Truth and Power in a New Age of Publishing

This is the transcript of my comments at the Post-Truth Initiative, which was hosted by the University of Sydney. I delivered them on November 20th, 2017 during a segment focusing on Truth and Power. Square brackets include clarifying context.

Power is often ill-defined when it relates to the truth. Some strains of philosophy and their intellectual offspring huddle together to claim that power controls the production of our discourse. That is, those in power have a monopoly on what a society considers true.

While I have issues with this broad approach to power, I agree with parts of this position. Those in institutions and in powerful and privileged positions have historically controlled the flow of information on a variety of issues. They have controlled what information — what “truths” — can and cannot escape to the larger public. This has meant the censorship of inconvenient truths on one hand and the pushing of propaganda on the other.

A part of the reason I beat the drum about free speech in Areo [Areo is an online publication that I founded] is because power is often wielded to control narratives and dictate what is and what isn’t allowed to be said. And I’m worried that those with good intentions who want to ban “hurtful speech” or opinions cannot see the long-term and detrimental consequences of their actions.

History is full of blasphemers and individuals who have been persecuted by the state and mobs for their dangerous ideas. Today we see different abuses of power around the world. Recep Erdogan in Turkey jails journalists by the hundreds — even claiming that they’re terrorists. People who criticize Vladmir Putin often suffer violent deaths.

The powerful haven’t always played fair. They have rarely allowed the circulation of information which might undermine them. Those in power have dictated discourses and tried to control “what is true” — or what information is accepted.

Things, though, have changed in the past few decades. One leak can keep a government in check. An atheist in Saudi Arabia can download and read material that would incur heavy penalties — even death. A blasphemer in Iraq, along with a little support and a lot of luck, can crowdsource her way to safety and freedom. Tweets and social media can sparks revolutions.

The landscape has changed. If those in “power” or in institutions acted as a sieve in days gone by, controlling and filtering what could be published and said, today that sieve is surpassed by information which is akin to water. Meaning, information flows right through that sieve with minimal resistance.

New technologies and the accessibility of publishing platforms has meant that anyone can enter the information game. Anyone can publish news, analysis, and “truths.” Someone frustrated with the state of affairs can sit in a room for hours at a time and publish a “magazine.” (Like me!)

But they can do other things, too. They can continue to propagate our long history of group allegiance over truth. They can push a certain narrative, or create a story that will capture the imaginations of conspiracy theorists, or lie and falsify information with little repercussion.

This decentralization of publishing power — the ability to “create” truths — is already being exploited. How many millions in the world listen to dressed up conspiracy theorists? This recent American election, of course, included so much “fake news” that it was difficult to discern reality from fantasy. While public trust in the media has fallen, fringe voices ares spreading falsities to millions of gullible readers. This is occurring all across the political spectrum.

What I am describing is not new. In the past, those in power knew how to exploit with propaganda. Today, those not in power also know how to do this. 

To be clear this willingness to look to alternative sources for information does not come without reason. “The media” is now considered a tainted epithet in many circles as opposed to the answer you might get when you ask a recent college graduate what field they’d like to work in. A May 2017 Harvard-Harris poll found that 65% of American voters believed that “the mainstream media” engages in some type of fake news.

I don’t think that this reputation is entirely undeserved. Many established sources of information have been unashamed about pushing particular narratives and positions even in the face of contradictory evidence. Some commentators, of course, speculate that the increasing political polarization we see — as evidenced by numerous Pew Research reports — is due in part to the sheer availability of information which comports to our worldviews, and the strange social effects which further polarizes our positions when we spend time within like-minded groups.

So power in disseminating the truth is no longer centralized. This is a development that comes with both positives and negatives. What can we do to accentuate the good and minimize the bad of our access to information? How can we combat this polarization and the effects of propaganda, lies and untruth?

Well, that is why we’re all here, I’m assuming. [The aim of the conference was to explore the idea of truth, hence the reference to location.]

Social psychologists have already discovered how we instinctively lean away from information or views we find distasteful. The challenge is not that the truth is buried, hidden, and lost, or that the truth is too deeply imbedded to excavate. The challenge is that we are unable and unwilling to accept it even when it sits above the surface. This applies to me, and far more enlightened and intelligent people than myself, too.

The smarter we are the better we are at rationalizing reasons for our positions. We are, after all, just the last surviving species of the Genus Homo. It is astounding what we have accomplished. But we must also keep in mind that we are immensely flawed creatures who struggle with the baggage of millions of years of sexual and natural selection.

So with our flaws in mind, and instead of offering some grand solution, I’m going to suggest three gentle recommendations to conclude.

  1. Ask not whether a piece of information, article, or development supports a movement or ideological group. Rather ask, “is it true?” In our lives we are bound to encounter questions, claims, and ideas which cause us to balk. Instead of banishing them without a thought, we should endeavor to assess their veracity.
  2. Beware the mob — especially on Facebook or Twitter. Online spaces are often the most toxic places to engage in political discussion and don’t necessarily reflect reality. It often feels good to shun, ostracize, and call people out online for their fucking stupidity. It feels even better to do it with your group. But is it helpful? Is righteous opprobrium the appropriate method to change the minds of your interlocutors? There is of course space for intense discussion — but be wary of your certitude. 
  3. Say you don’t know when you don’t know. Throughout our lives we’re engaged in reputation management. Those of us who work (or aspire to work) in media, information, or hold prestigious positions such as “professor” are even more dependent upon reputation management. Without our reputations we have nothing. And in our zeal to protect our reputations we can often find ourselves commenting on areas we know little about. Sometimes, yes, the emperor is naked and we must scrutinize claims offered by ersatz intellectuals. But most times the emperor is lavishly garbed in clothes we can see.

I fear, though, I am preaching to the converted. By virtue of just being in this room [or reading this article] you have probably swallowed the medicine I’m selling or have created your own formula for a similar brand. Our greatest obstacle, then, is to figure out how to convince everyone else of the merits of what we are trying to accomplish. That, I propose, is our greatest challenge.