In the overstimulating information age of social media and fake news a danger of unchecked ignorance looms over our wellbeing. Now that we get all the truth about the world through our friends’ feed streamed 24/7, personally selected news digests (apps, newsletters, plug-ins) and via automated, AI generated content mirroring our online behavioural patterns; are we better informed or have we succumbed to the vicious form of bias – self-affirmation?
Are all opinions equal? Not. Undemocratically, some people are more intelligent, others less.
Can truth only be published independently and virtually? Not. The academia, journalistic training and rigorous research based on strong ethics enlighten the public interest.
Einstein, Emile du Chatelet, Hypatia, Lao Tzu, Orwell, Plato, all pursued truth, some up to the cost of their own life. But, you do not need IQ above 150 to appreciate the quality of being true. In this essay I embark on eyes-opening journey, drawing a map that navigates you in the ocean of assessing the believability of information. Truth can be risky, but rewards with the comfort of authenticity and integrity, so you blossom into your true self. So, where are the angels in the age of untruth?
Are you more vulnerable to lies? We all are.
Truth has intrigued the intellectuals and philosophers for millennia, and veracity should concern any wise person. Particularly in democratic countries where opinions are voiced publicly, your vote counts, therefore your duty is to assess the truth. Serious mainstream media have recently intensified the opinions about truth in our age of open democracy. The loud speaker of Twitter, Facebook, et al. easily wires lies to the ears and minds of the overstimulated audience. As easy accessibility cheapened information on the internet, our defence mechanisms kicked on to protect our minds from overheating, and ignorance took a firm root in our virtual and real world. Tim Haford tackled “The problem with facts” in the Financial Times, so did Masha Gessen for the New York Times, and books like Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise tackle ignorance. Nichols is a political scientist, taught for more than a decade at the Harvard Extension School, noticing: “a new and accelerating—and dangerous—hostility toward established knowledge. People are no longer merely uninformed, but ‘aggressively wrong’ and unwilling to learn. They actively resist facts that might alter their preexisting beliefs. They insist that all opinions, however uninformed, be treated as equally serious.”, commented the Harvard Magazine. Nichols cites as the main culprits of the intellectual decline:
‘protective, swaddling environment’ of higher education, whose institutions increasingly treat students as customers to be kept satisfied;
the 24-hour news cycle and the pressure on journalists to entertain rather than inform;
the chaotic fusion of news and punditry and citizen participation.”
He warns that “the Internet’s openness offers a ‘Google-fuelled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden’ mirage of knowledge, and an inexhaustible supply of ‘facts’ to feed any confirmation bias. The Internet encourages not only the illusion that we are all equally competent,” he says, “but that we are all peers. And we’re not.” Having an access to a wide body of “facts” online seems to comfort more citizens in the boots of truth. Websites know better than your doctor, popular bloggers followed by millions of virtual fans, not the experts, ring truth.
Innate truth challengers
I think that the main problems with truth are ego and laziness, not just on the part of the bloggers, reporters and fact checkers, but your and my ego appeased by negligence. As technology so easily selects the truth for us, we succumb to what I call the laissez-faire of old age – elderly people often just want peace, not complex webs of questioning – and critical thinking shuts its doors as we age.
Our noninterventionist attitude lets the venomous snakes into the field of influence. Bad people find their way in, while good people are pushed out from the tight golden sack of power. “Narcissism elevates feelings above facts, and it breeds social resentment, a major driver of the revolt against expertise” Nichols believes. “People cannot accept ever being at a disadvantage in a conversation with anybody else,” he says. “It’s a persistent insecurity that goads people into having to say that they know something even when they don’t. Which didn’t used to be the case—we used to be a much more reasonable culture. You know, everybody doesn’t have to know everything.” As our life in the first world countries has become relatively easy, convenience comforts us to the point when we do not challenge the naysayers, we blindly and simply join them.
We must not allow to be manipulated (I count myself in the good bunch that does not accept any unfair treatment), and strive to seek a balanced view of the world and be open to truth based on facts and independent evaluations from trustworthy researchers and organisations not prone to bias. Manipulation is unethical. Even though diplomacy is a game of skills seeking the best outcome for all parties involved, in an ideal world we would live in honesty. Straightforward, sometimes emotionally challenging, even uncanny, but more fair than the uncertainty of lies. Do not waste your life living in the mirage of lies.
Discerning truth from lies
The Cambridge Dictionary defines truth as “the quality of being true”; having “the real facts about a situation, event, or person”; “a fact or principle that is thought to be true by most people“, or the Oxford Dictionary “a fact or belief that is accepted as true; in accordance with fact or reality”; and Merriam-Webster adds “sincerity in action, character, and utterance”.
