“Truth” means being in accord with fact or reality. The opposite of truth is “falsehood” which can also appear as logical, factual, even ethical, but is, of course, a deception, whether intentional or not. As humans we depend upon truth, where it is assumed rather than being a subject of discussion; otherwise, how could we have science, laws and…journalism?
Years ago, futurists predicted that online information would create an aggregate transparency and accountability that would benefit truth in a democratic society. Oops. I wonder how many of them put money on 8-track tapes, too.
Instead, the internet exploded with 9/11 conspiracies and partisans who believed that Barack Obama was a foreign-born Muslim (remember the birther movement?- the one bankrolled by our president in a maniacal adherence to lack of evidence), or that George W Bush personally engineered theft at the White House. Photo-shopped pictures confirmed that Wall Street flooded with sharks in subways after Hurricane Sandy and were proof that Kim Jong-un was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year.
Studies show that when we are confronted with diverse information choices, we do not act rationally, but are instead ignited by preconceptions. Psychologists suggest that it is a human instinct to believe what comes easiest and then submerse ourselves in information that confirms our biases, while dismissing what does not.
The internet provides a nearly infinite menu of choices to find exactly what we want with like-minded social networks where rumors do not require evidence to sustain, only the fact that they are there. And in that echo chamber it becomes a verified “truth” and appears as authentic research.
How sinister has this become? A man was arrested after he walked into a pizza restaurant in Northwest Washington carrying an assault rifle and fired shots. The man told police he had come to the restaurant to “self-investigate” an election-related conspiracy theory involving Hillary Clinton that spread online during her campaign. Fake news stories circulated claiming that then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief were running a child sex ring from the restaurant’s backrooms.
And how far does this insidious reality climb? To the top. Michael Flynn, the retired general that Trump had tapped to be his advisor on national security, willfully shared stories about anti-Clinton conspiracy theories involving pedophilia and several other internet-based fiction. None of them had a grain of actual truth, but Flynn gladly continued to propagate false information from extreme-bias. That is troubling as an advisor to the president. Deeply troubling.
The truth is important, and while none of us are omniscient and no source is infallible, there is, nevertheless, a discipline in a sincere search for it, and that discipline does not exist “as” the internet. The internet is only a tool, and like a hammer, it is only as effective as the carpenter who wields it.
“Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom” – Thomas Jefferson.