Navigating a Post-Truth World

By Jessica Shepherd

Unscrupulous players, both within and outside our borders, are using the internet to toy with us and pit us against each other. The result, as we’ve seen, is a country turning on itself - Republican against Democrat, White against Black, brother against sister.

After Joe Biden won the presidential election, I had this naive hope our country would calm down and blessed reason would prevail. Of course, the capital attack on January 6th put a pin in that wistful thought balloon. After Biden’s inauguration, I put my head down and tried to stick to news stories without the letter Q in the headline, hoping to ignore the problem for the next four years. I might have succeeded if my brother had kept his end of the bargain – the one where we agreed to disagree and leave politics out of it. I know he means well and wants me to be “informed” when he sends me a text telling me Kamala Harris is “a nasty woman” and attributing a quote to her that reads, “Once Trump’s gone and we have regained our rightful place in the White House, look out if you supported him and endorsed his actions, because we’ll be coming for you next. You will feel the vengeance of a nation.”  

A quick Google search assured me the quote was fabricated. Several sites, including Reuters, the Associated Press, and USA Today, attributed the origins of this slander to a satirical website that went viral on Facebook. I texted my brother back and pointed out that Google refuted the quote and his reply was, “Google is extremely bias and willingly censors and blocks anything that doesn’t fit their tiny window of political correctness… Look beyond your usual sources.” I guess he means I should read the right-leaning newspaper, Epoch Times, which mysteriously began to show up in my mailbox – apparently his idea of a Christmas gift. (I do read it, but that’s fodder for a future blog.)

This troubling divide in my relationship with my brother is indicative of the growing fault line in American politics. How do we bridge an ideological chasm, made wider each day by disinformation or “fake news”, when we disavow the processes that uncover the truth?

I tend to look at things through a scientific lens. As a scientist, if you want to understand something, you study it, make a hypothesis, and run tests to see if the results support your hypothesis. If not, you approach it from another angle and test it again until you settle on an understanding of its properties and potential. This process suggests you can know something with certainty. The speed of sea-level rise due to melting glaciers for instance. But sometimes, as more information comes to light, our understanding does not hold up, and further study is required. Still, this means of quantifying and validating, over time, brings us closer to certainty. Until recently, if we wanted to better understand something, we trusted this approach. But not anymore. 

Now, given the ease of sharing information, true or otherwise, anyone can make conclusions that fit their world view and find social media sites to validate their opinions. For example, the misinformation perpetuated about the severity of the Covid-19 virus. 

Through algorithms, the web collects data on our “likes” and “dislikes” and uses this data to populate our social media sites with content we are sure to want. For purveyors of women’s shoes or men’s boxer shorts, this is highly effective. The problem arises when these algorithms, which are not subject to any sort of fact check, pump out disinformation. This disinformation is intentionally amplified by “click farms” until it becomes mainstream – embedded in the social media two-thirds of Americans rely on for their news updates. 

As websites generating fake news become more sophisticated, they call into question scientific findings, political intentions, and the legitimacy of democracy. The message they are peddling is a retake on the adage “question authority” but with a new twist. Now we are goaded to question anything that runs counter to our personal opinion, breeding distrust of any stance differing from our own.

Unscrupulous players, both within and outside our borders, are using the internet to toy with us and pit us against each other. The result, as we’ve seen, is a country turning on itself - Republican against Democrat, White against Black, brother against sister. It is the new face of a brewing civil war. 

No surprise, the sharp uptick in our dependence on social media for information coincides with a precipitous decline in the number of newspapers in the United States. In the past 15 years, over 2,000 newspapers have closed – that’s one in five. Communities are left without local coverage of everything from high school sports to City Council decisions. 

This has been coupled with a 50% decline in journalists in the same 15-year period. Like scientific researchers, journalists follow a code of ethics to ensure accurate, fair, and thorough coverage. The loss of independent reporting (i.e., free from corporate interests) leaves a vacuum social media is all too ready to fill with subjective “news” slanted toward persuasion and, increasingly, half-truths or outright deception. 

Most of my news comes from reputable news sources like National Public Radio and the New York Times. I say “reputable” because NPR has been reporting news since 1971 when it was established by an act of Congress, and the NYT has been in print for 170 years, winning 130 Pulitzer Prizes and bearing the distinction of being the nation’s “newspaper of record”. Compare that to the Epoch Times, which was launched by a Chinese spiritual group in 2000 to call out China’s Communist Party for persecution and only gained widespread recognition in 2016 when they jumped on the Facebook bandwagon and gave voice to Donald Trump’s tirades against China. So, here’s my plug - if you’re looking to make a small but meaningful difference, support reliable news sources. Otherwise, you’ll miss them when they’re gone.

