Tell the truth and shame the internet.
Perhaps the greatest irony of the modern age is that technology which was created to propagate knowledge is used so often, and so effectively, to spread lies.
Tech aside, our species has always had a complicated relationship with the truth. In laws both religious and secular, truthfulness has never been categorically mandated. Specific types of lies are proscribed, such as bearing false witness or shouting about a nonexistent fire in that proverbial movie theater. But in no canon are we told we must always tell the truth, no matter the circumstances. Take it a step further–many Americans would claim that their right to lie is enshrined in the First Amendment, providing the lie wasn’t violating any other enumerated laws. And there’s an almost universal tolerance for the “white lie,” the harmless falsehood told as an expediency or to spare someone’s feelings.
Given that history, it shouldn’t be a surprise that when humanity is given bigger and better soapboxes, bigger and badder lies spew forth.
Technology, then, has always been an enabler. The dawn of broadcasting, radio and television, brought mass audiences, and before long, mass deception.
In the mid-1990s we the people first began accessing a fast-growing computer network that had been built for purposes almost directly antithetical to the duplicity of which we speak. The internet began as a resource for universities and researchers to share data and ideas.
Once it morphed into a more public forum, the sadly inevitable happened. Disparate groups took to the medium to spread untruths, half-truths, and self-serving fabrications. Their motivations have varied–politics and prejudice, conspiracy-mongering and the proliferation of crackpot ideas. But arguably the most common reason is also among the sleaziest: the pursuit of the quick buck.
The phenomenon is familiar enough that it’s spawned its own field of study: agnotology. The word was coined by Stanford historian Robert Proctor, based on his review of the tactics employed by the tobacco industry in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s to sow uncertainty in the public’s mind about the health risks of smoking. It refers to the deliberate, deceitful act of spreading doubt, or agnosis, usually for material gain.
And although this dark discipline came to the fore in the Reagan era, Proctor and his fellow agnotologists agree that our present information age marks the maturity of mass deception.
Make no mistake, these developments are every bit as grim as they seem. But take heart in this glimmer of hope: the very tools that are used to delude us can be leveraged for the sake of veracity.
By this we mean: the truth is in here. Despite all efforts of the dissemblers, the ‘net fulfills its purpose of sharing knowledge–sharing truth–but it is incumbent upon the seeker to find that truth.
Look then, for credible sourcing. Look for multiple sourcing. Consume content discerningly, and operate under the credo that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Trust your instinct to know when you’re being led down the garden path. Rest easy in the knowledge that although they may lie to you, you can control whether or not you’re misled.
It’s a crying shame that we are where we are, that such a powerful resource for human connectedness is being used for such inhumane deceit. But crying never solved anything, did it? The only solution is our joint resolution to reject guile and hypocrisy, and to reclaim the global conversation, in the name of the truth.
1. Lies are as old as mankind. We could try to excuse or rationalize that, but there’d be no truth in it.
2. Instead, by necessity, we’ve learned to live with the lies. They’re like viruses: undesirable and unhealthy; we convince ourselves they’re rarely lethal, and that they’re unavoidable.
3. If that is so, then we have here in the digital realm the most welcoming petri dish imaginable for perfidy. The information age might well be remembered as the Golden Age of B.S.
4. Liars gonna lie. We can’t put this poisonous genie back in the bottle. But rather than abandon the internet to the liars and the cheats, we can arm ourselves with the truth. We can become integral to the solution rather than contributing to the problem. Help us, please. A more honest internet–a more honest world!–depends upon us all.