes about out-groups. We like our music and don’t like theirs. Our food is good; theirs is not as good. This often extends to the quality of the members: Our people are better than they are.

These are not universal reactions. They’re tendencies that become visible in aggregate, when examining masses of people, and they’re typically weak ones.

For example, in-groups are fluid and easy to shift. If you simply tell a group of people that they’re all on the same team, they will feel more positive about their fellow team members. And in-groups don’t necessarily develop negative feelings about out-groups, even when the groups are competing for resources or status. As the social psychologist John T. Jost has demonstrated, people usually favor maintaining the status quo over changes that might benefit their in-group, an effect called “system justification.”

When the status quo is upended, as in a civil war, people experience massive uncertainty. When the status quo collapses, there is no system to justify. But even short of societal collapse, the system-justification impulse can fail. What happens when the status quo is not just beset by uncertainty, but is itself the source of uncertainty?

That’s when things get ugly.

When we elect to join an in-group, we are also subscribing to its consensus reality, stabilizing our own lives within a communal understanding of what is true.

Identifying with an in-group is not simply a way to ascertain our place in the world; it selects and affirms the world itself. It makes the world real.

During times of great uncertainty, our need to make the world real and know what is true becomes much more urgent, and we can satisfy that need by immersing ourselves ever deeper in an in-group that offers a clear, authoritative consensus.

The social psychologist Michael A. Hogg found that feelings of uncertainty make people more likely to strongly identify with in-groups.

But Hogg’s findings go further. People who are experiencing uncertainty tend to assign a higher value to the in-group’s most distinctive traits, such as skin color or religious practice. They are attracted to in-groups with rigidly defined rules and boundaries, and to in-groups that are internally homogenous—filled with people who look, think, and act in similar ways.

More destructively, people who are experiencing uncertainty tend to develop hostile attitudes toward out-groups, seeing them as threats, and entertaining dark fantasies of hostile actions toward the hated other. Some in-group members may go beyond fantasy, engaging in acts of violence, terrorism, even genocide. They gravitate toward social movements that are bigoted, hateful, and authoritarian.

They become extremists.

During times of great uncertainty, the in-group consensus can become an overwhelmingly powerful anchor to stabilize reality. Conditions in the world might seem to be changing, but the in-group is portrayed as an island of constancy, a historical through line, a fortress. And woe to any threat perceived outside the gates.

In some circumstances, an out-group’s consensus is understood to threaten the very nature of reality. To members of the in-group, such threats seem existential in the broadest sense. They undermine everything, attacking reality itself. Such threats must be crushed.

During times of low uncertainty, an in-group’s consensus reality can often tolerate contact and even friction with conflicting out-group consensuses, especially when the stakes are low, as in disagreements over the proper way to dress, or the correct way to prepare a potato.

The center tends to hold, until it doesn’t. From time to time, things blow up, unleashing violent extremism in highly destructive waves. The policy crowd has favorite explanations for these waves—unemployment, poverty, lack of education. At best, these factors play out in specific local arenas, but when you try to apply them globally, causality mostly falls apart.

Unemployment and poverty do not drive extremism directly. People can live with deprivation if they know what’s expected, where they fit into the picture, and how they will survive, if only barely. They can live with adversity if they can plan for it.

But when unemployment and poverty surge unexpectedly, overturning the status quo, when hopes and dreams and long-laid plans fly out the window, extremism becomes much more attractive. When uncertainty overtakes the system itself, when the system is the source of uncertainty, things can really fall apart, and it becomes difficult to know which way society will turn.

We’re in such a moment now, as the world grapples with profound complexity. The inherent uncertainty about COVID-19 and the sudden decimation of national and global economies have created interlocking storms of misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy.

In-groups have become vital to establishing what is real, but the normally overlapping circles of consensus have drifted apart, and the less they overlap, the more divergent our realities become.

Donald Trump is an obvious flash point in this multiverse, the biggest and loudest point of divergence in the path that leads from Universe A to Universe B (or C, or D, or E, or F).

