Very OnlineHow Gullibility Became Our New Normal

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Over the decade-plus of his somewhat tortured Hollywood fame, Robert Pattinson has told a lot of lies. Among other fibs, Pattinson has claimed to have a rap alter ego named “Big Tub,” attested to the existence of deleted scat-play scenes in the first Breaking Dawn movie, and—perhaps most infamously—told the Today Show in 2011 that as a child he had witnessed the traumatic death of a circus clown caught in a fatal explosion inside a comically small car. 

Pattinson is now back onscreen as the star of the newly released The Batman. And though it’s not clear whether, as he recently told GQ, he actually did spend time between takes on set “making ambient electronic music in the [Bat]suit,” the actor has frequently owned up to his chaotic falsehoods by citing the vacuity of celebrity culture as a defense. For actors, press is just another performance, and R-Patz—perhaps due to his years as a reluctant teen idol—has no interest in pretending otherwise. In a 2019 piece for The Cut, writer Dana Schwartz likened him to “a cursed prince in a fairy tale who wished on a monkey paw.” The result of the Faustian bargain is success, fame, and adoration—but in return, Schwartz wrote, he must withstand the nihilism born of knowing that “nothing you say will ever matter.”

To my mind, the trade-off we accept in our online lives is a similar sort of curse. Pattinson ad-libbing about his teen rap career and “extraordinarily heavy saliva” has a kindred energy to a certain type of posting into the void: It’s performing a version of yourself—or worse, some ill-conceived idea of a personal brand—for your Instagram followers. It’s shitposting for an unseen audience to an unknown end; fabricating (or at least exaggerating) a story where an entire coffee shop stands up and applauds “in order to say anything at all.” But unlike Pattinson, most of us aren’t reaping anywhere near comparable levels of reward. At this point, we have a symbiotic relationship with the surveillance we’ve accepted as a fact of our lives: We can see so much more of the world than we’ve ever been able to before, with the understanding that we share some of ourselves with it in return.

Whether you’re R-Patz or a tiresome “influencer activist,” you act in response to an existing appetite: you spin a yarn about getting suspended for school for trying to save some snails, you promote the healing power of “perineum sunning” on Instagram, you tweet progressive-sounding nonsense about queer people in Ukraine that conflates several categories of “marginalized people” in a coloring book-level analysis of the current Russian invasion because the vibes just seem right. It’s what’s expected. Who really cares if it’s not true? 

Content is content and all press is good press. Whether Pattinson really did lay down some sick beats in the Batcape is immaterial: Search for the answer and all you’ll find is page after page of music news sites repeating the claim rather than verifying it. Details and nuance don’t make for snappy headlines and successful SEO. And why would they? We’ve seen over and over that there are few genuinely worrisome or irreperable repercussions for lying, grifting, and fabulism online

It’s no wonder, then, that in the eyes of the wider public, the “blue tick” journalist has fallen far lower in esteem than the entrepreneurial everyman. Unfortunately, both are infected with posters’ disease, or rather, the impulse to literally just say shit; the void of trustworthy news sources has fast been filled by hucksters (Joe Rogan), conspiracists (QAnon), and celebrities from both the right and the nominal left. And the components of critical thinking—the shared understanding of things like context, subtext, hyperbole, and metaphor—have been consistently undermined by the face-value, rapid-response urgency of social media. In a recent essay for DAME titled “Have We Forgotten How to Read Critically?,” Kate Harding writes that the internet “has made the entire world a library, with no exits and no supervisors,” and concludes, “We have to ask more questions, of ourselves and our sources, starting with that fundamental one: Does this make any fucking sense at all?” 

In the United States, one turning point for public trust in credible news sources was the presidency of the famously paranoid Richard Nixon. Nixon’s administration strategically rebranded the “press”—a noun associated with freedom, tenacity, and the First Amendment—as “the media.” According to former Nixon speechwriter William Safire, the rhetorical shift gave the institution “a manipulative, Madison Avenue, all-encompassing connotation.” But distrust in the profession was already longstanding in minoritized communities, as was the reality that journalists’ sources regularly included cops, politicians, and others with a vested interest in keeping the whole truth at bay. And the insistence within the profession that journalists write for the pursuit of a singular truth untainted by personal values, experiences, and biases has become even harder to prove as media outlets have become the property of multinational media conglomerates like Time Warner, GE/Comcast, and Disney.

The mistaken belief prevalent in the internet age—that almost anything you can read online is more credible than its equivalent in the compromised mainstream media—is at once cynical and hopeful: a necessary recognition of institutional incompetence that is simultaneously oblivious to what are often the biases and self-interest of “independent” arbiters of content. This combination of distrust in traditional authority and credulous embrace of online information is equally evident in the apparent belief systems of younger internet users. Vox writer Rebecca Jennings characterizes this shift in culture—or is it a shift in vibes?— as a new kind of religion, pointing to the soaring popularity of astrology, holistic medicine, and what she calls “the girlboss optimism of multilevel marketing companies […] frameworks of belief that question traditional logic and institutional thought.” In their sleek packaging for social media, these things often manifest online as aesthetics, memes, and consumables—far more palatable and accessible than belief systems of the past (see also: NFTs, cryptocurrency). “Call it the religion of ‘just asking questions.’ Or the religion of ‘doing your own research,’” Jennings writes. “It’s still in its infancy, and has evolved in an attempt to correct a societal wrong.”

