Written by Tom Geddes
“If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences ‘
WI Thomas, 1928′
Over the last several years, you would have to have been living under a rock to avoid the terms ‘post-truth’, ‘post-fact’ and concepts like it. The term post-truth was the Oxford word of the year in 2016, and the events that brought the concept into the global zeitgeist are obvious. Political campaigns in the United Kingdom and United States seemed to abandon reasoned debate backed by empirical evidence for efforts better understood as emotional appeals, leading to some to fear that the truth is dead (reference). In the following years, the use of these techniques in political discourse has spread, with politicians world wide adopting a ‘tweet first, back up your statements later’ approach to communicating with their Citizens. All ideas are now subject to the court of public opinion, and more often than not, the ideas that speak to our feelings, rather than our rationality are those which capture our attention and get to ride our brains, affecting our thoughts and actions.
One telling example is that adage relating to our yearly diet of spiders while sleeping. Supposedly this was a hoax/experiment by PC Professional columnist Lisa Holst, intended to demonstrate the spread of faulty information on the internet. Because for whatever reason we wanted to believe it, and it was too weird not to share, this information spread like wildfire online, leading to it being a culturally imbedded fact, regardless of its basis in fact. It is unclear as to whether anyone has fact checked snopes in this case.
Ted Chiang, in his wonderful short story ‘The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling’ presents a society in which linguistically the idea of what is precise, and what is true are separated. I believe that instinctually we know that this is the case, but by better utilising our language we may be better understood, and also come to better understand the way in which news media attempts to speak to us. The evening news often seeks to initially present what is precise, but then present what is true to an individual to affect the viewers stance. Take a piece on a particular tax increase, first this will be presented in dollars and percentages, but the bulk of the article will present either how that increase relates to only a cup of coffee (if favourable) or will drill down into the lived experience of people doing it tough, usually the elderly (if negative).
Combined with the above, our individually curated online experience, mediated by the Algorithm has led to citizens left floating in a personal bubble, exposed only to ideas that we agree with. While this effect has been acknowledged by the data-giants and efforts have been floated to pierce these bubbles through exposure to competing opinions, some have said that this will not be enough. Once inside a subjective bubble of thought and opinion, exposure to competing ideas leads to a strengthening of the bubble, not its destruction. These filter bubbles leave us vulnerable to being tricked by fake media, if we are exposed to a misleading headline, but not to the responses to that headline which debunk its content because Google or Facebook have decided that we aren’t interested in those pages, then we are left with the original headline as our personal version of truth. From there we can potentially pass these mind viruses to others.
Some have argued that the human animal has no ability to conceive of objective truth, our bodies and brains are well suited to the three ‘F’s: feeding, fighting, and mating, but this hasn’t set us up well for the world in which we find ourselves. Things may look grim for the future of our political landscape, however one benefit of this availability of information, despite it ‘bubbling’ us away into subjective tunnels of experience, is that we can debunk lies that come into our lives at the tap of a screen. The only thing we must be wary of is the fact that we will accept those facts which line up with what we agree with, while we question those which rock our idea of the world. In addition, regardless of what the response is we likely will discount it anyway if it doesn’t line up with worldview. We also can’t convince anyone else of our truth. One potential vision of the future conjures up images of people implanted with some sort of technological fact checker, everyone only speaking in perfectly bot-approved factual statements, but then who writes the codes of the bots?
Quote Waking life:
When I say love, the sound comes out of my mouth and it hits the other person’s ear,
travels through this byzantine conduit in their brain through their memories of love or lack of love, and they register what I’m saying and they say yes, they understand. But how do I know they understand? Because words are inert. They’re just symbols. They’re dead, you know? And so much of our experience is intangible. So much of what we perceive cannot be expressed.
In previous decades, limits on the availability of information could be seen to have led to a limit to the number of dominant viewpoints effecting a culture or society. People could develop fringe beliefs but it took time and effort to stray from the well worn path of the mass media. If you wanted to explore the idea that the world is flat or that the moon doesn’t exist then you had to subscribe to mailers and magazines, whereas today you can be put in touch with thousands of your peers at a moments notice.
Today the prevalence of information online has shifted the sands beneath the feet of the dominant societal viewpoints and with an afternoon of research you can engage with any information on any topic you choose, regardless of whether it’s the dietary habits of the characters in George RR Martin’s A song of Ice and Fire, or why and how the Japanese death-cult Aum Shinrikyo likely set of off a nuclear explosion in the deserts of Western Australia in the 1990s. Each of us has the ability and right to disappear down their own subjective rabbit hole and politicians can no longer appeal to reason, they instead need to tug at our heart strings, inciting these appeals to emotion with brash attitude, inaccurate statements and bare faced lies.
