Post-Truth, Revisited

On July 22nd, 2019, I published an article called Living in a Post-Truth World. A lot has happened since that post — I wanted to revisit it here to see how much still applies, and how much I ended up getting wrong.

The basic trends the article insisted on still ring true. We are living post-truth, and since my article many other people have written posts and books about this (I wasn’t the first person to write about this, but rather the topic has gained steam significantly). Deep fakes are getting more powerful, and more common. News media is becoming more extreme, and more fractured. But the reaction to this trend has been, needless to say, interesting.

In my original article the only probable reaction I do mention is that we will need to develop better methods of counteracting fake news and deep fakes. In reality, this was a rather weak suggestion — fake content works on a flywheel the same way hacking does. You build a better defense? Then we’ll build a better attack. Etc, etc, etc. 

The reaction I didn’t see coming was that of the public. People got more skeptical. Like, a lot more skeptical. People began calling out content more often for being fake, doctored, slanted, or what have you. But here’s where it gets interesting. People aren’t just calling out the deep fakes and extremist content — they’re calling out everything. I’ve had multiple awkward conversations with friends where I will post an article from CNN or The New York Times, only for them to respond, “That’s biased!”. Fair enough, I think — so I respond with a straight drip from AP or Reuters instead. Once again, they respond: “That’s biased!”. At this point, I’m just confused. Though I suppose that in hindsight the logic is so mind numbingly obvious: in a post-truth word, nothing is true!

Of course, we can’t give our brains too much credit. A few weeks later my friend posts an article himself, coming from the New York Post. Ah, that’s the trick! You see, I told you people are better at pointing out fake content, but the extremism still stands. Right wing users point out fake content from the left wing with more accuracy, whereas left wing users point out fake content from the right with more accuracy. At the end of the day, Lady Confirmation Bias still wins. For now, at least. So finding “true” content now results in reading between the lines, looking at the dialog and seeing what’s garnered the least attention. That’s the one no one can poke a hole in — that’s the one that’s probably true. 

There’s one last trend I find interesting. It is true that, at this point, every major news publication in the world has taken “a side” (with the exception of AP and Reuters, contrary to popular belief). People are starting to become cognizant of this. Big pundits like Balaji Srinivasan have begun telling people to shrug off the chains of news media entirely. People are beginning to listen. Where do you go when there’s no news media, though?

For a long time there was no good answer to this. And the media used this to their advantage. “Killing us off means killing truth!” they declared. Well, now truth is already dead — media or not. So that’s not a particularly great excuse. The result of finding truth now has been rather strange: it’s the place where not so long ago people said it was the place to never find truth: the aggregate. 

That’s right: personal newsletters, private bloggers, the Twitter community. News is now faster, and more accurate, from these sources than from traditional sources. How is this possible? Like I said, it involves reading between the lines.

Get Person A’s news on Event X. Then read Person B’s news — news that is diametrically opposed, yet still about Event X. Well, A mentioned so-and-so about X, but B didn’t. Maybe it’s not true then. However, both A and B mentioned this about X. They gave their opinions, but throw that part out — no one cares about their opinions, anyway. You get a bunch of people in a room, all with different opinions, and get them to fight each other, and truth comes out. You find it in the aggregate. The next step then is getting people to listen to that, as opposed to their own side.

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