Truth In the Time of Babel

A few months ago, I mentioned on Facebook that I no longer trusted my friends to tell me the truth. Some people expressed hurt feelings, and in retrospect, I should have anticipated how that would sound. But I wasn't questioning anyone's honesty. Rather, I was expressing dismay at feeling lost in a sea of misinformation.

It must have been easier in the days of Edward Murrow and then Walter Cronkite. Whether justified or not, the general perception was that you could trust these journalists to tell the truth, even if governments or corporations didn't want them to.

But by the time my generation came of age, that sense of trust in the media was gone. One of the defining characteristics of GenerationX is that we are distrustful of institutional authority - whether it's political, religious, advertising, or media. While sociologists have attached that cynicism to GenX, this distrust of mainstream media has arguably increased across all age groups.

And no wonder. We all know the biases of Fox News. And that CNN helped Bush and Cheney sell the public on the second Iraq war. We know that the mainstream media don't just report the news, they create it, shape it by what they choose to report and how they frame the story.

Just as a brief aside, in Buddhism the three poisons that stand between us and realizing our Buddha nature are hatred, greed, and delusion. Buddhist scholars like David Loy have argued that these three poisons are institutionalized in our society – hatred in the military industrial complex, greed in Wall Street and advertising, and delusion is institutionalized in our mainstream media.

For a while, the rise of the internet and then social media seemed like the antidote, because we could get information from other sources. Whether it was events that the mainstream media didn't cover, or someone pointing to biases in their reporting, we could learn about it via independent sites. These stories were shared among friends, first via email and now via Facebook and Twitter. And I trusted my friends when they shared these stories.

Now, my friends tend towards a certain political persuasion. Occasionally, a story would be shared of someone of the other persuasion doing bad things, to which we'd be outraged, only to learn later that it wasn't true. Either it was a misunderstanding, or exaggeration of a partial truth, or a completely fabricated story on a website designed to look legitimate. I've shared a few myself. And such mistakes are understandable. Your friends share something. You trust your friends. And sharing takes only a click, which makes passing on false information too easy. But it's also because we have a tendency to believe stories that fit our preconceptions whereas if a story doesn't fit, we're more likely to investigate its validity or just dismiss it outright. Confirmation bias.

At first these questionable stories came up only occasionally.

Then, election season happened.

And my online friends support two different candidates.

My Facebook feed was overrun with posts about the two candidates or their supporters. Claims of people doing bad things, to which they'd be outraged, but I wasn't sure were true. Or exactly opposite claims that couldn't both be true. Wading thru these articles, the only thing of which I'm certain is that we are locked in collective a feedback loop of confirmation bias. People preferentially believing and sharing those stories that confirm their preconceptions and discounting those stories that conflict. And since we tend to be friends with those whom agree with us, we preferentially see stories that confirm our view and the effect is magnified. In addition to the mainstream media deluding us, we are deluding ourselves.

I no longer trust my friends to share the truth. Or trust myself for that matter. Lost in a sea of misinformation. How do we navigate? Where is our anchor and what is our compass? Well, as an anchor I'm keeping a list of websites that have proven from past experience to be reliable. If a controversial story comes up, I'll try to remember to look to these sites to see if they confirm it. And as a compass, this rule of thumb – if a story validates my preconceptions, scrutinize it carefully, and if a story challenges my preconceptions, try it on for size. I'm not saying that I always succeed. Just the other day, I shared a story that while factually true was two years old and thus misleading, because it fit my preconceptions, and because I trusted the person who shared it. So the challenge continues. And if anyone has suggestions for how they navigate, I'm all ears.

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Acknowledgments is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative