In an age of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” do we need more facts, more evidence, and more truth, or can misinformation only be exposed by better interpretation? The Trump administration’s attacks on the trustworthiness of mainstream media, coupled with its unwillingness to acknowledge its own informational biases, renders this hermeneutic question important.
By Marc Vasquez
Considering the endless amounts of “information” that can be accessed via digital media, and the ease and speed of online publishing, the possibilities and limits of knowledge and expression must be reexamined. Through critical engagement with data—specifically, with data as “capta,” captured and taken, in Drucker’s terms—the digital humanities are well-poised to confront these epistemological and interpretative issues. Harnessing the capacities of computers, the digital humanist can uncover macro- and micro-level patterns to illuminate the relationship between, on the one hand, online expressions of pro- and anti-Trump discourse, and on the other hand, the status of evidence and truth in the wider public.
With these broad concerns in mind, my essay traces the tension between “evidence” and “feeling” throughout 1000 “New” posts in the AskTrumpSupporters subreddit. According to its “Subreddit Info,” r/ATS is designed to help people who do not support Donald Trump, and people who are undecided on their political loyalties, to better understand Trump supporters’ views. Through a narrow question-and-answer focus, r/ATS provides a forum for Trump supporters to clarify policy positions and react to recent events related to the Trump presidency. The “Subreddit Info” page further claims that r/ATS is neither a debate forum, nor a venue for changing Trump supporters’ minds, nor a place to prove Trump supporters “wrong.” Ironically, and unsurprisingly, heated debate ensues in the threads that I examine; tense debates are indeed inevitable, given the presence of unexamined epistemological assumptions. The following questions drive my analysis of these debates: how do the interlocuters of r/ATS articulate their political and personal convictions? More importantly: when, and why, do Trump supporters and non-supporters on r/ATS rely on language of evidential credibility to bolster their claims, and what do these instances reveal about the terms of knowledge construction in this online discussion forum? To engage these questions, I treat r/ATS—with its threads on topics from law enforcement to social issues to domestic and foreign policy—as a full-fledged discourse. That is to say, I treat r/ATS as a formally structured way of acquiring and communicating knowledge. Thus, my close readings and computational analyses serve the goal of understanding how the language of r/ATS comments reflects internal rules about what can and cannot be said, believed, or known.
Drawing on Drucker’s constructivist claim that “knowledge is constructed, taken, not simply given as a natural representation of pre-existing fact” (2011), and on the Derridian concepts of polysemy and différance, I will deconstruct the evidence/feeling binary opposition as it appears in r/ATS threads. I will critically examine how redditors’ insistent (and supposedly objective) reliance on the word “evidence” actually reveals the tacit epistemological presuppositions that prevent fruitful and open-minded dialogue. Through shifts between close readings of representative threads, concordances, and co-occurrences, my paper will accomplish three tasks. First, it will explain how the evidence/feeling binary tends to manifest in r/ATS threads. Then, it will contextualize and destabilize the hierarchies inherent in this binary opposition, unsettling distinctions between “evidence” and “feeling.” Finally, and most importantly, it will reflect broadly on how a digital hermeneutics, as demonstrated by my case study, can provide new ways to challenge “fake news” and “alternative facts,” within and beyond Trump discourse.
Heated threads such as “Do you think racism is still a problem in this country?” exemplify how competing bodies of evidence betray instabilities in the knowledge binary. The redditors who initiate discussion on this question immediately rely on evidential language to undermine opposing claims, without attempting to delineate what qualifies as convincing “evidence.” As a result, subsequent comments are framed according to a rubric of evidence-versus-feeling—a fixed opposition that treats “hard” evidence as somehow distinct from, and fundamentally opposed to, subjective feelings. But, as we will see below, this simplistic rubric becomes problematic when standards of “evidence,” and the epistemological assumptions undergirding them, remain unspoken.
Allow me to describe the opening comments of the racism thread to offer a clearer illustration of what I mean by evidential language. In the first comment, redditor ToTheRescues argues that “familiarity” is the only way to deal with racism: without something to unite people of different races (s/he lists sports, patriotism, music, and food as examples), “tribalism” will divide everyone into “separated groups with individual needs and interests.” In response to this nativist argument, redditor wherethewoodat asks, “Out of curiosity, is there any evidence of this?” This question is warranted: to plausibly describe racism as a problem of tribalism that can be solved by developing a more robust national identity, ToTheRescues should provide supporting empirical and theoretical evidence. Yet, instead of elaborating on the type(s) of evidence that ToTheRescues needs to support their claim, wherethewoodat moves the discussion away from matters of evidence, and into a register of personal experience. Identifying as “a minority who’s lived [in Canada],” wherethewoodat claims that Canada struggles with less race-based issues than the U.S. despite its weaker national identity, supporting this counterclaim by asserting, “I feel my race a lot less in Canada” (emphasis added). This response demonstrates a quick (and perhaps unconscious) slip from a plea for “evidence” to an appeal to “feeling”—an unacknowledged shift from logical discussion to lived experience. This slippage suggests the untenability of the distinction between evidence and feeling, which wherethewoodat postulates in his/her opening question. Indeed, wherethewoodat’s subjective argument—his/her claim as a former subject of Canada—evinces the instability of the division between “evidence” and “feeling,” illustrating these categories’ mutual dependence.
