Is The Internet Bad For Truth… Or Is The Truth Bad For Truth?

from the perception-and-reality dept

It’s been nearly two decades since I first read Robert Anton Wilson and Bob Shea’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy. Like plenty of people influenced by that book, parts of it have stuck with me ever since — even if it’s been at least a dozen years since I last picked it up. One key thing that I remember taking away from the book is a recognition that “the truth” isn’t always as clear as it seems — and anyone claiming to tell you the full truth is misleading you in some way or another. One key scene (which I think was actually buried in a footnote in an appendix, but as I said, it’s been many, many years…) is where the authors point out that the only way people recognize the real truth of a situation is by figuring it out for themselves — and present a scenario whereby that happens. If you took a low level army private and put him between two equally high ranking generals, with one screaming for the private to sit down, and the other demanding he stand up — the likely response is for the private to “wig out” and finally make a decision for himself. To me, investigating the “truth” is always something along those lines. I find it compelling to have various generals screaming totally contradictory concepts until I have no choice but to look at all of the evidence and decide for myself.

Apparently, some people feel quite differently.

Over in Forbes, there’s a column by Melik Kaylan, where he claims that the internet is “bad for truth” because it presents so many contradictory ideas. He bemoans the fact that, in the good old days, the truth was whatever the elitist and limited media told you was the truth, no matter how wrong it might have been. But, these days, with so many different and contradictory voices, Kaylan worries that the actual truth just gets blurry and people simply surround themselves with the truth that they want and ignore the “official” truth.

This is, really, just a rehashing of the old “echo chamber” insult that gets thrown at various online communities — and I’ve yet to see much evidence that it’s true at all. Folks involved in extreme communities often seem to actively seek out opposing viewpoints, if only to trash them. Yes, I’m sure there are some folks who refuse to read anything critical of their own viewpoints, but those people are so far gone already, I’m not sure it really matters. As someone who is occasionally accused of having “extreme” points of view, I actively read the viewpoints of various critics and people who disagree with me, because it helps me to continually understand that “truth” that I seek. It keeps me sharp as I keep refining and adjusting my own beliefs — whether it’s figuring out why someone I disagree with is wrong, or if I can’t figure it out, refining my own beliefs. Not everyone is necessarily like that, but I’d argue that people are a lot better off having more information at their fingertips to make their own decisions than when they got the word from on high from some “official” source.

It’s not that the internet is bad for truth. It’s that people have started to realize that the “truth” provided to them from official sources wasn’t true at all. The real problem for “the truth” was that the actual truth didn’t match up to it. That’s not the “fault” of the internet — it’s one of the benefits of the internet.

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Comments on “Is The Internet Bad For Truth… Or Is The Truth Bad For Truth?”

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Anonymous Coward says:


It seems to me, and I accept that I could be wrong, that the most likely personality traits for someone to claim in any situation that the free expression of ideas is “wrong” or in some way detrimental to “truth” is most likely convinced they they are indeed the only one who is ever “right”. Furthermore, they would most likely be of the same ilk who are completely incapable of tolerating an opposing opinion. Ergo, it didn’t come out of my mouth, therefor it is wrong and an affront to all sensibility.

Kiba (user link) says:

Re: boomer era is long overdue to croak

No idea what are you talking about.

I found that wisdom and knowledge does not correlate with ages. A large part of ignorance is to lack the correct personality to continously seek out the truth. It is also partly reinforced by convenient intellectual thinkthanks.

You can even see that in the financial crisis. The Feds, after being told not to print money by their peers, continue to do so anyway. Congressmen, after being told by their peers that the bailout is a bad idea, did it anyway.

If you lack the correct mindset, than you lose all hope to search for the truth.

Given that a lot of people have given to Obama, I don’t really have any hope for young people either.

Ryan says:

So THIS is elitism...

For all the dumb references to “elitism” made by politicians, this article is an excellent example of just that. Mr. Kaylan seems to believe that he has a divine mandate as a mainstream journalist to tell the people what they need to hear: if it doesn’t come from him, then it is only confusing the simple-minded proletarians. It is a good thing that people are now seeking a first-person account of events, because it means that the people are now more attuned to the fact that the media spins its information any way it damn well pleases. Mr. Kaylan dislikes the internet, of course, because it erodes his monopolistic power as a journalist to wag the dog as he sees fit. This is also a good example of why old school newspapers are losing clientele as a result of their arrogance and resistance to change.

It is quite easy to disprove his assertion. Say three people all have seen a colored sock, but two of them are color-blind. You, who have never seen the sock, are attempting to determine its true color, but one witness claims it to be red, one to be green, and one to be blue. Now suppose that the largest, most powerful witness kills the other two and you now have only a source that claims it to be red. Are you more confident now that the sock is red? Only a fool believes that because all dissidents are silenced, that the sock cannot be green or blue. However, if you had heard from the beginning only that the sock is red, you might never have considered that it might be green or blue. Mr. Kaylan is either extremely foolish or extremely arrogant to believe that blind faith in a falsehood is somehow more desireable than an uncertain deliberation of the facts.

