The concept of “The Truth” has accompanied humankind on our journey for a long, long, time. And while it historically has come under assault in many places and times, it has taken a particularly severe beating in the past few years.
Turbocharged by technology, the idea of “alternative facts” has gone mainstream. Anyone finding what formerly passed as the truth to be inconvenient or unpalatable can browse a smorgasbord of “information” that is aligned with their own beliefs.
“Misinformation is not like a plumbing problem you fix,” commented Tom Rosenstiel from the Brookings Institution. “It is a social condition, like crime, that you must constantly monitor and adjust to.”
In the summer of 2017, the highly-regarded Pew Research Center launched an extensive survey of over 1,000 technologists, scholars, strategic thinkers, and others in which they asked this question: In the next 10 years, will methods emerge to block misinformation and allow the most accurate online information to prevail — or will the quality of information online continue to deteriorate due to the spread of unreliable, sometimes even dangerous, socially destabilizing ideas?
The results, released in their report, The Future of Truth and Misinformation Online, were evenly split. Specifically, 51 percent of the experts predicted that the situation will not improve, mostly citing two reasons.
First, the fake news ecosystem preys on some of our deepest human instincts, and they will not change. “People on systems like Facebook are increasingly forming into ‘echo chambers’ of those who think alike,” observed one of the respondents. “They will keep unfriending those who don’t, and passing on rumors and fake news that agrees with their point of view.”
And secondly, our brains are not wired to contend with the pace of technological change. Fake information will crowd out the truth, and many people will simply give up on trying to tell the difference. “In the arms race between those who want to falsify information and those who want to produce accurate information, the former will always have an advantage,” said technologist David Conrad.
But 49 percent of the experts thought that things would indeed improve, and they had their own reasons. First, as these problems were created by technology, they can be solved by technology. “If there is a great amount of pressure from the industry to solve this problem (which there is), then methodologies will be developed and progress will be made,” commented Adam Lella from comScore. “In other words, if there’s a will, there’s a way.”
And another reason for optimism cited by the respondents was that it is human nature to come together to fix problems. Irene Wu, of Georgetown University, noted that “When television became popular, people also believed everything on TV was true. It’s how people choose to react and access to the information and news that’s important, not the mechanisms that distribute them.”
Which group of experts will have their predictions vindicated by events in the future? Only time will tell, but in the meantime, the candle of truth still flickers in the darkness.