How Influencers and Algorithms Are Creating Bespoke Realities for Everyone

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David: Key to these factions are influencers. How have they become so powerful?

Renée: They have the followers. Even conspiracy theorist influencers have followings in the millions at this point. Mainstream media doesn’t necessarily get that kind of readership on a given article or viewers on a given piece of content. But the influencer is algorithmically pushed into your feed and they have that ability to speak back, to engage in a way that media brands often don’t.

David: How important are algorithms in helping these influencers get their message out?

Renée: The influencer needs to be seen by their audience, and having that relationship with your audience is key, but that’s always mediated through what the algorithm is going to push to people, particularly as more and more of that in-feed real estate is determined not by who you follow at all, but by what it thinks you want to see.

David: In your book you write about Ali Alexander, an influencer who helped organize the Stop the Steal movement in 2020. How have people like Alexander become so influential?

Renée: People who are not Trump supporters might see him as clownish, but among the group that he’s speaking to, they trust him, they believe him, and he compels them to take action. It’s really important to realize the effect that influencer relationships have in shaping reality or driving people to act in a way. They really come up from the crowd and they’re given their power because the crowd continues to engage with them and support them and drive them.

David: Is this what Trump is doing?

Renée: What you see with Trump over and over again is what we call this bottom-up rumor mill, where people are chattering about things, they say it, they post it, they tag him, he retweets them, then they have the benefit of that additional clout within the community. They’ve done their part, they’re fighting for the cause. You see him very deftly working this system on Truth Social [where] he’s constantly amplifying fans and followers and engaging very much among the online supporter base.

David: What are we missing about our current information environment?

Renée: What I find most alarming is that people have the ability to just create reality by making something trend, to reinforce over and over and over again these conspiracy theories. You do have this increasingly divergent set of realities where there’s a deep conviction built up over many, many years of reinforcing the same tropes and stories. You can’t just correct that with a fact check.

David: And following the demise of the Stanford Internet Observatory, there are even less people fact-checking this stuff. Who or what was to blame for your departure from Stanford?

Renée: The chilling effect of congressional inquiries and associated lawfare, and the politicization of research, is real. Institutions need to see the writing on the wall. We have seen these tactics in the past, such as during attacks on climate scientists a decade ago, yet the playbook continues to work. If spurious investigations into politically inconvenient findings succeed in cowing institutions, there will only be more spurious investigations.

The Chatroom

Where do you get your political news from these days (aside from WIRED Politics, of course)? Do you stick to traditional media (newspapers, broadcast TV) or are you subscribed to political newsletters, podcasts, and social feeds? Do you consciously make an effort to get news from different perspectives? Or do you think you are living in an information echo chamber?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment on the site, or send me an email at mail@wired.com.

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