The mistaken belief prevalent in the internet age—that almost anything you can read online is more credible than its equivalent in the compromised mainstream media—is at once cynical and hopeful.

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Jennings sees this demographic migration tend toward “internet spirituality,” which tracks with a number of digital-social trends associated with the online generation. Simulation theory has taken off among the TikTokkers to a similar degree as manifestation and Grabovoi numbers, and (contrary to the stereotype) Gen Z are as capable of spreading a conspiracy theory as their presumably less-media-literate elders. The ableist online campaign against Helen Keller is one such example: a number of users who participated in the bizarre 2020 trend said that it had been a joke, but at 8.8 million views (as of the time of writing) the #helenkellerisfake TikTok hashtag is full of people who maintain that the accomplished activist and author could not possibly have achieved what she did in her lifetime as a DeafBlind person.

In a piece for Mel magazine, staff writer Magdalene Taylor asks: “Why is Gen Z acting like Boomers now?” Discussing manifestation trends involving specific TikTok audio clips and the satanic panic around the Astroworld tragedy, Taylor concludes that this brand of superstition is likely a coping mechanism: “Maybe it’s more comforting to believe that Astroworld is the result of malevolent forces than human irresponsibility, that human traffickers are kidnapping children when it’s their own parents who subject them to these terrors, and that we can make miracles happen by listening to a little song.”

I should note here that while gullibility (believing something because it was online), wishful thinking (hoping for the veracity of a belief though knowing it is unlikely) and willful ignorance (refusing to acknowledge anything that challenges that belief) are points on the same continuum, they are not the same thing. But online, a harmless suspension of disbelief can quickly become something more pernicious. Take the recent monthslong TikTok craze that transformed an elderly pug named Noodle into a bellwether for the mood of a particular day. On what Noodle’s owner Jon Graziano calls a “bones day”—a day that begins with Noodle remaining in standing position after being lifted onto his paws—viewers can expect good fortune and are encouraged to treat themselves. “Buy the massage chair!” cries Graziano. “Get the fancy coffee. Not the stuff from the can, get the stuff from the bag. It’s real good.” The prescriptions for “no bones days” (signaled by the pug triumphantly flopping back into bed) are similarly joyful. Graziano suggests expressing kindness towards yourself, lighting a candle, watching a film, canceling plans. “It’s not a bad thing as much as it’s just—you have permission to flop,” he told Insider in October.

While Noodle is more of an oracle than a god, and his viewers aren’t exactly devotees of his (ultimately mundane—no disrespect, Noodle!) prophecy, commenters have expressed distress in the more recent absence of regular updates. The top comment on a January 2022 video of Noodle snoring, implied in the caption to be a “no bones” forecast in spirit but not in practice, has a vaguely threatening aura to it: “okay. but we haven’t had a bones update in 2 days, and because of this, I have been having no bones days.” On January 27th, Graziano announced that he would be taking a break from posting.

For better or worse, people are far more tuned in to their own needs at this moment in pandemic time: we are interrogating the utility of work and its centrality in our lives and being diagnosed with a “treat brain” that sees us “spending money slightly more frivolously and eating lots of little cakes”—but we are also embracing a more social post-COVID lifestyle at the expense of immunocompromised people. Needing to believe in something is a need all the same, and the marked increase in traditional religious disavowal or “rise of the nones”—particularly among younger people—is evidence of it being addressed elsewhere. Gullibility has become the default mode of online culture consumption because, at least in part, we are being told what we want to hear. Technology has never known us better, and its operators remain stubbornly oblique about their methods: TikTok’s owner ByteDance, for one, has remained notoriously tight-lipped about the mechanics of the platform’s A.I.-powered algorithm, but as implied by a recent Sundance documentary called TikTok, Boom, “personal tastes, internet browser histories, and facial recognition software” all appear to play a role. 

Because they are so deeply informed by belief, our online habits are almost always embarrassing; finding vindication—through engagement numbers, the voiced confirmation bias of others, or the veneer of social justice—is an ideal excuse. The scope of real-life gullibility has always covered a broad swath. People throughout history have fallen for lies, bought snake oil and Ponzi schemes, and been indoctrinated by propaganda. It’s no different online, where our beliefs can be manipulated toward terrible tattoos and multi-level marketing to ableism and outright violence. But what drives gullibility overall is often a sense of community that helps us feel some measure of control as the world spirals out of it. That community is the internet’s most compelling asset. The predictions of a pug oracle, the promised fortune from a song, the future as told by a horoscope lends itself to projection, but also, crucially, to hope. Hope, that is, beyond the hope that we’ll eventually get to hear Robert Pattinson’s Batman-inspired ambient tracks—but we’ll take that too. 


Jenna Mahale, an Indian woman with long brown hair, poses against a wood fence with a lavender shirt
by Jenna Mahale
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Jenna Mahale is a freelance journalist and editor living in the United Kingdom who is extremely, extremely online. She writes and edits primarily for i-D, covering film, art, music, books, beauty, politics, and digital culture, especially frog memes. Find her on Twitter @jennamahale.