The Death And Life Of Truth In The Internet Age

I’m a two-foot-five short gnome. That’s a lie, but this supposed fact is now in the pool of information that is the internet (cesspool may be the more apt term).

The chances are good that this post will be shared by someone on a social network (this is your hint to click on one of those social share buttons. Except StumbleUpon. No one likes StumbleUpon. We keep it there ironically since Travis is a social hipster). When they share this article, an automatic summary will be created using some of the most sophisticated machine learning algorithms available, namely splitting at periods and selecting the first entry in the resulting array.

“I’m a two-foot-five short gnome” will consequently start to spread across the tubes, eventually leading to the most read article of the week, a Buzzfeed “scoop” about the “23 Things You Didn’t Know About That Gnome” as well as an AMA on Reddit by a guy in Virginia who is decidedly not a gnome.

The internet was supposed to be a sort of truth savior. With the world’s information just clicks away, falsehoods would cower in their, well I don’t know where, but they would cower somewhere far away from the light of transparency.

Then people got involved (you knew this part was coming). Or more specifically, non-scientists joined the internet as the world wide web expanded from its core academic audience to everyone. Rather than being a truth savior, the internet instead magnified falsehoods, playing on the human psychology of fear and doubt.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for democracy in the internet age is simply that we have all become Soviet propaganda experts with our airbrushes and careful textual edits.

The internet still remains our best hope for building a brighter, more truthful future. However, we truly(!) need to change our thinking on what the truth is and how it can be used. Verification alone will never uncover all the facts of our world, so instead, we must be willing to live in an era when the facts can suddenly change on us without resorting to cynicism.

I’ll Take The Misinformation With A Side Of Rumors

Like our relationship statuses on Facebook, the truth has become pretty complicated these days. On its surface, it seems so simple: just the facts. Facts though are not what they used to be, but rather glossed, cleaned, and edited to ensure that reality matches the desires of their patrons.

You might have read in the New York Times today about how the Russians are trolling the internet, writing fake stories about waste sites in local American communities, playing on our fears of government coverups. You’ll be forgiven for chuckling that the fearsome KGB has devolved into ghostwriting blog posts (I hear that VCs are hiring these days).

This news may be surprising yes, but the plan is brilliant nonetheless. Democracy relies on truth to function, since our society is simply too complex for every single citizen to observe every single action.

We have to trust actions we cannot observe, so the only way the system continues to work is if we have faith in politicians and policymakers to do right by their citizens. Few of us probably watch water being pumped and treated, but we drink water from the tap because we trust that the government’s environmental controls are sufficient to ensure that it is potable.

If it was just the Russians trying to use misinformation this way, it could probably be contained. It’s not though, since so many people are incentivized to create their own reality.

Take the American Red Cross. The aid organization is a popular vehicle for post-disaster donations, but an investigation published this week by ProPublica and NPR found that the organization managed to massively misuse $500 million dollars in its Haiti relief funds. You would of course never know that from the organization’s promotional materials, which were almost comically out-of-sync with the organizations’s actual reality on the ground.

Just like tap water, most of us cannot directly observe the actions of the Red Cross in Haiti. We take it on blind faith that the organization is morally and ethically right, and working as hard as possible to use its money most effectively. Yet, when this sort of scandal is made public, we barely pause, since these stories have become so commonplace as to be almost uninteresting.

It’s easy to look at governments and corporations and scream at their lack of fidelity to the “truth,” but we are also guilty of this fact cleaning. We carefully gloss our online social network profiles to place ourselves in the best light, editing out blemishes in our profile photos and deleting data from our backgrounds that we would rather see forgotten.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for democracy in the internet age is simply that we have all become Soviet propaganda experts with our airbrushes and careful textual edits.

But Hold The Verification

The immediate response to all of this is to verify more. When we apply for jobs, companies no longer simply take it on faith that a new employee’s resume is accurate, but instead do a comprehensive background check. In the charity world, Charity Navigator investigates the finances behind charities to ensure that dollars are spent wisely and effectively.

You are going to be shocked, I know, but this theory doesn’t exactly pan out well in reality. Like building short bridges.

Cynicism is not a strategy to cope with our world. Of course misinformation is going to spread and organizations (and people!) are going to edit their profiles to lionize themselves.

We verify everything during hiring, but that didn’t stop Scott Thompson from being forced out at Yahoo as CEO when it was revealed that he lied about his college degree. Charity reviews didn’t capture that the American Red Cross had serious deficiencies in Haiti (CharityNavigator rates the organization 80.05 out of 100). FIFA, which is embroiled in a corruption scandal of monstrous proportions, has been audited by the accounting firm KPMG for more than a decade, seemingly with nothing amiss showing up.

The problem with verification is that it falls prone to the exact same problems that undermine truth to begin with. We still have to rely on the documents furnished by an organization to verify it, and with the cost of editing so low, it is nearly impossible to get at facts not controlled by an organization.

Even when we can get beyond those controlled documents we might run into problems, since there are entire organizations devoted to fabricating evidence in our modern world. Diploma mills print out millions of college degrees every year, and it is difficult to stop these activities in any comprehensive way. Our world is simply too decentralized to build the kind of authoritative databases needed to comprehensively verify everything.

I Hate The World (But All Is Not Lost!)

About now, you are probably reaching that point where you want to take your monitor and shake it. This will not help (although it is good exercise, especially if you use a CRT!) There are strategies out there though that can help to improve our society’s handling of the truth though, so don’t lose all of your faith just yet.

Verification may not work entirely, but its main benefit is raising the cost of lying. Creating all the supporting documentation necessary to ensure that lies are accepted is hardly free, as we can see with diploma mills which can charge thousands of dollars for the right paperwork. Unfortunately, those costs are also a burden on those telling the truth, which is why verification can never fully cover for this problem.

For each of us as individuals, there are a couple of strategies we can use. The first is simply patience. Our world is complicated, and we still understand little about how it all works together. New discoveries, either about scientific theories or about people, should not be seen as proof that our faith in facts is wrong, but rather that our knowledge is always inchoate and constantly improving.

Second, to echo an earlier post about becoming mindful learners, we all need to become more mindful readers of information. We have tended to focus on quantity and speed rather than quality as our most cherished characteristics of consuming information. Instead, read less, but more carefully. Readers on the internet are prone to skimming, but it is the deep reading that can actually change our views, and allows us time to contest what an article is telling us.

Finally, the same facts can be interpreted multiple ways, and this is okay. We can get extraordinarily angry with others simply because their interpretation of the facts diverges from our own, but this isn’t a cause for a fight, but rather for a more civil debate. Facts are still facts, even if they can be viewed in different lights.

Cynicism is not a strategy to cope with our world. Of course misinformation is going to spread and organizations (and people!) are going to edit their profiles to lionize themselves. This is to be expected. What is most important is to have a feedback loop that is capable of reevaluating previous information, and to realize that our factual world is always evolving. Just like me, a nine-foot eight tall giant.