Anonymous Coward says:

I like to go so far as to say that the truth can’t be gotten from one source, _period_.

I wont read a news article without open comments at the end. Of course, most of it is trash. But give me some credit–i know trash when i see it. What I’m looking for is the one comment that offers a contrary point of view to the news article.

LadyGrey says:

Re: the "truth" discerning abilities of the general population

“-i know trash when i see it.”
I am very glad that it works that way for YOU,AC, but for an awful lot of people, it doesn’t – that’s little better than the self-referential argument of “… because I said so.” There are many, many (probably the majority of Americans) who have not refined their ability to discern between someone spouting pure opinion (what they THINK to be the case) as concrete fact (what is or was) – remember the world isn’t flat, and dinosaurs, to all investigative results, were not alive at the same time as humans, but there a quite a lot of people who believe that is the case (or did in the past in the case of the “flat-world” delusion). Nor do those people seem to have the time or concern to find out anything to the contrary.
What I’m trying to say, as diplomatically as possible, is that it is a learned behavior to discern amongst contrasting opinions, and that behavior (standardly embedded in research skills and called critical thinking) has not been taught in a wide-spread fashion in American in quite some time, in favor of teaching “facts” (like Pluto is the 9th planet :^>) for standardized, multiple-choice exams.
I am in a position to comment on this, lest you choose to dismiss me as a non-credible source, as I am college faculty, and I observe it in my students, as well as studying all available data on this particular issue (yes, professional associations have addressed this – it’s called, “Information Literacy” or “Information Fluency” among other labels).
I don’t intend this to suggest that what you’re saying is inappropriate – I firmly believe that all information should be available and people should make up their own mind; I’m just trying to point out the reality of what seems to be current American opinion.I firmly agree with you that the author of this article (and what he has to say) is problematic, but I also believe that disorganized chaos that values uninformed opinion equally with informed research and discussion is as difficult.
Incidentally – there should not be “gatekeepers – that era is LONG gone, but we should consider – in many cases – “hiring” guides! Just my opinion, of course ^_^.
Later – LadyGrey

David T says:

Kaylan isn't talking about too many voices...

Kaylan is talking about the loss of control by elitists to control information distribution. As an elitist myself, I’m surrounded by individuals who think that most people live unexamined lives and need to be told how to think. Guys like Kaylan used to be able to do exactly that by holding the keys to information.

The internet changed everything. Now anyone with a modem has the key to investigate any issue they want from any perspective they like. For the social elite, the inmates are out of the building and in the streets.

usmcdvldg says:


Some one explain this to me, either this entire article is a giant strawman or the original author is an idiot that wrote a worthless article the paragraph above.

How does access to every view point negate or detract from truth as it exists, as oppose to access to just one viewpoint. People are ignorant for many different reasons. Some choose to be, ignoring facts. Some simply don’t have the resources to be otherwise. But to suggest that a wealth of knowledge such as the internet hurts truth is RETARDED.

AC says:

On the echo chamber...


While I agree with you in principle, that the only way to determine a “real truth” is to look at all the data and make a decision for yourself, I also find that the “echo chamber” argument does hold water.

The problem is that while YOU may go out and look for opposing points of view and rebuke them you are in the minority. There is a whole list of people who take the word of their causes figure head at face value and suppose it as evidence. In other words there are lots of people out there who actively seek out information to strengthen the position they already believe and in order to reassure it. They convince themselves they are right, and arm themselves with lots of “facts” but lack a true connection with the actual data.

The problem here is that in many cases I believe the same logic and principal that makes the two party system so prevalent (voter’s tendency for tactical voting, by analogy, tactical affiliation) causes strong modes of group think in these organizations. The tendency for someone to accept the position of the party figure becomes more prevalent as the group gains momentum because they figure someone else in the crowd has already fact-checked the info behind the public stance. At the same time the increase in the size of the crowd makes it more difficult for those actually fact checking the data to gain attention. Especially since the people he’s trying to inform have a vested interest in ignoring the complaint, as it allows them to save the effort in fact checking by assuming their speaker is correct.

So although I agree it’s good to have more access to the sources of data so we can view the facts ourselves, I’d also say the access to source data has not grown proportionally with the growth of analysis and commentary. And since the access to source data hasn’t grown proportionally, the signal-to-noise ratio for actually making that decision has shrank. Especially when you consider the time constraints placed on the average individual limits their ability to analyze the raw data on more than a few important topics.

What makes the lack of “the truth” disturbing is that news has become more polarized now, and that said, we can trust individual sources less for providing access to the raw data. And by that I mean a complete set, not just selective representations of the data.