The remainder of this essay operationalizes this pattern, investigating how the interplay between “evidence” and “feeling” shapes r/ATS’s discursive and epistemological contours.
Now for the data proper. I collected 1000 posts from r/ATS, sorted under “New,” as opposed to “Hot,” “Controversial,” “Top,” or “Rising.” Because my project studies the discursive and epistemological workings of r/ATS rather than relationships between redditors, I excluded information about specific redditors from my computational analyses. I decided to focus on “New” posts for three reasons. First, most of the other sorting categories (sans “Hot”) simply do not have enough posts for meaningful application of distant reading methods. Second, I am interested in how recent r/ATS conversations have been shaped by the Trump administration’s assault on “truth,” the reliability of experts, and the trustworthiness of mainstream media. Third, I realized that, while I could begin my analysis by focusing on “Hot” posts, “New” posts would also feature debates on “all-time controversies” and unresolved political and social questions. I resolved to begin, then, by studying the role of “evidence” and “feeling” in recent r/ATS dialogues; this study of knowledge construction in its most recent form would inform my subsequent comparative analysis of 1000 “Hot” posts.
A concordance and co-occurrence for the keyword “evidence” provides a localized overview of how the evidence/feeling binary manifests throughout r/ATS. My “evidence” concordance identified 188 matches that clustered around an interrelated set of issues: investigations of Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia, alleged Russian interference in U.S. elections, the question of whether or not Trump has obstructed justice, and disputes about politicians’ financial dealings. For the purposes of this essay, the specifics of these issues are secondary in importance to the words that r/ATS commenters use to invoke notions of evidence, and how these words, à la Derridian surplus or polysemy, bleed into surrounding words.
The concordance shows that most r/ATS redditors appeal to evidence in absolute terms, arguing for the total absence or abundant presence of evidence, and nothing in between. Observe how the following phrases represent this manner of appealing to evidence, which we might call “absolutist evidentialism”: “no evidence,” “I haven’t seen any evidence,” “there is still absolutely no evidence,” “I have not seen any convincing evidence,” “I’m sure there’s evidence,” “anything short of ironclad evidence should be considered insufficient,” “smoking gun evidence,” “damning evidence,” “zero evidence,” “literally exactly zero evidence,” “clear and damning evidence.” Before examining these phrases closely, one should acknowledge that absolutist appeals to evidence are the result, at least in part, of the American judicial system’s “burden of proof” standard. In trials, prosecutors and plaintiffs bear the burden of proving their case “beyond a reasonable doubt.” But it is possible to set aside this standard for the moment. Let us examine the formal aspects of absolutist evidentialist phrases. In some phrases, redditors affirm the presence or absence of evidence by referencing themselves as individuals (“I’m sure”), and by bringing attention to their (limited) angle of vision (“I haven’t seen”). This self-referentiality creates a noticeable tension between, on the one hand, supposedly observer-independent evidence and, on the other hand, redditors’ subjective limitations. By contrast, redditors who mention “zero evidence” to emphasize an utter lack of evidence try to mask their subjectivity with a quantitative measure. This recourse to a binary logic of zeros and ones reinforces a strict boundary between objective evidence and subjective feelings, even if the issues at hand, and redditors’ approaches to these issues, involve too many manifest and latent variables for a binary system. However, the most striking instances of absolutist evidentialism are appeals to “ironclad evidence” and “smoking gun evidence,” which imply that only evidence that is very heavy, concrete, visible, and obvious can be ushered into political discussions. Instead of moving discussion forward and leading to new insights, such language inhibits dialogical engagement, leading to stalemates between discursive combatants. Collectively, these phrases elucidate that r/ATS commenters fail to be reflexive about the assumptions that determine their understanding of what constitutes “evidence,” and how such evidence should be interpreted. This lack of critical engagement with epistemological assumptions can only intensify debates, obscuring the actual role of evidence in political discussions. So the debate continues, and strong appeals to “evidence” betray rhetorical and philosophical impotence: the more r/ATS commenters toss around the word “evidence,” the wider the gap between signifier (“evidence”) and signified (material and abstract support for truth claims) grows.
