May 26, 2020

The Way Out of Post-Truth

Surmounting five riddles of the information sphere
Martin Gurri Visiting Research Fellow

We fondly imagine that truth must emerge, pure and triumphant, from facts discovered by “science” or “experts.” That’s not how the world works. Truth is a function of trust and pertains to the authority of the source. If we lose confidence in science—if, for example, we come to think of scientists as hucksters or crackpots—then scientific pronouncements would have no greater weight than a television commercial.

The collapse of trust in our leading institutions has exiled the 21st century to the Siberia of post-truth. I want to be clear about what this means. Reality has not changed. It’s still unyielding. Facts today are partial and contradictory—but that’s always been the case. Post-truth, as I define it, signifies a moment of sharply divergent perspectives on every subject or event, without a trusted authority in the room to settle the matter. A telling symptom is that we no longer care to persuade. We aim to impose our facts and annihilate theirs, a process closer to intellectual holy war than to critical thinking.

The information sphere has been the natural vector of post-truth. During the pandemic crisis, big media outlets like the New York Times and Fox News have heaped blame on the usual political suspects. The web has tossed up typically baroque conspiracies and literally toxic COVID-19 cures. To be sure, the relevant institutional and medical experts have been cited in both mainstream and digital media. If there were too many facts, too many contradictions, this merely reflected the fundamental confusion of the experts.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the much-admired health adviser to presidents, as late as February 29 saw no reason to lock down the country, yet only six weeks later opposed ending the lockdown because it would “backfire.” Which Dr. Fauci was speaking the truth?

The system is open and enormously diverse, but it is becoming ever narrower in breadth of subject matter: we now express a host of opinions about a few topics. First to take advantage of this herding effect was Donald Trump. Since 2016, we have been free to hold as many opinions as we wish, so long as they were about Trump. The existential threat of COVID-19 ended that, of course. Today the pandemic story towers over the information landscape, casting every other issue into the shadows. Reality has shriveled down to a single topic. The post-truth information sphere has increasingly assumed the traits of an obsessive-compulsive personality, and its fixations, mistaken for public opinion, have stampeded elected officials into mandating an unprecedented freeze of social and economic life.

As we confront the coming reset of society, I suggest that we think hard about how to restore the information sphere to something like sound health. For political and practical reasons, this is not a “problem” for government to “solve.” It’s an epic journey in which we must all participate—a long march, full of perils, out of the labyrinth of post-truth. At every stage, we will be confronted with riddles that we must answer before we can move on. That’s in the nature of epic adventures.

In this spirit, let’s examine five of the more perplexing hurdles that block the way out of post-truth.

1. The Dishonesty of News

“The hypothesis, which seems to me the most fertile,” wrote Walter Lippmann back in 1922, “is that news and truth are not the same thing, and must be clearly distinguished.” Lippmann found truth in the analysis of causes and relations—in context. I will have more to say about that.

But what is news?

A century of dishonesty has accumulated around that word. I’m willing to give a pass to political bias—the kind of reporting that makes Trump the villain of every New York Times story and the hero of Fox News. It’s perfectly possible to be an honest partisan. The lack of truthfulness I want to consider runs deeper and is more corrupting.

There is an implicit ideology of the news. It rests on three claims: one, that consumption of news produces the omnicompetent citizen supposedly required by democracy; two, that news is a special form of information, complete in scope and objective in tone; and three, that the mission of news is to act as the voice of the people against the predations of power and wealth. As with most ideologies, these propositions are not internally coherent—but note that they enable news practitioners to feel morally superior both to the public (which must be educated) and the political class (which must be exposed).

All three claims are false. As a record of human affairs, the news is a vast ocean of silence, sprinkled with arbitrary islets of content. Three million people died in the Congo out of range of the news, at a time when CNN was pursuing, relentlessly, the adventures of a runaway bride. The world is full of such forgotten humanitarian crises, ignored by Western journalists. It is taken for granted that presidents and politics rule the news—while science, technology, poetry, the visual arts, philosophy, and religion receive scarcely a whisper.

News is not truth. In the time of the tweet, news isn’t even first in delivering “news or information,” as journalism professor Jeff Jarvis recently noted. News is bait for ads sold by a hard-nosed business: rather than inform citizens or protect the underdog, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, Fox News, Vox, and Politico are trying desperately to make money. That fact explains many of the strange distortions of news content. The failure to cover the civil war in the Congo was a business decision. So is the obsession with Trump. The primacy of politics, on the other hand, allows journalists and media owners to feel like players in the great game—with an added moralistic buzz. Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post converted an unpopular billionaire into the hero who would save democracy from dying in darkness.

