Truth decay: How digital technologies are helping shatter our shared sense of reality

This year has been eventful: the novel coronavirus outbreak, Brexit, the shooting down of Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752, and the U.S. presidential impeachment trial. 

All of these events have stoked conspiracies and mistrust. They’ve underscored the deep divisions and polarization of the way people understand truth, and the grasp of reality that underlies it.

And we’re barely six weeks into 2020.

Technology journalist Alexis Madrigal, a staff writer for The Atlantic, says social media and so-called citizen journalism are only adding fuel to the fire of misinformation and mistrust.

Consider the shooting down of a Ukrainian Airlines plane by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Initially, at least, it managed to draw in three major international news stories: the conflict between the U.S. and Iran, the reliability of Boeing’s aircraft, and Ukraine, which was at the centre of U.S. President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial.

Alexis Madrigal is a staff writer for The Atlantic. (The Atlantic)

The reaction and information (or misinformation) transmitted through social media was sufficiently dramatic that the New York Times led its coverage with news that it had “verified” the amateur video of a missile apparently striking the plane.

All this has led to a situation where it has become very difficult to discern what is true, and what is not. And even the notion of truth itself seems malleable.

“Every truth that we find seems to have some noise in it,” Madrigal told Spark host Nora Young. And, unlike the past, where newspapers and broadcasters authoritatively conveyed truthful information, social media means that events are now covered—even by mainstream media—as they develop and in real time.

This also leaves the “facts” of a story more open to interpretation, and perhaps more dangerous, allows information to flow without appropriate context. This, in turn leads people to trust others who think like they do, and insist that their interpretation of the truth is correct, regardless of evidence to the contrary.

Madrigal also described what he calls “negative information,” where videos or images are posted that only add to the confusion about a particular event because they can’t immediately be verified—even though they are consumed alongside information provided by more credible sources.

He pointed out that there have been Twitter accounts that are posting information about the coronavirus outbreak, but there is no way of telling whether the information is factually correct. However, once a post goes viral, it’s difficult to rein it in—even if it’s untrue.

Madrigal calls this kind of social media posting “grifting,” where someone with no obvious expertise in a particular subject suddenly starts posting information as if they are an authority. “I think a bigger destabilizing force [is] people who are out there kind of surfing attentional waves. Something out there is happening in the world, and they hop on it, and try to capitalize on it.”

He adds that this doesn’t mean that traditional, institutional media got everything right; indeed, the predominantly white, middle-class bias of mainstream media in the U.S. caused it to ignore large populations and issues that matter to minorities.

No shared understanding of reality

Arie Kruglanski is a social psychologist who studies how belief systems are formed, and he says the current state of polarization, and lack of a shared societal understanding of reality, means we’re in trouble.

The fracturing of this understanding is very, very dangerous, he said. Almost all the traditional institutions—the media, government, even the courts—are now viewed with suspicion. This leaves a void that those with extreme points of view are eager to fill.

Arie Kruglanski is a social psychologist who studies how belief systems are formed.(University of Maryland)

Kruglanski, who is a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, points out that if an individual person loses their grasp of reality, it’s considered a psychosis. Could a society become psychotic?

“It’s possible,” he said. Without any kind of consensus about what the truth is, people turn to their small circles of people whom they feel they can still trust. And this is how extremism can form, he added.

This has happened before, and helped give rise to Nazism and other fascist movements in Europe in the early part of the 20th century.

“It took the Second World War to knock people out of their stupor,” Kruglanski said.

Now, with filter bubbles and echo chambers abetted by social media, the polarization and lack of common understanding of truth is “worse than ever.”

So what can we do? Kruglanski points out that in the early 2000s, Gerhard Schroeder, the chancellor of Germany, was able to launch a “rebellion of the decent” in response to terrorist attacks on synagogues, and Germans of all political stripes stood up for the shared values of an inclusive society.

However, he cautions that Germany is in a unique situation, where its citizens understand acutely the perils of extremism.

As for the rest of us? 

“Now it is the struggle for the soul of humankind,” he said.

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