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 used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.