Truth Was Dead Long Before the Internet

Farhad Manjoo thinks the internet is a thing with agency that is hurting us:

In a 2008 book, I argued that the internet would usher in a “post-fact” age. Eight years later, in the death throes of an election that features a candidate who once led the campaign to lie about President Obama’s birth, there is more reason to despair about truth in the online age.

Why? Because if you study the dynamics of how information moves online today, pretty much everything conspires against truth.

Manjoo provides his own evidence for why this explanation doesn’t hold up. “The root of the problem,” he writes, “is something that initially sounds great: We have a lot more media to choose from.” While that is true, it doesn’t explain the phenomena he describes.

When Manjoo notes that equivalent numbers of people believe in a conspiracy about the Kennedy assassination as about the 9/11 attacks, that isn’t evidence that “the internet” is making people less liable to believe in facts. Rather, it would suggest that the internet is not having a material effect: conspiracies remain as popular as they ever were in America, and the wide availability of material online hasn’t changed that more fundamental attribute of American political life.

Similarly, Manjoo’s description of how one’s biases affect perception of events has nothing to do with the internet. Political insiders, by and large, have yawned at Hillary Clinton’s hacked emails precisely because they know that that is just how DC works. It isn’t remarkable to them. The internet, as a thing, isn’t changing that, nor is it changing the general disgust non-insiders feel when they see how sausage gets made (in a literal and metaphorical sense). The reaction to Trump’s recorded statement that he loves to grab women by their vaginas because famous people can get away with sexual assault is the same thing: Manjoo provides no evidence that the internet, as compared to people’s differing ideas of sexual assault and female personhood, are what drive the yawns among his supporters or the revulsion among the majority of the country.

This is the problem with blaming “the internet” for destroying the truth: there isn’t any real evidence the truth was important to people before the internet. 2016 is hardly the first time in history that people have used the dominant communications medium of the age to push lies on a gullible public — the internet is not why William Randolph Hearst lied about Cuba to start the Spanish American War in 1898, nor is it how Walter Duranty was able to win a Pulitzer Prize for his false stories about the early Soviet Union in the New York Times.

The point being, people have always had cognitive biases that make them susceptible to pleasing lies: it is how Germany came to believe Jews bankrupted the Weimar Republic instead of the League of Nations; it is how France can pretend it is a happy multiethnic society, it is how Cliven Bundy can point assault rifles at federal agents while claiming to be the victim of tyranny. These tendencies are human tendencies, and are not at all connected to the internet.

Manjoo knows this (he’s even covered peer-reviewed studies that suggest the internet is not the end-of-times dragon he makes it out to be). The confirmation and in-group biases did not emerge out of the internet, they predated it, and the internet probably can’t undo that fundamentally human aspect of ourselves: cognitive biases are baked into our biology, and manipulating them is a skill that has existed for just as long.

I would propose another factor at play: the observational selection bias. One thing the internet has done is make our biases and assumptions much more obvious to our peers: by making communication easier, there are fewer filters online, and fewer barriers to sharing those unfiltered thoughts. People writing a comment on their smartphone think, subconsciously, like they are talking to themselves and not to another person. Moreover, when you are not directly in front of a person, you are more likely to be rude, offensive, or outright hostile (because seeing a person in front of you activates that filter).

Because of how the internet works, we see all of this, and it’s upsetting. Charles Stross once described the advent of social media as humanity accidentally inventing telepathy. “Telepathy,” he wrote, “turns out to not be all about elevated Apollonian abstract intellectualism: it’s an emotion amplifier and taps into the most toxic wellsprings of the subconscious.” Seeing that laid bare is uncomfortable.

The web comic Penny Arcade hit upon this in 2004, long before the handwringing over Trump.
The web comic Penny Arcade hit upon this long before the hand wringing over Trump.

Lastly, we should consider the role of broken illusions in all of this. When other communications media were invented, like the telephone or radio, they were not saddled with clearly fraudulent utopian philosophizing. No one thought the telegraph would usher in a new age of libertarian democracy, but tons of people thought the internet would. (Electronic Frontier Foundation founder John Perry Barlow’s “citizen of the internet” manifesto is a prime example.) The internet has not lived up to its utopian ideals: rather than ushering in a new age of libertarianism and positive anarchy, it has enabled dictators to oppress their people, empowered propagandists to lie to the public without recourse, made it easier than ever to abuse women, revived anti-semitism, and fostered a deep cynicism about the world that will take decades to overcome, if it ever can be.

It is the broken promise of the internet — not utopia, but an increasingly upsetting dystopia — that is most likely driving much of the handwringing about truthiness and news consumption. Blaming the internet for human tendencies (toward echo chambers, toward abusing an outgroup, toward assumption a comfortable argument is true) gets the problem exactly backward, and if anything closes off any creative thinking about how to address the problem.

Joshua Foust is a writer and analyst who studies foreign policy.