On a near-daily basis, Trump mobilizes online armies to battle over what is real. The crowd was small. The crowd was big. Trump hates the troops. Trump loves the troops. Trump is corrupt. Trump is draining the swamp. Trump is a racist. Trump is the best president Black people have ever had. 

Most of us marvel at these incongruent realities, at the shocking ability of some Americans to disregard facts that seem objective and uncontested. But consensus reality rests on identity, and Trump has tripled down on calls to identity.

Even the refuge of the in-group is fraught with questions and division. Trump’s calls to identity are generally not explicit, but implicit—if only just below the surface. As a result, no clearly dominant in-group reality can be invoked. Instead, the process of defining group identity has become a life-and-death competition, fertile ground for extremist movements of every stripe.

This is clearly visible in the diversity of extremist in-groups and movements now on display in America. As the traditional anchors of stability fail, one after another, more and more people are publishing their own pitches for the new consensus reality, and their scripts are getting wilder by the day.

Among “siege culture” neo-Nazi groups, the uncertainty has strengthened identification with broad racial in-groups while dividing extremist subgroups, resulting in schism after schism. Each splinter group now tries to outdo the next in the violence of its rhetoric, seeking the magic recipe for recruitment and mobilization.

For groups such as the multifaceted “boogaloo” movement, the uncertainty serves as a beacon in itself. Uncertainty is their in-group. They share a commitment to tearing everything down and building something new, even if they don’t agree on what.

These are just two of a menagerie of groups and movements, including Incels, Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer, Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, whatever Ammon Bundy is this week, and many more. These groups are frequently in competition, always in evolution, and sometimes in open, escalatory conflict.

And that’s just the right wing. While left-wing extremist groups continue to maintain a comparatively minor level of activity and ideological development, that isn’t guaranteed to remain the case. Most scenarios for such a shift are still highly speculative. But the growing hurricane of uncertainty is likely to swamp all quarters of the American political landscape before it recedes, and it’s impossible to know exactly what’s coming next.

Perhaps the most striking example of the muddled battle to make the world seem real is QAnon, the sprawling, near-impenetrable conspiracy theory that claims President Trump is leading a secret war against an ill-defined cabal of elite pedophiles, among many other things.

Conspiracy theories tend to reduce uncertainty by explaining why the world is the way it is. They’re especially useful for extremist movements, since they often blame negative developments on secretive out-group activities.

Conspiracy theories engulf adherents in a robustly detailed reality that can be highly resistant to contradiction, in part because the conspiracy is understood to be concealed by design, and in part because adherents invest massive mental resources in what the historian Richard Hofstadter called “heroic strivings for evidence,” to render their beliefs rationalist, resulting in a version of reality that “is far more coherent than the real world, since it leaves no room for mistakes, failures or ambiguities.”

Conspiracy theories of all sorts are thriving in the age of COVID-19, but QAnon has some distinctive features. It’s especially contagious, partly as a result of adherents’ adept exploitation of social media. It’s especially immersive, because of its adherents’ “heroic strivings” to create a worldscape of staggering complexity. And QAnon is especially resistant to contradiction, as evidenced by the sad, steady stream of posts about true believers being disowned by their families.

QAnon adherents have become violent on a number of occasions, but the movement generally hovers around the indistinct border between conspiracy theory and full-blown extremist movement, in part because its in-groups and out-group are weakly defined.

Q may seem like a far-right movement because of its association with Trump, but polling suggests a more complicated complexion. The parameters of its out-group are equally vague, redolent of anti-Semitism but not precisely aligned. The out-group potentially includes anyone, even Tom Hanks,  the pope, and the employees of your local pizza joint.

A more important distinction between Q and traditional extremism is the fact that its adherents are not broadly committed to taking hostile or violent action against its satanic, cannibalistic, pedophiliac out-group—because they believe that Trump is already fighting a successful war on the movement’s behalf.

That could change if Trump loses in November, or succumbs to the coronavirus. Adherents may feel a need to take matters into their own hands. Even a Trump victory might not stop the movement from escalating. Q adherents have already made inroads into conventional politics. Imagining the apparatus of the state being deployed to support their cause requires no great leap.

