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The Truth Is Out There
Whether we're willing to accept it or not is another question.
“Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.” — Friederich Nietzsche, 1878
Fake news is nothing new. Fake news at scale first became a concern in the 20th century, and in recent years has taken on a life of its own. A look at the Timely section below should make that clear.
When the United States first entered World War II, the concern of misinformation and rumor spreading was such a concern to the Roosevelt administration that they set up the Office of War Information (OWI).
As part of that, the War Rumor Project had a loose network of discreet informants who could monitor casual conversations held in public. The Project “relied on barbers, bartenders, doctors, hairdressers, police officers, and drugstore owners to eavesdrop on their neighbors and customers and report what they heard to their local OWI office.”
It’s not particularly heartwarming to hear about this level of intelligence gathering, but given the unprecedented level of German propaganda and what was at stake, it's understandable that FDR would go to such great lengths.
We’re seeing human nature play out today, with rumor-mongering, fake news (actual fake news, not the invective tweeted out by the president), and conspiracy theories running rampant on social media. The old chestnut “A lie can make it halfway around the world before the truth puts its pants on” is true more than ever.
Once a lie is out there, amplified by thousands of accounts, it’s difficult if not impossible to un-ring that bell.
We saw the networks (particularly Twitter and Facebook) take action to shut down the spread of dubious information about emails (what, that old trope again?) this week. Certain factions saw this as censorship, so the news cycle followed that, rather than chasing down the veracity of the claim.
We’re faced with an onslaught of misinformation—regardless of its origin—at the moment when we’re the most vulnerable: we face a diminution of trust like never before. There are two driving forces behind this, each corroding the truth.
The first is that we have a leader of the free world who freely lies. Not in the realm of “oh, all politicians lie.” There is literally no one in office who lies this way in frequency, magnitude, pointlessness, and sheer weirdness. He lies when he doesn’t even need to.
All of that mendacity means more people are unable to discern truth from reality. Add to that retweeting of satire sites as if they’re reality (today!) and conspiracy theories as facts, and you’ve got a “crazy uncle,” as Savannah Guthrie recognized last night.
But a forceful, confident, and charming personality, combined with a glossing-over of scientific facts, can lead to a willingness to follow along blindly.
When Franz Anton Mesmer arrived in Paris in 1778, he was just such a type. He presented his theory of animal magnetism to local physicians and established himself in an impressive apartment, using his confidence to win over the mildly skeptical.
Eventually, Mesmer’s theories would be debunked. But it didn’t stop people from being—wait for it—mesmerized. Was he really that powerful? According to Emily Ogden, “The driving force behind animal magnetism was not the operator’s power to deceive. It was the patient’s power—almost the patient’s wish—to be fooled.”
Do we really want to be fooled? Do we want to live in a land of make-believe, where alternatively everything is rosy or the sky is perpetually falling?
“It is one thing to show a man that he is in error, and another to put him in possession of truth.” — John Locke, 1690
The world is complex, rarely presenting itself in stark contrast of good and evil. But the nuances that surround us, the thorny issues weighing on world leaders and leaders of industry are challenging indeed. For the average citizen, these Gordian knots seem impervious to both thought and sword, and perhaps are better left for others to address.
This brings us to the second driving force behind the erosion of truth: the state of the news industry. It seems that lies are plentiful online, from disinformation campaigns to QAnon conspiracy theories, with algorithms that increase their effectiveness at reaching willing dupes.
There are a number of online fact-checkers, certainly. But in my experience, people who believe lies from extremist sites will pull a tu quoque and accuse the fact-checking site of bias. It’s like these people don’t want to be convinced (see above).
Beyond fact-checking sites we have deep reporting and investigative journalism. The New York Times and The Washington Post are legendary in this regard, reporting on the president’s taxes and on Watergate, respectively.
This kind of journalism is expensive. It takes time and resources to report accurately, and these publications have paywalls.
Even among people who want to learn the truth, for-fee journalism may be prohibitive. To those above publications, add The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, The Economist, and other well-sourced outlets, and you’ve got quite a monthly bill.
Meanwhile, the trash sites of “news” (I won’t call them out specifically) litter the internet with their crackpot pieces, with willing and gullible citizens assisting on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere.
What’s the alternative?
There’s a service called Blendle that lets you read only the articles you want, for just pennies. So rather than paying full freight for subscriptions. But this is piecemeal and still won’t attract nonbelievers and the unwilling.
“Among the calamities of war may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.” — Samuel Johnson, 1758
If we want to build trust, if we want to inspire loyalty, we need to address the truth, as difficult as it may be.
In the boardroom, the cabinet room, or the living room, we need to ensure that we’re seeing the same thing and experiencing the world together.
Employees, customers, family members, citizens: all of us, in order to move forward, need to embrace the same reality and share a common cause.
Certain truths may have been self-evident to our founders.
Other truths may require us to lend them a voice, every time we see an untruth.
Fight for truth. Every day.
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“It takes two to speak the truth, —one to speak, and another to hear.” — Henry David Thoreau, 1849
“Creators must be compensated well. But at the same time we have to try to keep things that are important and profound from getting locked away where few people will see them. The truth needs to be free and universal.” The Truth is Paywalled, But Lies Are Free (Current Affairs)
This probably won’t surprise you, but on Facebook, misinformation is more popular now than in 2016. (The New York Times)
There’s been a 200% increase in fact checking organizations since 2016, and fact checking has been incorporated into everyday reporting. (Axios)
“As scarce as truth is, its supply has always been in excess of the demand." — Josh Billings, 1949
Benjamin Franklin was a trickster who also liked a good joke. He also was pretty good at self-promotion and knew how to use the media to his advantage. (Withum)
Is beauty truth, and truth beauty? Martin Gardner looks at how Keats’ famous line applies to math and science. (Scientific American)
Gustave Le Bon on mob mentality: “The simplest event that comes under the observation of a crowd is soon totally transformed. A crowd thinks in images, and the image itself immediately calls up a series of other images, having no logical connection with the first.” (Lapham’s Quarterly)
Recommended Reading / Listening
“We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” — Pablo Picasso, 1923
🎧 American politics is undergoing seismic changes that will alter the course of history. As hosts of Words Matter, Katie Barlow and Joe Lockhart believe that facts, evidence, truth and objective reality are necessary and vital in public discourse. Katie and Joe have broad experience in government, politics and journalism -- this gives them a unique ability to explain recent events and place them in historic context. Together, with fellow journalists, elected officials, policy-makers and thought-leaders, they will analyze the week’s news and get at the real truth behind all the distracting headlines.
📕 Compassionate and enlightening, playful and page-turning, New Yorker cartoonist Ken Krimstein’s The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth is a strikingly illustrated portrait of a complex, controversial, deeply flawed, and irrefutably courageous woman whose intelligence and “virulent truth telling” led her to breathtaking insights into the human condition, and whose experience continues to shine a light on how to live as an individual and a public citizen in troubled times.
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Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.