The co-occurrences of “evidence” corroborate and augment my concordance findings. The words that frequently co-occur with “evidence” include “reason,” “time,” “media,” “left,” “right,” “government,” “power,” and “law.” Co-occurrence with language of political institutions (“government,” “power,” and “law”) indicates that the word “evidence” is used to justify structures of power, which is surely dangerous without critical reflection on these institutions’ responsibilities and effects. Furthermore, co-occurrence with “left” and “right” suggests that “evidence” is a polarizing word. Absolutist evidentialist appeals to “evidence” elide the (pre)conditions of knowledge, and the workings of Foucaultian power-knowledge, fueling unproductive disagreements that widen divisions on the political spectrum. And this is not surprising: unreflexive bandying of “evidence” affirms that only one side has credible evidence supporting their position(s). However, there are interpretive frameworks and formative experiences and sentiments at play in these discussions, and debates on r/ATS can only transcend impasses when these latent variables are uncovered and explicitly addressed.
The final iteration of my analysis turns to 1000 “Hot” posts for a comparative analysis; for the most part, my examination of these posts confirms the findings detailed above. The deconstructive language of “absolutist evidentialism” slips through the gates of Reddit’s own sorting algorithms: a concordance of “evidence” features obstinate, concrete-focused language of all or no evidence (e.g., “there has been no evidence,” “I have not seen any convincing evidence,” “they fail to provide any sort of real evidence”) and a co-occurrence associates “evidence” with the political spectrum (“right,” “Trump”) and various institutions (“president,” “media,” “court,” “constitution”). Thus, the conclusion of my analysis is that Trumpian discourse on r/ATS juxtaposes “evidence” and “feeling” not as a binary opposition (evidence/feeling), but as interrelated and mutually-constitutive epistemological categories (evidence-feeling).
Allow me to return to the larger concerns that spurred this paper. The bigger question that surrounds my case study is one that digital humanists have a special responsibility to address, in theory and in praxis. What, if anything, can a digital hermeneutics offer to a “post-truth” age of “fake news” and “alternative facts”? One might argue that we currently live in a post-hermeneutic age that only requires more data—more “evidence”—to solve problems and answer difficult questions. But the critical digital humanist takes a wholly different approach. Through vacillations between close attention to capta, and computational engagement with large datasets, the digital humanist can be rigorously skeptical of “information” and its organization. As digital humanists, we cannot afford to be post- or anti-hermeneutics. On the contrary, we need a hermeneutics Renaissance: a resurgence of interpretative reflexivity that defends two non-negotiable tenets. The first tenet is that data (“evidence”) never speaks for itself. The realist notion of observer-independent evidence supports r/ATS interlocutors’ stubborn reliance on “evidence” to buttress claims. Drucker refutes realist epistemology, urging us to acknowledge the constructedness of humanistic knowledge: “Rendering observation . . . as if it were the same as the phenomena observed collapses the critical distance between the phenomenal world and its interpretation, undoing the basis of interpretation on which humanistic knowledge is based.” On this view, all data that serve as “evidence” are constructed, experienced, and interpreted subjectively. Drucker’s constructive-critical approach models the reflexive epistemology that would drive a hermeneutics Renaissance. The second tenet concerns the theoretical and practical grounds of knowing: knowledge is a process of interpretive negotiation, in which individuals cannot, à la Gadamer, avoid their historical and cultural frameworks, or “horizons.” Critical digital humanists must engage members of the public in ways that galvanize self-interrogation regarding one’s relationship to the “familiar” and the “strange.” It is only when one becomes self-aware of what feels agreeable, and why, that one can meaningfully engage opposing (and perhaps foreign or threatening) perspectives. This reflexivity about how the “feelings” of familiarity and unfamiliarity shape conceptions of what qualifies as credible “evidence” is the essential precondition of understanding-oriented dialogue. It is no longer enough to tell opponents to “back their claim”; instead, we must expose the assumptions and experiences behind claims. Only then will political and social debates move closer to meaningful understanding.
Drucker, Johanna. “Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display.” Digital Humanities
Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 1, 2011, http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/5/1/000091/
000091.html. Accessed 11 August 2018.
ToTheRescues. Comment on “Do you think racism is still a problem in this country?”
r/AskTrumpSupporters, 26 July 2018, https://www.reddit.com/r/AskTrumpSupporters/
wherethewoodat. Comment on “Do you think racism is still a problem in this country?”
r/AskTrumpSupporters, 26 July 2018, https://www.reddit.com/r/AskTrumpSupporters/
Hereafter abbreviated as r/ATS.