The riddle posed by such contradictions has a simple answer. Let’s demystify the news. We can consume it or not, believe it or not, find it useful and entertaining or not, but we must never again grant it a privileged position, either in our politics or in the hierarchy of information. The public has lost all trust in the news. That can be repaired with a sensible reappraisal of its value. Freed from magical claims, the news will cease to be an agent of dishonesty and post-truth, and assume its proper place among the information sphere’s near-infinity of stuff.

2. The Rhetoric of the Rant

The digital Big Bang that liberated the world from the tyranny of news has imposed its own forms of oppression. Most obnoxious to truth-seeking has been the rhetoric of the rant: the commandment that every online discussion shall turn into a vicious conflict, conducted in a style of untrammeled rage, aiming at the personal obliteration of the antagonist. Manifestations include the “cancel culture,” which has wielded the power of grievance to punish those who hold disagreeable opinions, and the semi-feudal warfare of Venkatesh Rao’s “Internet of Beefs,” which is waged “everywhere, on all platforms, all the time.”

For most, rage really is a rhetorical convention, like sonnet-writing for Elizabethan gentlemen. But there exists a perfectly genuine torrent of digital fury directed at any obstacle or opposition to one’s ideas, which can soon cascade into nihilism and threatened or actual violence. To read the social media ramblings of random killers is to recognize that, in a real sense, these terrible people are the rant made flesh.

Does the digital environment incentivize the rant? It would appear to do so. Amid the infernal howl of hundreds of millions of voices, you need to scream just to be heard. If you can also arouse a primal emotion like anger, you will attract more attention and so rise above other screamers. The point is never to argue or persuade but to gather followers and lead them in ferocious shouting matches. Despite the noise and drama, these melees are not “particularly governed by ideological doctrines.” Politics is a pretext for aggression.

I think this analysis is accurate enough, so far as it goes, but it begs one big question. Yes, in a crowded information environment, potent emotions are needed to give traction to any message. But why is rage the default? Ranters in their virtual war-bands are nothing like factory workers in Victorian England or black civil rights militants in the 1960s. They aren’t oppressed or marginalized. On the contrary, as a class they tend to be affluent, hyper-educated, and savvy in the ways of the web. They have few obvious reasons to be angry and can exploit different emotive techniques for their purposes. They can turn to wit and satire, for example. They can even try the romance of the noble cause: a video called Kony 2012 went viral in a record-breaking way by drawing attention to the suffering of African children.

“Why rage?” is therefore an important question that deserves reflection and research. Merely by asking it, however, we strip away the structural inevitability of the rant. We are now talking about a rhetorical posture, a choice—something that can be unchosen. Facts are not fated to become fodder for online political combat. Truth-seeking hasn’t been banished by some digital necessity. The fault is not in our stars, or even in the Internet of Beefs, but in ourselves, and if we can use the lockdown pause to good advantage, as a circuit breaker to the spewing of anger, we will be able to move beyond the riddle of the rant.

3. The Illegitimacy of the Algorithms

The Wild West days of the web are long behind it. The cyber frontier has been carved up among a handful of colossal corporations: Google (including YouTube) and Facebook (including Instagram and WhatsApp), with Twitter far behind, account for much of the content. The numbers involved are astronomical. As Zeynep Tufekci writes, it’s tempting to identify these platforms with the information sphere itself. That would send us deep into the shadows of post-truth, for many reasons—the main one being that the platforms, even more than the news, are in it strictly for the money. Tufekci characterizes them as simple “ad brokers.”

Unlike news providers, digital platforms don’t need a pretentious ideology to survive. They rule their domains by means of digital slave labor: algorithms that structure information for users while peeling information from them. The relationship is asymmetrical. The user becomes totally transparent to the algorithm, while the algorithm remains totally opaque to the user. To achieve any sort of legitimacy, information obtained from such a black box must be responsive and truthful beyond question. But nothing in the online universe is beyond question, and the truth, in a time of shattered perspectives, is up for grabs.

Because an enormous volume of political discussion is conducted through the platforms, the algorithms have become embedded in our democratic process. This raises concerns of another kind. With regard to information, democracy is about giving accounts. Presidents, for example, give accounts of their policies and can be held accountable for them by voters. Yet that is precisely the opposite of how algorithms behave. Algorithms are proprietary secrets. On principle, they never give accounts of how they handle information and thus can never be held accountable. Mark Zuckerberg got it right when he claimed that Facebook was “more like a government than a traditional company”—but only if the government in question looks something like Singapore’s.

Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter rule over the mind of the 21st century, but what Matthew B. Crawford calls “algorithmic governance” has never been accepted as legitimate by the public. Claims of procedural neutrality and political indifference are nullified by the knowledge that information is being manipulated for profit, behind locked doors. Trust under such conditions would be irrational.