Truth and covert misinformation are mind-boggling to judge. For they are often subjective, transmitted orally, digitally or by written account, and can only surface to the glare of objectivity with the geyser of blatant evidence. Even videos can be manipulated and edited to portray the creators’ view. Still, the facts supported by unbiased witnesses are insufficient, for we are susceptible to the coloured realities infiltrating our perception. This is human nature. The world’s greatest philosophers pondered truth, and so did its grandest and most mischievous politicians and the rulers of the common land. George Orwell spotted the elite’s and political writers’ manipulation in Why I write: “Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after”, but he clears his own purpose: “I write [it] because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention”.” His observations ring with so many readers that truth might weigh in when large masses identify with an idea that was not forced upon them through power involving agendas but liberally consumed in literature. Read books, as diverse authorship as possible, and you might glimpse on the verdant truth that plushly renews nature each spring, but fades as the heat of summer dries it out. Some truths are temporary, while others persist.
Life passes fast, and somewhat, the longer on Earth we live, certain events seem to fan out. The present moment is vulnerable and is closest to truth if your are honest with yourself and mindfully observe your immediate surroundings. From afar untruths can be better concealed, so do not believe anything your personally cannot test on the polygraph of your own senses in the moment. Reality evades us the more our mindless wandering in our busy lives consumes us. Sharpen your awareness through inquiry, honest and open discussions with others and inner contemplation.
How do you learn about your friends, relatives and acquittances opinions, preferences and whereabouts today? How often does the information streams directly from the in-person contact versus scanning their public wall online? Virtual reality tremendously changed our path to truth. And it all happened just over the past decade. Too fast to catch the perpetrators of truth.
Moreover, with the help of technology we are currently shifting to a more robotic behaviour not just at work place but also in our daily lives. The science fiction of just a couple of decades past is enlivening its fantasias. Artificial Intelligence may soon outsmart the living well of human mind. Even gossips contain seeds of truth, but machines are what they were programmed to be.
Religions had played with truth so dramatically that our belief systems attached to their dogmas, legends and fairy tales. Some believers even kill for the “truths” in their sacred texts. Dogmas are dangerous, openness and questioning as in science get us closer to the truth. Nevertheless, in Buddhism, after centuries of inner and outer contemplation, the sages concluded that change is the only truth. I cannot disproof that trees grow, bear seeds, multiply, some change colours with seasons, while rivers, mountains, even entire continents have changed over the millions of years. Animals change, some, like butterflies, die within days after being conceived. Damien Hirst, the popular contemporary British artist, glued them on some of his canvases as the reminder of passing life. We change too, inside by experience, outside by physical ageing processes. Some of us conceal our true age through hair colouring, plastic surgery or fashion style, but do not actually believe that they are younger than they are.
Sincerity would benefit us all particularly in democracy. Sadly the later is not built on truth, but the belief in a certain politician or party, and these like religion are interested to manipulate us in the quest for power. As the elites figured out that they need to control the message, fake news have existed for centuries. The powerful must be ahead of the followers, otherwise their power would be challenged. One can pay for getting votes indirectly by populism. Today, consulting companies such as the infamous Cambridge Analytica sell voters’ data influencing the latest US Presidential campaign, and the Saudis gauge public sentiments by buying data too. You just need money, own an important businesses or a media company, then your access to data opens the chess game for intrigue to cover the true root, while showing the dark horse racing ahead. Or just advertise lies as the Brexit campaign did so publicly, and it won by viciously relying on the British voters believing without checking.
In the Central and Eastern Europe voters were swayed by populism (Poland, Czech republic, Hungary). Since Vaclav Havel’s peaceful retreat into his intellectual den of heavily smoking artists, his karma has not yet returned to the Czech politics. Czechia, that democratic country that has changed its name five times over a century, is volatile and easily manipulated. My friends voted for the niches, but these doctors, lawyers, well-travelled engineers, avid readers, sommeliers, and other broadly thinking citizens are not the majority of the country. In democracy, the majority wins. The problem with is that that majority can be manipulated more easily than the university educated, open-minded and questioning population. Dirty politics corrupt the media. My father, for his entire life the reader of the MF Dnes (The Young Front Today) purchased by the controversial current Prime Minister (ex KGB), traditionally a socially leaning paper, switched to a tabloid. He could not carry the weight of the lies. He prefers the lightweight of gossip and sport over dirty politics. He lived through the communist era when his family’s religious views barricaded his university entry, and now he just lets it go. His daughters find freedom in their passionate work, traveling the globe and having access to all the books that the communists censored. The truth is too often netted in the spider nest of a vicious control centre of the ruthless bosses. The individual will never find true freedom in politics, because liberty lies in enlightenment, the inner process of knowing liberates us. Then, perhaps through an honest belief in the common good, truth can emerge from the hubris of calculated, conniving manipulation.
Moreover, giving freedom to any beast can create a chaos, and we humans are not that far from that. There are two straightforward solutions to chaos – curbing freedom or giving more liberty. The herd though must be either trained well or empowered through substance, inclusiveness, knowledge, and openness. Look at the Arab spring uprisings. So far, freedom of expression has created as much discontent and danger for most than obeying the rule of law that was hatched by the educated, privileged or authoritarians. The later undermine the public’s belief in evidence, and sway the majority to trust only the big protector. We should, above all nurture respect to wisdom and experience, not slogans.
