A tale of two worlds: social media and truth - Part III

Friday 31 December 2021 8:35 AM

[Part III of IV … see Part I and Part II]

Part III

Premise #4: If there’s a vast corpus of information attesting to some social trend, 
phenomenon or conspiracy, and a large community certain 
of its reality, then there must be something in it.

Perhaps a reasonable deduction before the digital age? But the internet keeps 8 billion humans drowning in information, and the tide isn’t going out. The ’net is full of conflicting claims about what’s true and real in the world. Some can be harmonised, but many cannot. Some sets of claims can’t both be true. It’s possible that one is true or that neither is. It’s not possible that both (or all) are true.

This phenomenon operates on multiple levels. Everything from who or what allegedly controls the world to one person’s claims about themselves or their neighbour (e.g. academic or professional expertise).

The task for the shell-shocked enquirer is then to decide which set of claims and beliefs is true and which isn’t. That can be very hard to do, and even harder to get right. Just as most criminals look just like you, me and the next door neighbour in real life, so most people who post falsehoods on the internet sound just as honest and sincere as your grandfather, sister or best friend. And centuries of mechanical news and information media delivered by the professional few have conditioned us to believe that at least say 95% of what’s reported is true. There’s only so much falsehood that can be spread only so far when delivered by only a few messengers who are accountable. Through no one’s fault it turns out that the pre-digital days have prepared us poorly for the new age of online news and information, in which everyone with a Twitter account can sound like an expert and may consider themselves such as well.

    Typically where two beliefs or belief systems are in conflict, especially on the internet — Both competing “truths” claim to be true with equal passion, eloquence, assumed authority, internal coherence and apparent credibility. Both may rank high in search engines. And both have a very large following, including plenty of highly intelligent people. Since the two are conflicting, none of those qualities can necessarily settle the matter. Perhaps they once reasonably could? But in the digital age especially, it’s entirely possible to be all of those things and yet either innocently deceived or wilfully deceptive.

    For example, many of the popular ‘antivax’ or Covid ‘sceptic’ beliefs are internally coherent and thus compelling. But sincere, coherent and compelling doesn’t equal proven. They commonly rest on some or all of the premises addressed here.

    It’s for just these reasons that the last decade has seen a proliferation of Fact-Checking websites and services. Like any genre they vary in quality, but there are several excellent and well-established ones. (And don’t forget Wikipedia, by the way). The habit of verifying online claims by a search on one or more of those sites, or even just directly in a Google search box (include the words ‘fact check’)¹, is a wise one to develop. 

Of course fact-checks face the same challenges as any other online information. If someone is untrusting of any and all claims they disagree with, they’ll readily dismiss the fact-check itself as “biased” or “lies”. This happens often. But that needn’t unsettle the rest of us.

    Impasse #4: More information does not equal more truth or more fact


¹ This can be especially useful having encountered a claimed or professing scientific authority, particularly if the narrative includes a complaint that they’re being ignored or ‘silenced’. Chances are high that they’re being ignored because they’re not in fact the expert they claim to be. Fact checking will usually weed them out.

(part IV (final) to follow)