In the last few months, I did a lot of research on the concept of a ‘post-truth era’ for the upcoming Community Summit. Many mark the “post-truth era” as being characterized by “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” I came across many articles that explore the decline of trust in facts and the manipulation of information in US politics. But this phenomenon goes way beyond politics and extends far beyond American borders; just think about anti-vaccine campaigns and the denial of climate change, for instance. Though this topic might seem relatively new, it was discussed in popular literature decades before the term “post-truth” was ever coined. Can you guess which book I am referring to?
If you guessed George Orwell’s novel 1984, you’re right. Even though it is a fictional text, 1984 predicts some of the major concerns of the 21st century including the manipulation of truth, the rise of totalitarianism, and the surveillance state. The story’s protagonist, Winston, is a records clerk in the Ministry of Truth. Winston’s job is to literally re-write history; historical documents, newspaper articles and photographs are manipulated so that they are consistent with the party line. He must “rectify original figures by making them agree with the later ones” so that financial forecasts were ‘correct’ and citizens establish positive feelings toward Big Brother.
Someone re-writing history or altering the truth is not as fictional as it might seem, and new technology has enabled all kinds of tools that can be used to manipulate the way we perceive reality. For example, programs based on such technology are able to doctor videos and audio so that you can make people appear to do things they never did or say things never they said. This kind of widespread mutability of evidence is reinforced in the novel when Winston says that a “photograph might not even be evidence” as he knows first-hand that records can be altered. But more than just physically altering documents, technology has enabled a new kind of manipulation, where algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) can be used to reinforce or someone’s beliefs through “echo chambers” or “filter bubbles.”
So does all that mean we can’t trust anything now? I would not say so. Sure, misinformation is a problem because manipulated data and documents are all over the internet... but so are credible sources and news outlets. We can distinguish these two by doing research, about both the information and about the context and bias of a source. It might be challenging and take some extra time, but it can also make you feel confident that you have not been fooled. Before you worry, keep the following in mind: news is like food - you need it, but if it smells weird, you should check before consuming.
I would also like to share this thought with you: just because something is not true, it is not automatically “fake news.” We have to be careful when using such loaded and politicized words. For instance, modified or even invented stories are vital to satire, which often critically reflects on politics and, more generally, the news. Additionally, even the most skilled journalists make mistakes, as we all do sometimes.
So, should we be worried about misinformation and the post-truth era? Absolutely. Is it out of our control? No. We have the power to find the truth, we just need to exercise it.
Finally, I would like to draw your attention to our Community Summit mentioned above. There will be several events on Confronting the Disinformation Age including lectures, workshops, and more. Stay tuned and check out our website for more details.