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Friday, May 24, 2024

Worms, the Internet, and the End of Reality

The Monitor is a weekly column devoted to everything happening in the WIRED world of culture, from movies to memes, TV to Twitter.

Heidi Klum stretches out on the floor, prone on a red carpet that’s actually blue while photographers angle for their shots. It would be a traditional step-and-repeat, except she can barely walk. She’s covered in tubular folds of skin that look almost raw. Yet, when Entertainment Tonight puts a microphone in front of her, the accent is unmistakable as she exclaims, “I’m amazing!” Nearby, her husband, musician Tom Kaulitz, is in full fishing regalia, pretending to use her as bait.

This was not a fever dream. It was the scene outside the Project Runway star’s infamous Halloween bash. But it might as well have been a hallucination, some bizarre aftereffect of prolonged illness.

Or, at least, that’s how it felt when images and video of the scene ricocheted through social media this week, instantly becoming a meme. But really, the images themselves weren’t that jarring; what was unsettling was thinking it was just as likely they were real as that they were fake. It was realizing that what’s perceived as “real” is an increasingly nebulous thing.

No doubt, this line of thought is prevalent now following Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter. The Tesla CEO hasn’t installed his content moderation council yet, but the idea that the platform could become a haven of falsehoods and trolling looms large. Every tweet now served up with a grain of salt. That worm smiling at an ET microphone could’ve been a 4chan meme as easily as it was one of the most famous models in the world.

People are already testing the boundaries of what can be said. Like, for example, #TrumpIsDead. As Musk settled in at Twitter this week, users on the platform started spreading rumors that the former president had died, in an apparent attempt to show just how easily misinformation and conspiracy theories could spread under Musk’s watch. The hoax didn’t fool news outlets, but #TrumpIsDead did trend, leading to a Twitter event and at least one fact-check report from Reuters about a duped CNN headline.

#TrumpIsDead is the most obvious example, something easily proven or disproven through myriad sources. The truly nefarious misinformation is the little lies, the things that seem just close enough to reality to reel you in. Those are the conspiracy theories that turn nonbelievers into zealots and mess with the gut instincts of even the most tried and true skeptics. The exact connections may be lost to time, but it seemed that #TrumpIsDead began trending in response to the fact that Elon Musk had tweeted (then deleted) an article full of unfounded rumors about the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi.

Perhaps even more unnerving than the fact that Musk shared the article was the text he posted next to it, in a reply to Hillary Clinton: “there is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye.” This is an old trick. Sow enough doubt and people will start to question the color of their own hair. When everything on a platform feels like it could be two or three clicks away from the truth, what even is real? What happens when the person running the platform you’re on is a “I’m just asking questions” guy?

But truly, asking more questions is what people should be doing. After Musk’s tweet, New Yorker writer Jay Caspian Kang wrote about the online quest to politically label Paul Pelosi’s alleged attacker, David DePape. In the days after the incident, internet detectives had been searching his online history for clues to his affiliations. Some claimed he was right-wing, others said he was “on the left.” Kang, though, had a different take, noting that the connections made between political rhetoric or mental health and violent acts often have little bearing on what really happened. Often, people look online seeking the truth, but all that matters is what they believe.

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