It used to be seeing was believing, but not anymore

Since the beginning of the last century, radio and film have served as an irrefutable source of news and a means of preserving historic moments. Consider the devastating images of Nazi concentration camps, or those luminous images of Earth taken from the Apollo 8 spacecraft, or the footage of the Twin Towers in flames. These images were viewed around the world and became part of our shared, if often troubled, history.  

There have always been conspiracy theorists who refute these images, such as claiming the moon landing was staged on a Hollywood set. But now, as computers refine the art of supplanting one face onto another in videos and dubbing in voice recordings to alter content with dark intent, everything is suspect. 

“Deepfake” is a form of artificial intelligence that allows anyone with the right computer software to utilize the treasure trove of data in the cloud to generate convincing images. It’s like Photoshop, which has been used to crop the ex-wife out of the family photo since 1990, but far more sophisticated. Deepfake can be used to shame the ex-wife with pornographic face swaps or show her in the arms of a married politician. Add a voice-over, post it on Facebook and watch it go viral. It’s currently possible to disprove these sorts of video smears, but maybe not for long, as the technology accelerates. 

Deepfake does have legitimate entertainment value and will revolutionize the movie-going experience. For example, sometime this year James Dean is due to appear in a new film entitled “Finding Jack” 66 years after his death. And voice-overs in foreign films have improved greatly in the past few years. 

More to the point, deepfake will exacerbate fake news. Who will trust a recording of a politician, caught making a racial slur or degrading the opposite sex, when they can claim the evidence is a face swap or voice-over? Learn more here.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, speaking to a Washington audience in 2018, stated, “In the old days, if you wanted to threaten the United States, you needed 10 aircraft carriers, and nuclear weapons, and long-range missiles. Today....all you need is the ability to produce a very realistic fake video that could undermine our elections, that could throw our country into tremendous crisis internally and weaken us deeply.”

The simple answer might appear to be a decree against the production of deepfake videos, especially those targeting politicians. But the First Amendment protects the freedom of expression, and any law limiting online content is going to run into a constitutional wall. 

To that end, my straight-forward strategy is to look beyond mud-slinging and evaluate each candidate’s stump speech for a vision that addresses the needs of working-class Americans and a clearly stated plan for how they will achieve this vision. Someone who spends their time in the spotlight bullying and blaming others, or worse, planting poisonous seeds of insurrection, no matter what political party they represent, does not speak to my interests.

So how do we combat this rise in “create your own reality”?

If you’re still reading this, you’re probably asking the same question I am. How do we, as engaged citizens, continue to function with any certitude when everything we hear and see is now suspect?  We could, as many do, take the easy way out and only listen to news which reinforces our beliefs. But I think we know where that leads. 

The alternative is to probe our assumptions and push ourselves toward a deeper grasp of the facts. The goal of those who spread disinformation is to reinforce our biases, so the logical way to fight against becoming a pawn to their agenda is to become less easily influenced. If something dubious shows up in the news, and especially on social media (which is populated by algorithms not beholden to any standards of accuracy), seek other sources. This is especially true if the information confirms what we want to believe because we are more likely to accept falsehoods that support our preconceptions than we are to accept accurate information that challenges them. 

As recognizing fake news grows more difficult, we need to exercise greater restraint over our knee-jerk emotions. When something goes viral, this is an indication that the content may have been manipulated to promote strong emotions. If a video or sound bite triggers you into a negative response, ask yourself, who benefits from this anger? 

Find experts you trust and follow them. And when I say “experts” I mean individuals who have more than a YouTube video behind them to support their position. If they’re truly experts, they have a vested interest and the education or experience to back it up. If they have authored in academic journals, which are subject to peer review, you can be sure they’ve been rigorously vetted.  

Identify the primary source of information. If a news story points to a research study, it should supply a link where you can access the original findings. Be aware that information is often lifted from studies in such a way as to distort the author’s findings. Read them yourself and draw your own conclusions. 

And finally, be willing to listen to another person’s point of view, especially if you disagree. Do so, not with the intent to change their mind, but as a means of finding common ground you can work with. While my brother and I disagree on who and what will bring about the future we hope for, we agree in principle on what we want for that future, and on our fears for the alternative.