“Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognise bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it… In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what function it serves.”
Harry Frankfurt, ‘On Bullshit’
“Social media is like going out for drinks with your 500 closest friends, every night. You might pick up a lot of information, but in all the din you’re unlikely to remember who told you what and who you should question if the information later turns out to be wrong. There’s simply too much information for our minds to keep track of.”
Regina Rini, ‘How to Fix Fake News’
“Our thoughts and prayers shall salvage the earth,
Honest opinions hold equal worth,
One day we’ll all get what we deserve,
It’s such a beautiful lie”
Nothing But Thieves, ‘Ce n’est rien’
Last month, a man who has publicly affirmed his belief that the royal family comprises shape-shifting lizards sustained by negative energy announced to a crowd of thousands that “staggering numbers of people” will be killed by coronavirus vaccinations.
He was roundly cheered. Yet searching “David Icke antivax” on Twitter will present you with a “know the facts” warning of untruth. You can’t reach David’s Twitter profile for his side of the story: it’s been banned for misinformation. It’s almost like the NHS knows more about healthcare.
Welcome to what the younger, angrier academics amongst us have labelled the “post-truth era”. I wouldn’t feel compelled to link to my sources otherwise.
There are plenty of flavours of post-truth. Anti-vaccine rhetoric is not a coronavirus invention: ask Dr Alexander Ross, who demanded that we “talk no longer of Russian tyranny” rather than vaccinate against smallpox in 1880s Montreal.
For those of us who have become young adults in the past decade, it’s also a drum repeatedly banged by political opponents. The Conservative Party, for example, was “accused of misleading the public” for rebranding the party’s official Twitter account as a fact-checking service for Labour during the televised political leader’s debate. In the same way one might accuse the Arctic of being a bit nippy.
Regardless of your particular poison — an apt word — the latter example rightly incriminates social media. Technology has dramatically accelerated the speed at which we can lose trust, thanks to the firehose of information being sprayed at us without an appropriate means of parsing them.
Stanford political scientist Francis Fukuyama has suggested that a post-truth society is down to “the decline of authority of institutions that define our society… corporations, labour unions, the family, churches, political parties — trust has fallen in all of these institutions.”
He believes that’s down to technology — the ability to communicate and analyse using tech means that their failures are much more transparent, and people don’t like what they’re faced with.
Simply put, social media is the arena in which negative opinions are polarised and set at loggerheads. The sheer volume of content pouring through those channels means that you can’t engage with, or even process, every individual post.
What this usually means is that you gradually shape the flood of info to reflect your world view. You subscribe to people you agree with, and people you admire, and topics you feel passionately about. And the pressure washing of content fired back at you gradually becomes a feedback loop that reaffirms so many of the things you pursued in the first place.
If we genuinely want to avoid lies, or dangerous ideologies, or fake news, then being aware of our own confirmation bias is the first step — as is the notion that truth is hard to come by on social media.
It’s trite and often unrealistic to suggest just going outside and touching grass as a panacea for the evils of social media. A clear understanding that you shouldn’t expect truth on your timeline, and a commitment to sourcing the exciting new things that seem to mean what you think they mean, are both fundamental.