Back in the 1990s, those innocent days when the Internet first became part of our lives, we naively dreamed of an empowered public. A future in which disinformation is no longer possible. A future in which lies would be exposed with a minimum of effort, as the truth is just one quick AltaVista (no, Google didn’t exist yet) search away.
How wrong we were.
Instead, here we are in 2024 with a deeply fragmented public, each of us in our respective social media bubbles, consuming information that is all too often preselected for us by algorithms. Algorithms that are designed to find, and serve, content that we find agreeable.
And suppose, just suppose, that we grow mildly skeptical. Skeptical enough to turn to Google or Bing and do a quick search to find the truth. We find… no, not the truth. All too often, we find instead confirmation.
At least this appears to be the conclusion of a recent study, published in Nature, titled Online searches to evaluate misinformation can increase its perceived veracity.
And then there are all those (very valid) concerns about the integrity of the scientific literature. With tens of thousands published papers every year produced by “paper mills”, not to mention alarming rates of scientific fraud and retractions, does the truth even stand a chance?
Sure, when I read a paper on gravitation and cosmology, fundamental particle physics, computer science or machine learning, I am reasonably well equipped to assess its validity. But what about papers on, say, COVID vaccines? Methods to cure cancer? Sociopolitical trends in the European Union? Archeological discoveries? How can I tell truth from falsehood? I do not have the requisite background to evaluate the literature on my own. The press used to be helpful: Reputable news outlets made an effort to be impartial, interview the right experts, produce reasonable assessments. Not anymore: Especially here in North America, news outlets appear more interested in building a brand and a committed audience than the truth.
And then, to add insult to injury, there is foreign meddling: powers that are less than friendly towards the Western world order, most notably China and, especially, Russia, who are doing their darnedest best to make things worse by exploiting and further promoting our distrust in the media and, by extension, in the entirety of our Western system of institutions. Their goal is nothing less than dismantling the rules-based, liberal world order established in 1945, the pax Americana. I may not be an adoring fan of American politics, but between Washington and Moscow, or Washington and Beijing, I know which one to choose without hesitation.
But forming a realistic, valid view of the world that is largely based on the truth? That task is becoming more difficult with each and every passing day. We live in the days of Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth” and it didn’t even take an all-powerful totalitarian regime for this to happen.
Illustration courtesy of DALL-E.