There was a movement in the 1990s – thankfully short-lived – to write novels with several different endings and then let readers concentrate on the ending they liked best. I hated the idea. The problem I saw was that, if this trend caught on, we eventually would have few common cultural touchstones to enable us to talk with one another, and sooner or later, society would break down. How do we come to a common understanding and shared values if my version of To Kill A Mockingbird features a noble Atticus Finch teaching Scout and Jem the virtues of standing up for Tom Robinson and protecting Boo Radley while yours has Atticus taking bribes to sell out Tom so he can be sure his children have a great college fund?
Fortunately, that trend didn’t catch on, but another, equally serious trend, has, and this month’s issue of The Atlantic offers an insightful discussion of the problem. Writer Michael Hirschorn points out that the Internet too often allows untruth to masquerade as truth and to spread untruth with such speed that it picks up a life of its own. Here’s how he explains the phenomenon:
What is unique, and uniquely concerning, about digital media is the speed with which properly packaged (dis)information can spread and how hard it is for fact and reason to catch up. Sarah Palin quickly adopted Twitter perhaps because it enabled her to blast forth dramatic proclamations that, given the 140-character limit, she couldn’t be expected to explain or defend. Henceforth, election-changing controversies will be ginned up with simple, misleading phrases such as death panels or Ground Zero mosque. The fact that the Islamic cultural center in question is being built two blocks away from Ground Zero is immaterial, because laborious explanations of the truth—or even relentless mockery by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert—cannot stop the meme from propagating like a contagious disease. Palin’s handlers like to refer to “the message” (“As the message continues to succeed, the messenger will continue to be attacked,” etc.), which is prima facie incontestable because it is not an argument. Once the meme is out there, it’s very hard to quash. No amount of evidence will stop a certain segment of the public from believing that Obama is a Muslim or foreign-born, in part because GOP leaders continue to stoke such ideas, as Newt Gingrich did with his grotesque references on September 11 to the president’s “Kenyan, anticolonial behavior.”
Hirschorn says we need “factual counterterrorism” to fight back against onslaughts of manipulation of the truth, but he points out that it’s an uphill battle. Last week I offered three websites to help you sort fact from fiction. Hirschorn offers two more – politifact.com and theawl.com.
Hirschorn has a chilling warning for us all: “It’s easy to welcome a time in which technology unleashes an ongoing town hall on any and all issues of the day, in which the wisdom of crowds holds sway. But the dislodging of fact from the pedestal it had safely occupied for centuries makes the recent disturbances in politics and the media feel like symptoms of a larger epistemological, even civilizational, rot. The next presidential election will, no doubt, be something to watch.”
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