I’ll sum it up as these questions are not as well answered by single news sources any more:
1) Is this information accurate
2) Is this information conclusive
3) Is this information complete
4) what standards were put on the collection
5) was the collection method flawed.

The who, what, where, when, how, why has disappeared from modern reporting. It’s been replaced by “I think” and “This means”.

Essentially in the old days, press was a peer reviewed process. Newspapers loved to catch their rivals in a lie. If a reporter was caught lying, they’d lose their job and most likely any opportunity to work in that field again. A reporter’s scarce good was reputation. Today the quality of “peer” has disappeared and its hard to find distinction between those who lie and those who don’t. It’s hard to build a reputation. Reputation has fallen aside for ideology and that is a problem.

Petréa Mitchell says:

The old story

The column barely mentions the Internet. It looks like another version of the familiar elite conservative argument about a multi-ethnic, multicultural, multi-religious or otherwise varied society coming in to destroy the hallowed ways of tradition. (And I do mean it’s just one strand of many in conservatism; as noted, the more populist conservatives such as Ann Coulter are fine with the traditional gatekeepers going way.)

As for Illuminatus, it’s been almost two decades since I read it, and the main impression that stuck with me was of the authors constantly lecturing the reader about their version of The Truth. And that they had some terrific ideas for band names.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: The old story

As for Illuminatus, it’s been almost two decades since I read it, and the main impression that stuck with me was of the authors constantly lecturing the reader about their version of The Truth. And that they had some terrific ideas for band names.

Heh. Yes, on the band names… but I’m not sure I agree with them lecturing folks on their version of truth. If I remember correctly, almost every “truth” put forth in the book was later contradicted completely — which I think was the point I got out of it. The entire book leaves you pretty confused and in a position where you are supposed to decide for yourself what’s true.

deathByChiChi says:

self-identity threatened, come up with a reason why the new thing is bad

As a guy trained in the old paradigm, working for an old paradigm company, of course he’s frustrated, concerned and confused by the new paradigm — it threatens his livelihood and undermines everything he identifies himself as being about for his entire adult life. (Yes, Melik, you ARE going to get laid off.)

It would be cool if all these journos’ past articles were readily available and searchable. It would do a lot to diminish their cred. For instance, all the guys who said the price of oil would never come back down and the guy who said we should all use IP numbers instead of domain names to avoid valuing domain names so highly… If you had ready access to all their prior publishings you could show the lot of them (and us) to be fools.

SteveD says:

I’d broadly agree with you Mike, but I think new media does have one big failing; it doesn’t actively challenge its audience.

Old media like news papers never did much to challenge the perceptions or opinions of its primary demographic, rather it made money by publishing stories that reinforced them.

But when most people surf the internet for news they generally look for info that just reinforces what they already held as truth. The ones that actively try to challenge themselves with opposing perspectives are generally the types that were never satisfied with what they could get from old media in the first place.

So its an old problem, but one the net makes a bit worse I think. A big problem with a lot of the contemporary silicon valley philosophy of ‘democratising the world through free information’ is it isn’t necessarily any better then old media at changing or challenging peoples ides. Extra published sources are there, they just aren’t read. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.

There’s a phrase for this effect, but with my current blood alcohol level it completely escapes me.

Happy zero-longitude new year, Techdirt!

I.Kant says:

Reality is a perception

Or in the this case, what is the truth is simply an individuals perception of it. Anyone can say or believe anything and hold it a fundamental truth until scientifically proven otherwise (Think Creationists v Darwinism).

With regard to newspapers the ability to create and manipulate perceptions represents power.. and the internet as a medium is dispersing that power to the masses like never before. Of course the status quo doesnt like it, but good riddence I say! The internet is the greatest democratising force in the history of humankind.

Tony (user link) says:

Re: Reality is a perception

“Anyone can say or believe anything and hold it a fundamental truth until scientifically proven otherwise”

I think it would be more accurate to say “even if proven otherwise”

It has been my experience that most people decide what is “true”, then choose to accept the data and information that supports their predetermined belief, while rejecting as “inaccurate” or “fraudulent” anything that doesn’t support it.

I.Kant says:

Yes Tony I acknowledge with a degree of cynicism that this is all too often the the case in day to day ‘reality’.

However I am thinking in regards to circumstances where an arbiter of authority is to make a decision based on the evidence placed before them. i.e. a court or the like.

Perceptions and memory are extremely malleable, time after time experiments on perception have proven the human mind is subject to all mannor of biases and distortions.

Unfortunatly beliefs have often proven to be less malleable as individuals tend to hold these as a part of who they are and thus a part their identity.

Any challenge of one’s beliefs is often seen as a challenge of ones identity, a challenge not often taken lightly.

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