This availability of welcoming communities and information relating to these ideas is having real impacts on the world, with the ‘anti-vaccine’ movement leading to a resurgence in archaic diseases had been thought almost extinct in certain populations. One faulty study has led to the deaths of a great many people. Taking this issue one step further, the legitimate concerns of Chinese parents, due to vaccine contamination are easily shrugged off by many due to these stories being filtered into the box in our head which conflates vaccine issues with conspiracy theories.
While we have always lived in our own subjective bubbles since time immemorial there were certain assumptions made about the veracity of the information beamed through our ears and eyeballs, that assumption was that generally people wouldn’t just go on the news and tell lies . Historically this has manifested itself in famous events such as the ‘War of the Worlds’ broadcast in 1938 which reportedly led people (much fewer than is popularly believed) to run screaming from their homes, believing the earth to be invaded by beings from Mars. As a society we still have yet to consistently apply the notion that it is possible to ‘entertain an idea, without accepting it‘ , surely no one would go on the internet and tell lies. People are being presented with outlandish and bizarre information and accepting it as fact, straight off the bat and our political class and their keepers have now weaponised by those in true power to have us vote against our best interests.
The people of the pre-internet age found themselves lost in the modernist finite, seeking to rail against the limited viewpoints and information available to them, while we find ourselves lost in the postmodern infinite, unsure of what to believe and being taken advantage of because of it. While there was never a source of news free of bias, some argue in favour of objective reporting of the facts, but then news sources of this nature remain open to bias, because they limit their reporting to certain kinds of events or fatalities of a certain number under the guise of ‘what is important’. One segment of the evening news which people on all sides of the ideological compass could assume is going to be consistently correct is the weather, but even that has been demonstrated to be subject to a bias towards certain kinds of weather.
The use of the quantity of information available to citizens and our inability to certify anything today can also be viewed through the lens of a method of social control. Stuart McMillan made the point that instead of a dystopia ruled by one source of information we are left with a multitude, one in which citizens are constantly bombarded by useless information, paralysing change and leaving us unable to formulate an well reasoned opinion on the state of the world, distracted by meaningless input signals telling us to devote our time to meaningless things..
Identifying and calling out these events and ideas as ‘fake’ is only the first step in understanding the mindset of those affected by these matters.
Sometimes I personally feel that it would be better to roll back the clock, to go back to a time where there was one source of state sanctioned official information, Russian Pravda (Truth) comes to mind. We could only form opinions on matters we had information on which led to very few narratives riding the minds of the average citizen. Newspaper, news program and magazines were the primary tunnels through which ideas entered the human mind. Today, if you choose, a tailored information experience is at your fingertips, Google knows what you like, what you want to see more of and shows it to you.
As an alternative, something similar to the Chinese Daigou system of personal shoppers, notable in Australia as an example of an offshoot from a globalised economy , stands out as a potential model of information dissemination, a series of nodes each feeding to one another information from trusted source to trusted source, rather than one large organisation susceptible to influence by corporate influences. Each person building a personal relationship with their information source. Informing each other, contributing to a discourse about exactly what we think is the truth. By doing this substantiated with sources, we allow ourselves to be criticised by one another. The modern internet may have moved beyond a viable news sourcing platform in the loss of the community forum. The use of a model of this nature would require a more active relationship with our news media than previously possible or desirable, but the time for sitting on the couch in front of the ‘idiot box’ should be left in the past and the current model has now proven actively harmful to both the individual and society.
In realising that our reality, our society, has moved beyond an understanding of what is precise, post truth thinking can also be viewed as a positive if we allow it to. The world and its ideas can mean whatever you want them to mean, regardless of the precise objectivity of the world. Just as steel is strengthened through the process of annealing, so by understanding the myriad points of view in the world, our own perspectives are able to be broadened and we can form a more inclusive and open society.
Seeing yourself a superior just because you’ve identified flaws in the logic of your political opponents or co-workers is of no effect, just tell that to the people who have made voting decisions against their personal best at the behest of international data consortiums, children and their families dead following the outbreak of diseases not seen for decades or people beaten to death as penis stealing witches.
As a society we can choose to collect together and take control of the sources of our information, both in providing one another with updates and choosing a place where we will call out those who seek to trick or mislead us. We need to be more active in our rejection of news sources found to be misleading or false. A smaller, more mobile news system allows this. When a multinational news consortium is outed as feeding us lies, they publish tomorrow’s paper without issue, if a single person, or 10 person node was outed as such and unfollowed by their fans, they would quickly crumble.
Ideas are all we have, the evidence of our ears and our eyes cannot be trusted today and that’s an issue which is only going to deepen as time continues and the pace of technological change increases. This could lead to a resurgence in solipsism as we each individually become less trustful of the outside world as it lies to us more and more on a grander and grander scale.