The post-truth digital world

Did we evolve to lie?

The web is one of humanity’s greatest gifts. It is a great knowledge base and we can barely comprehend the size of the thing. Around 2.5 Quintillion bytes of data were created in 2016 which is equivalent to 250,000 Libraries of Congress. The problem is that the information held on the web varies from highly accurate to outright lies.

With the growing dominance of instant live feeds and messaging, the verification of information that goes global rarely happens until well after it has been digested by a chunk of the 40% of the world’s population that is connected. Correcting untruths requires way more effort than spreading them in the first place.. and sometimes the damage can’t be undone.

The early years of the web were free and optimistic, like an expanded version of the Whole Earth Catalogue. Launched by Stewart Brand and running in print from 1968–98, the Whole Earth Catalogue had a mission that reads like a manifesto for the early web:

So far, remotely done power and glory — as via government, big business, formal education, church — has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing — power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG.

Like the catalogue, the web generally held the truth because.. well, why do otherwise in a positive, sharing and co-operative community? Times have changed dramatically. Globally, 3 million people had access to the internet in 1990, the year that the first web browser was created. The number of internet users has since grown to 3.4 billion. The growth of fake information has closely followed this massive increase in users.

Fake news, re-invention of the truth, cover ups and propaganda aren’t new. Our capacity to lie to the masses expanded hugely in the 20th Century thanks to media technology. Sometimes it is harmless. There were no protests when Haddon Sundblom invented the modern Santa Claus image for Coke in 1931. Many people enjoy the obviously staged nonsense of the 2000s TV show “Keeping up with the Kardashians”. But the darker side of lying is very problematic. Nazi propaganda in the 1930s, the cover up of Thalidomide birth defects in the early 1960s, or the Union Carbide Bhopal disaster in 1984.

US elected a reality show host as president last year and the notion of a “post truth” world really started to take hold. Donald Trump and his coterie are the lords of post-truth. Naomi Klein’s concerns about authenticity in her 1999 book “No Logo” seem almost quaint by comparison with what’s happening today. Post truth leaves post-authenticity in the dust when it comes to the lying stakes. The post-truth approach is based on two core techniques. Firstly, tell an outrageous lie repeatedly that is more compelling than a dull truth and ignore any counter arguments or evidence. The lie may stick but even if it doesn’t the impact of the lie will be felt, harming reputations, sowing doubt, or re-opening old wounds. Secondly, encourage people to hold conflicting beliefs rather than risk them rationalising an argument and exposing your position as one of lies.

There is even a philosophical basis for the apparently pathologically lying behaviour of Trump, not that he’s likely to be aware of it. “The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation” by Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca was published in 1958. The new rhetoric incorporates the notion of socially constructed truths and accommodates changes to those truths. The author chooses facts and reasonableness according to the goals of an argument to best persuade an audience and may change any of those depending on a particular audience. In other words, say anything to persuade an audience that you are right.

Post truth has also been thoroughly explored fiction. For example, George Orwell’s 1949 novel “1984” parodied Stalin’s Soviet Union and Orwell’s novel coined the term “doublethink” in which citizens were brainwashed into accepted that mutually conflicting beliefs were correct.

The vast access to data and audience that the web provides has made post-truth a hugely viable strategy for evil-doers around the world. I remember reading Morozov’s gloomy book “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom” in 2011 and thinking that he completely missed the point of the web. Sadly, time has proved him to be right on many fronts. It seems to be easier to leverage data and audience for evil than for good, or at least it requires less work to do it.

Our data-centric world holds zeros and ones very precisely, but unfortunately digital doesn’t differentiate fact from fiction. The digital landscape is constantly shifting so with luck we may leave this period in history soon, but I wonder what comes after post-truth? Pure fiction, perhaps?

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