The Problem With ‘Self-Investigation’ in a Post-Truth Era
By JONATHAN MAHLER
Dec 27 2016
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.”
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.