I do not mean to persuade you to agree with me. My aim of a journalist with integrity is to inspire you to think critically, to assess the opposing sides, the options, the stakes, in a more open manner, not just by seeking selfishly what can I get from it NOW. Remain focused on the current moment, but the mistakes from the past and the possible implications for the future ought to be weighed on. If your brain allows, think, as a human that was privileged to brag with skills surpassing the animals.
The older I get, the more I disdain politics. The dirty tricks, the fake composure and the corrupt nature of power disgusts me. Still, I am enraged by how irresponsibly people vote, and this is a catch. ‘Trumpism’ leverages on anger, for emotions hinder truth. America’s sanity is being challenged. Manipulation of truth for personal gain that may well be based on a terrifying reality show of someone who is either insane or simply narcissist, but who was democratically elected through having an unparalleled access to personal information, and thus knew his voters’ vulnerabilities. Orwell tapped into something grand.
SUBJECTIVE vs OBJECTIVE truth
I further suspect that one of the main culprits of untruths in the human world is our culture. The nuances of societal pressure strip our tongues of veracity. More, our desire to portray ourselves and our greyish lives with vivid colours on the social media. Our perception of the world has tectonically shifted – our windows to reality are virtual accounts of truth published online either by real people or fictional hackers with malicious goals. Preceding the current fantasy boom, Braque, Matisse and other artists on the brink of the 20th century Paris stirred the Modernist artistic revolution. The fauvists, as they called themselves, invented reality instead of representing it through their art. Ever since, visual art has been less about the objective, but more expressing the personal truth. As the mirror of the mind, the subjective truth represented harmony in colours on the canvas.
The root canal of objective truth is that we think that our subjective truth is superior to the truth of others. Have you ever wondered why what you actually say or write (subjective) seems different from what you think (subjective²)? It is not that you intend to lie as an individual with integrity, but feel vulnerable to say whatever your heart taps on. Truth is then a mathematical conundrum. Our momentous outpour of tonal expression is what we project to the world, yet my inner audio of thoughts feels more authentic even when what I say is an edited version of the essence of what I think. I am genuine person in general, that is why I became a writer. I assume though that full integrity is rather uncommon. Our desires, shoulds, and zealous pursuits colour our expression. We are complex beings.
Are you comfortable to say whatever comes to your mind or more considerate about others? Is this a wise truth or an inauthentic cowardice? Straight-shooters with a deep disgust by manipulation may judge the diplomatic, wise truth as a good lie, but still not truth. What would improve our relationships and make the world a better place? Veracity matters, but white lies can sooth us. Carmen, the seductive young model for Rodin’s iconic Kiss sculpture meets the truth of ageing in the photograph taken by Erwin Blumenfeld decades after her beautified act. Unlike most of us, she is not afraid of the true appearance of herself, so she exhibits her wrinkled body to the art-seeking eye. Visually she is telling the truth of her reality, and your truth.
Salman Rushdie wrote for the New Yorker recently: “the defenders of the real, attempting to dam the torrent of disinformation flooding over us all, often make the mistake of yearning for a golden age when truth was uncontested and universally accepted, and of arguing that what we need is to return to that blissful consensus. The truth is that truth has always been a contested idea.” Like for him, to me, history is a card game of facts, some uncontested truths such as the World War II happening are the cards you have, the legends and stories enveloping these facts are the tactics you employ to win. Rushdie further notes that “the passage of time often changes the meaning of a fact”, and today’s mood is tinged with a rainbow glass of the internet where quality blends with rubbish, as he writes “The past is constantly revised according to the attitudes of the present.”
The manufactured realities in literature do not mean that fiction is all lies. The realist novels of Dickens, Eliot, and Flaubert contain seeds of truth which fascinate us. Further, the characters in literature as old as The Bible include liars. Satan was prominent, Prometheus has lied as he stole fire from the Greek gods for the good of people, but Gatsby was one of the greatest literary liars of all time. By studying their tactics we glimpse into the human psyche of liars. Literature enlightens.
I wonder if flowers had a mind, would the cultivated beauties like chrysanthemums, roses and peonies blush as if they were lying? I appreciate wild flowers for their genuine appearance, but is it nature that tricks us? It edits the genes of the plants through biologic or accidental evolution, therefore nature manipulates as much as we do, but currently we are faster and more precise.
As Orwell wrote and the unavoidability of change: “A seed may grow or not grow, but at any rate a turnip seed never grows into a parsnip.” Indeed, “certain alternatives are possible and others not”, therefore we must cultivate the seed to a truthful expression of itself through our support for a culture where truth is being elevated and honoured, fabrications examined, exposed, and punished. If you allow for the liar to freely roar his untruths, somewhat it sticks in people’s minds as the truth.
So, why is truth so important? We build trust towards others, the institutions that run our civic life, and in the healthcare, all based on truth. If that fails us than faith is our only saviour from the mistrust in reality. For others, wine has allegedly the magic whip to bring the liars forward. “In vino veritas, … ” Therefore, rise your glass and watch the tongues of the dishonest untangling.