How do you know if something is true? You can research a fact online and find five different entries with as many answers. You can go the more traditional route and find a book only to learn that the author self-published it or recanted their hypotheses years later. Sure, you can think something is true, but how can you know?
In the terrifying dystopia of 1984, Orwell writes of a world where everything from the past to the future can be rewritten in every form. “If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable — what then?” If your newspapers, television programs, websites, and books can be written and rewritten, who can ascertain the truth?
Some of these questions are philosophical, not fully answerable by the greatest thinkers in history. However, they are not entirely without merit. Over the past few years we have seen the evolution of the “post-truth era” wherein people are not only content with being lied to, they expect it.
Social media and the democratization of the Internet has played an integral role in the heralding of this new age. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 68% of Americans check social media for news updates, with one-fifth of them stating they use platforms for this purpose regularly.
This is ironic considering the same survey found that social media users do not trust the medium to give them the truth: “When asked an open-ended question about what they dislike most about getting news on social media, concerns about inaccuracy top the list, outstripping concerns about political bias and the bad behavior of others.”
In fact, journalism, known for using social media and other online tools for distribution, is considered one of the least trust-worthy professions in the modern age. When did the reporter become more scandalous than the business man or lawyer?
Best-selling author and historian Yuval Noah Harari claims that we as humans have always perpetuated post-truth thinking. “In fact, humans have always lived in the age of post-truth. Homo sapiens is a post-truth species, who conquered this planet thanks above all to the unique human ability to create and spread fictions.” In other words, we use the lack of truth as a way to control discussion and thinking. Sound familiar?
“The truth is, truth has never been high on the agenda of Homo sapiens,” notes Harari. “If you stick to unalloyed reality, few people will follow you. False stories have an intrinsic advantage over the truth when it comes to uniting people.”
We live in a different flavor of post-truth than the one Harari writes about. Yes, humans have always used fiction as a means to an end, but they haven’t had the vast amount of distribution and reach that is now available. The democratization of the Internet has made it so anyone can commit a random act of journalism. The modern soap box is a large social media following or subscriber base.
In an essay regarding the causes and effects of a post-truth culture, professor of Media and Communications at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, Nora Martin noted that in some ways we are struggling to make sense of all the content we are bombarded with.
“When we are overloaded with vast quantities of information — too much to process — this leads to cognitive reduction and our decision-making capacity is diminished,” Martin writes. “Hence, it is vital to find an effectual way to cope with the information and communication overload we face on a daily basis. If not, we run the risk of being unable to convert this information into knowledge.”
You can only process so much when your newsfeed and inbox are taken over by articles all reviewing the same event. Odds are you will read the content from your favorite sources and just absorb the headlines of everything else. Keeping up is impossible, so our brains do their best to make sense of what we are given. The result is dissonance; you know you aren’t getting the full truth, but you can’t devote any more time or energy to figuring it out.
It is a dilemma to both exist in a post-truth world while actively seeking the truth. We want to have the facts when we get into a political argument, and we want to know our research is accurate when we put a business plan behind it. How do we get to the enlightenment at the end of the tunnel?
Dr. Jose Manuel Noguera-Vivo, a professor of Journalism at San Antonio de Murcia Catholic University, noted that we as readers need to take more responsibility: “For instance, under a landscape of fake news and post-truths, the most active readers can act as a social system of surveillance around news.” News consumers need to take on a watchdog function of their own and weed out the undesirables.
You won’t have time to delve into every topic and event with the same level of focus and critical thinking, but you can reduce the spread of misinformation and advocate for accuracy. Avoid passing on content from traditionally unreliable sources. Take your time sifting through articles and videos to ensure you are actually engaged, not mindlessly consuming.
We aren’t in the world of 1984 yet, but if we accept that truth is no longer a requirement we are going to get there faster. Orwell wrote that “there was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.” Even if the group is going in one direction, never be afraid to go the other way.