If you’re outside the consensus, it’s tempting to dismiss QAnon and other fringe or extremist movements as outliers, oddities, or even part of a mental-health crisis. The beliefs of their adherents are so unmoored from the dominant consensus that outsiders find them difficult to understand and take seriously.

But in a recent poll, 32 percent of respondents said they believed that QAnon was at least partly true, and a third of all Republicans said that it was mostly true. The movement can almost certainly claim millions of full or partial adherents—a massive in-group, more than large enough to establish its own consensus reality. Belated moves to kick the movement off the major platforms may limit its growth, but the damage has long since been done.

People who believe in QAnon are following a predictable pattern of human behavior, finding certainty in a perspective shared by countless others. QAnon may be many things, including objectively false, but it’s not madness, at least not exactly. Instead, it’s a dramatic demonstration of the power of consensus, the power of knowing that other people see the world exactly the way you do.

Where do we go from here?

The November election is an obvious inflection point. Donald Trump is the chaos candidate, for whom uncertainty is not a bug, but a feature. Joe Biden is the candidate of the pre-Trump status quo, an improvement to be sure, but no panacea.

America’s descent into uncertainty preceded Trump, and neither COVID-19 nor social-media platforms will vanish if Biden is elected. The challenger might mitigate some uncertainty, but his election could mobilize some extremist in-groups to violence, with Trump poised to throw gasoline on the fire.

And those are best-case scenarios. Rather than save us from uncertainty, the election is all too likely to increase it, at least in the short term. Key states might be too close to call on Election Night, partisans may allege rampant fraud, and the incumbent might simply refuse to leave.

Worse still, the news that Trump has been infected with COVID-19, and that many more in the White House have been exposed, holds out the prospect of more urgent chaos, potentially fueled by the administration’s heavy-handed efforts to manage the situation, and the unreliability of the information it offers. The state of the president’s health is more uncertain than the status of Schrödinger’s cat, and the wisdom of his choices during this time will be debated forever, no matter the outcome.

Eventually, hopefully, the smoke will clear, and America will get down to dealing with the aftermath of 2020 in a serious way. When the time comes—if the time comes—we need to be ready with new solutions.

The next generation of initiatives to counter violent extremism must start at the level of stabilizing consensus. That’s a tall order in a society where dramatic change is needed in multiple areas of policy—most notably racial justice and health-care reform. The trick will be finding ways to cushion necessary changes, clearly communicating what the public should expect, and then delivering on those expectations.

Messaging initiatives may also help. Empirical research shows that certain kinds of messaging are effective at swaying opinions and preventing people from joining extremist movements. These messages—which must come from every level of a reasonably unified government and society—should focus carefully on reducing uncertainty, whether by rebuilding institutional trust or providing clear explanations of expected outcomes. Such messages may not always be obviously relevant to extremism, but they are relevant to the conditions that aggravate extremism.

Finally, we must set about the laborious and painful process of rebuilding a society in which overlapping consensus realities can coexist with less friction. There will never be a perfect outcome. Extremism has been with us for nearly as long as people have gathered in groups. But it doesn’t have to be this bad.

For these efforts to stand a chance, the obvious obstacles to rebuilding a common consensus must be overcome. Americans will need to tackle social-media platforms and internet companies, as well as their business models, which blindly and amorally prioritize engagement, virality, and faux consensus. Although the major platforms continue to improve their efforts to manage extremism, the pace of change has been glacial.

We need tech leaders who want to change the system at its roots, instead of plastering their products with barely effectual Band-Aids and wringing their hands when asked to confront political power. The tech sector’s capitulation to the Trump administration’s blizzard of lies and manipulation cannot simply be followed by a similar capitulation to a theoretically more beneficent Biden administration.

The companies that control the public debate must be willing to value truth over clicks, and to address their broken and destructive business models.

Donald Trump may or may not leave office in January 2021, but Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey will almost certainly remain. They helped bring us to the precipice. The best thing they can do now is step aside and let a new generation of leaders walk us back.