Tufekci, who leans left, has argued that the algorithm is a form of censorship—the more insidious for being faceless. Crawford, who leans right, considers digital platforms to be “the new opiates of the masses.” Conservatives have charged that algorithms codify the ideological predilections of Silicon Valley progressives. But many liberals still believe Russian manipulation of Facebook got Donald Trump elected president. And while this accusation stands unproven, there’s little doubt that the Trump campaign deftly (and legally) gamed the Facebook ad structure to good advantage. The blinding murkiness at this juncture of the information sphere is a perfect formula for post-truth.

The riddle of the algorithm will require more than a single answer. Facebook spends billions on what it calls “safety and security” issues. That’s praiseworthy but the company must also invest some resources in giving an account of itself. Digital platforms must be pressed to produce reasons for the way in which they shape information. They must identify some open principle or process of accountability to which everyone, from Zuckerberg to the most occasional user, can appeal. With luck, competition will push the digital behemoths in the direction of integrity and truth-seeking. That, of course, will depend on their users, on us.

4. The Hunger for Context

We are stuffed with information but feel starved for truth. The 24-hour news cycle, as Lippmann should have taught us, is all about “signalizing” events—war, crime, scandal—that erupt from nowhere and, after a minute’s attention, sink back into the void. The web as an information provider is billions of miles in extension and half an inch deep. Reality will enter only accidentally, in bits and pieces, into the latest, hottest take or in breaking reports or in viral links or in clickbait. We are searching for understanding and meaning, but we seem to have lost the address.

For Lippmann, truth was arrived at by unearthing the “hidden facts” and setting them “into relation with each other.” Meaning pertained to context. And context is what’s missing from our information diet. The digital age is big on speed and volume but oblivious to explanatory frameworks. The Internet of Beefs hurls a constant stream of provocative material at us, to which we are expected to respond instantly. Very little of this increases our understanding of the world.

The riddle of context is easiest to answer. Hidden facts and their relations begin to emerge when we put down the laptop and the smartphone and pick up that wonderful device for absorbing meaning: the book. Why stick with appetizers and miss the banquet? If we wish to learn the genealogy of our present predicament, if we are curious why we are so exceptionally affluent, educated, and free, and yet so unhappy, we should consume books on history of every kind.

Of course, we need to move beyond reductive theories of oppression that leave most of the historical canvas blank and, with a wink and a nudge, give us permission to stop searching. Instead, we should devour history from perspectives that make us uncomfortable. We should ingest history on unfashionable subjects: religion and spirituality, philosophy, the arts. Relevance, that excuse for informational holocausts, is really everywhere—and everything human is relevant.

Beyond the book, other producers of meaning can be discovered if we look in the right places. The long form essay online is usually an exercise in self-indulgence, but there are a handful of masters of the style: David Perell and Venkatesh Rao are among my favorites. Aggregators with a longer time horizon are beginning to crop up. Britain’s wonderfully named Tortoise Media, to which I subscribe, is a pioneer in this format.

And there is an immense empty space in the heart of the information sphere that could be occupied by trusted brokers. That fallow field deserves a riddle of its own.

5. The Restoration of Trust

How can brokers of information regain the public’s trust? Evidently, not by emulating the New York Times or Fox News, for which every question begins and ends with Donald Trump. Nor can trust be regained by participating in the rhetoric of the rant, where every fact gets transformed into a weapon. At present, models of trust are not exactly on display. That’s where we began this conversation.

Certain rhetorical postures are known to engender trust. One of them is humility. We should place our doubts and uncertainties up front and freely acknowledge mistakes. This used to be an attribute of scientists now lost in the digital uproar.

Another stance that begets trust is political honesty. Independence would be ideal, though probably unattainable today. But we should at least advertise our preferences, to avoid the pretense of disinterested truth-seeking when we are engaged in political theology. I said it before: an honest partisanship is not only possible but it has long been practiced in many countries where the news media has never aspired to objectivity.

Ultimately, trust will depend less on tone than on integrity and scholarship. That, in turn, will hinge on the transparency of the sources and whether they allow a critical reader to judge the accuracy of the content. Guidelines for procedures are easily found. Information brokers who have managed to retain the good will of their audience have not gone totally extinct. They should be identified and modeled upon. STAT News, a smallish outlet covering health information, earned a strong reputation and a much larger readership for its early and accurate reporting on the pandemic, based on access to trusted sources. In our journey out of the labyrinth, it may be that more knowledgeable specialized brokers will replace venerable aggregators like the New York Times and clickbait factories like Facebook.

All of this will be hard, but none of it is impossible. To the degree that we restore trust, the distortions of post-truth will be rolled back to the fever swamp of flat earthers and conspiracy theorists, where it has always belonged. We should understand the consequences, however. The waning of post-truth will not mean that we hold hands in a vast circle of universal agreement about the nature of the world. A healthy information sphere will not end the fierce debate between the public and the elites about hierarchical government and the possibility of reform. Just the opposite: it will mark the moment when a fruitful debate can at last begin.

Photo credit: Henry Jackson Morton, "Sphinx in the Louvre," The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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