We will remember the 2010s as a grifter’s paradise. These were the years when our collective sense of objective reality totally fell apart and when politics, business, technology, culture and even ordinary life fell fully under the sway of a new breed of swindler, huckster, influencer, troll and hacker.
Scams and fakery were not just ascendant this decade — they were often the dominant story line. It was a time of “life comes at you fast” and “milkshake duck.” The primary feeling of the 2010s was one of punch-drunken disorientation, of always having the rug pulled out from under you. And this was the big lesson of the 2010s: Almost nothing is as it seems. Doubt everything. Trust no one.
Not that this idea works very well: Doubting everything may be a workable plan for individual survival in a fracturing media universe dominated by algorithms and digital media of dubious authenticity, but pervasive doubt could just as well bring on civilizational ruin. Getting through modern life seems to require adopting a corrosive view of society that makes a hash of our fundamental ideas about the value of cooperation and trust among our fellow humans. We’re bringing on a death-spiral of distrust — and I fear that in the 2020s and beyond, grifters peddling alternative facts may come to suffocate us all.
The most obvious example of the huckster’s rise was, of course, Donald Trump. When Trump announced his bid for the presidency in 2015, much of the political and media establishment, including many leading Republicans, thought the idea of a self-dealing, conspiracy theorizing reality TV star winning the White House was a pretty funny joke. Few of them understood Trump’s effectiveness at hacking the news landscape to command our attention completely. Few of them could have guessed that rather than the establishment foiling Trump, his slippery style and overwhelming blizzard of lies would so fully alter political and media culture that by the end of the decade, members of the GOP would be embracing and echoing his conspiracy theories as a way to forestall his removal from office.
While conspiracy thinking took full flower on the right, it began to bloom on the left, too. Trump’s election was followed by the rise of anti-Trump online influencers who came to dominate news and activism. These were the “resistance grifters” — Michael Avenatti, the brothers Ed and Brian Krassenstein, the nearly self-parodic Louise Mensch — who peddled a self-serving brand of breathless anti-Trumpism heavily peppered with calls to buy their books and other merch. A specter of foreign disinformation led to widespread suspicion, and it became a handy defense for grifters to dismiss opposition as bots or Russian shills.
The grift wasn’t limited to politics. The tech industry welcomed hucksters with open arms. Look at WeWork, Uber and Theranos — once highflying startups that promised to change the world in big ways and small, each unmasked for peddling false prospects, unreal tech or hiding systemic corruption and abuse. Facebook and other social media services were not just a haven of state-sponsored disinformation; with dodgy, easily gamed stats, social media increasingly came to provide a false view of the world.
Facebook admitted a series of errors overstating advertising metrics. YouTube’s stats were shown to be lousy with fake views, Twitter’s were overwhelmed by fake followers and Amazon was full of fake luxury goods. Scams pervaded new technologies and old ones. The spectacular rise in the price of Bitcoin in 2017 was later found to be the product of market manipulation. And, according to a report by the telecommunications firm First Orion, about 29% of all voice calls placed in 2018 were scam robocalls; one estimate puts the volume of spam calls at billions per month.
Why are we being overrun by scams? Society’s signals for judging reputation and trustworthiness haven’t caught up with the changing tech. Even though we know better, we reflexively mistake Instagram for reality — online influence is seen as a proxy for real-world authenticity, and so we are constantly falling under the sway of people who’ve found ways to game the digital realm. On your phone, the Fyre Festival looks irresistible.
We are also too easily blinded by wealth, or markers for wealth. Anna Sorokin, the Russian immigrant convicted this year of conning New York society into thinking she was a German heiress named Anna Delvey, defrauded hotels and banks of hundreds of thousands of dollars by pretending to be rich. She’d hand out $100 bills to anyone and everyone. “For a stretch of time in New York, no small amount of the cash in circulation was coming from Anna Delvey,” Jessica Pressler wrote.
You could argue that my take on the end of truth is too gloomy. Consider the clarifying power of #MeToo — how in the cases of Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, Bill Cosby and other once-powerful men, we witnessed the power of facts and objective, clear-eyed investigation to alter the brutal power structures that had long held victims in silence.
You might also argue that collectively, we’re getting better at spotting hucksters and frauds. The resistance grifters had a good run, but we found them out. Less than a year from now, if not sooner, Trump, too, may hit the end of his run.
But I’m skeptical that these things signal some reason for optimism. Our information system has slipped its moorings, and as a result, lying and scheming and fraud has simply become too effective a life strategy. As I argued in March, when the celebrity college admissions scandal broke, we’re seeing the “uberization” of corruption — bending the rules is becoming routine and pervasive, a push-button cheat code for modern life.
It’s not a big leap from “Trust no one” to “swindle everyone.” Happy new decade, I guess.
Farhad Manjoo is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.