In the recent election, 74 million Americans voted for Trump and 81 million voted for Biden. Sadly, about half of each of those groups genuinely believe the other side is evil, racist, hates America, looks down on them, or …
Certainly, we have serious divides, such as on abortion. Certainly, there are racists and there are elitists. But can that many Americans be as wrong-headed as so many of us believe? I’m not sure, but I can see some of the reasons we have come to believe so.
At the top of my list is the issue of “truth decay.”
We used to have a general respect for truth, and we held liars in contempt. However, in the age of Internet websites, social networks, talk radio, and cable news TV, we have a perfect storm of misinformation hell. Our long-standing shared value of, and respect for, truth telling seem to have devolved. You can find your favorite conspiracy, or something supporting your strongest confirmation bias, without looking far. This has brought us to our respective information bubbles — our own personal “Truman Shows” where our “reality” is a matter of our choice of channel, website, or social media group.
Worse yet, it is often not a very intentional choice. We are led down those rabbit holes in subtle ways by our social media and online apps.
In the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma,” Justin Rosenstein, a developer at Google and Facebook, puts it this way — “And then you look over at the other side, and you start to think, ‘How can those people be so stupid? Look at all of this information that I’m constantly seeing. How are they not seeing that same information?’ And the answer is, They’re not seeing that same information.”
As humans we are inclined to believe what we see and hear, especially if we see and hear it over and over. This is even more so if we are being told something by someone we are inclined to trust.
In the movie “The Truman Show,” when the show’s creator is asked why Truman has never before come close to discovering the true nature of his world, he replies “We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented. It’s as simple as that.”
To put it a different way, it’s hard to escape from the Matrix when you don’t realize you’re in it.
Recent events show us that lacking some shared understanding of reality is a huge problem. Fake news often has real consequences. Our response to the pandemic has been severely hindered and too many people have died, because of false information about it. Our democracy has been put at risk because our trust in our election systems has been undermined by false claims.
As Tristan Harris puts it in “The Social Dilemma,” “If we don’t agree on what is true or that there is such a thing as truth, we’re toast. This is the problem beneath other problems because if we can’t agree on what’s true, then we can’t navigate out of any of our problems.”
Let’s be clear, I’m not talking about separating nuances of complicated situations. I am talking about blatant falsehoods and intentional misrepresentations — things that most people would regard as objective matters.
Unfortunately, there is no obvious solution to this problem of “truth decay.” It’s not always easy for us as individuals to separate fact from fantasy. It takes work. It is likely to take quite some time to extract ourselves from this mess. The first step is to understand the problem and acknowledge its scale, significance, and danger for our society.
We need leaders who show respect for the truth, so let’s support such leaders and call out those who don’t. Beyond that, it’s up to us as individuals to examine our information sources to determine which are the most trustworthy, to think critically about the information we consume and pass on, and to encourage others to do the same.
John Sigle is a retired computer science professor living in Carlisle.