True Enough

More Fiction, but More Facts, Too
New books dissected over email.
March 18 2008 7:41 AM

True Enough

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Farhad—

Before I go into debate mode here, I wanted to start by saying how much I've enjoyed reading True Enough. You have literally dozens of stories in the book that you've told wonderfully, but you've also managed to connect them to illuminating research in psychology and sociology: the whole history of the "Swift Boat" campaign, the 2004 Ohio election-fraud meme, 9/11 conspiracy theorists. It's an entertaining and important mix of media theory, cultural criticism, and science journalism.

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Of course, one of the central themes of True Enough is that we live in excessively partisan times, and in that spirit, I'm now going to shift gears and explain why your argument is hopelessly wrong.

I'm kidding, but I think we do disagree on a couple of key points. I find myself agreeing thoroughly with your assessment of the forces at work in each of your anecdotes. What I have trouble with is the global conclusions you draw. You describe your thesis near the beginning: "The limitless choice we now enjoy over the information we get about our world has loosened our grip on what is—and isn't—true." At the end you phrase it this way: "The particular way in which information now moves through society—on currents of loosely linked online groups and niche media outfits, pushed along by experts and journalists of dubious character, and bolstered by documents that are no longer considered proof of realty—amplifies deception."

Now, it seems to me that there are two ways to set about determining whether this interpretation is, in fact, true. The first is the media-theory approach, which is to analyze the "particular way that information now moves," thanks to the Web and other modern media forms, and to try to gauge whether there is indeed something structural to these new forms that amplifies deception. The other approach is to look at the problem from a sociological point of view: Is there a general increase in falsehood, or blindly partisan interpretations of the world, that we can see around us, compared with what we saw 20 or 50 years ago?

Let me try my hand quickly at both, and perhaps we can get into more detail in the next round. In terms of the flow of information, there is no question that the Internet has made it vastly easier to share complete fabrications—delusional theories, libelous accusations, Photoshopped fantasies—with other human beings. (Just think about the spam!) That we agree on. But I think it is equally true that the rise of the Internet has made it vastly easier to share useful, factual information with other human beings. Because the media landscape is so much more interconnected—thanks largely to the innovation of hypertext (and to Google)—it has also never been easier to fact-check a given piece of information. We had plenty of urban myths during my childhood in the 1970s and early 1980s, but we didn't have Snopes.com to debunk them.

Saying that the Web amplifies deception is, to me, a bit like saying that New York is more dangerous than Baltimore because it has more murders. Yes, in absolute numbers, there are more untruths on the Web than we had in the heyday of print or mass media, but there are also more truths out there. We've seen that big, decentralized systems like open-source software and Wikipedia aren't perfect, but over time they do trend toward more accuracy and stability. I think that will increasingly be the case as more and more of our news migrates to the Web.

That's why I think it's important to note that many of your key examples are dependent on old-style, top-down media distribution. You talk about the American public's continuing belief in a connection between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein; the Swift Boat Veteran ads that distorted the truth of Kerry's record; Lou Dobbs ranting on CNN. These are all distortions that speak to the power of the old mass-media model or the even older political model of the executive branch. (I think it's telling that you only spent a page or two on the successful fact-checking of the forged CBS draft-dodging memos.) As you say in the book, the Swift Boat meme didn't take off until the group started running television ads. Americans don't connect Saddam to 9/11 because of distributed online niche groups; they make that connection because the vice president of the United States repeatedly went on television to keep the connection alive. That's as old-school as it gets.   

This leads to the sociological question. One way to think about it is to look at conspiracy theories, which play a prominent role in True Enough. If your premise were right, the new media landscape would have made our culture more amenable to these theories than ever. I don't exactly know how to go about proving this, but I think there's a very strong argument that the country is significantly less conspiratorially minded than it was in the late 1960s and 1970s. Think of the litany from that period: JFK, Castro, faked moon landings, "Paul Is Dead," Roswell. (For what it's worth, the conspiracy page at Wikipedia is dominated by these outdated theories, but perhaps that itself is a conspiracy.) Yes, we have the 9/11 "truth movement" theories, but we also have a number of dogs that didn't bark. Think about the anthrax attacks of 2001—a major act of terrorism against prominent people that has not been solved, and yet there are almost no well-known crank theories about that in circulation. If that had happened in the 1970s, Oliver Stone would be making a movie about it right about now.

And then there is the premise that we live in increasingly partisan political times, where our worldviews have diverged so much that we can't agree on basic truths. This is, of course, conventional wisdom—people make offhand references to our partisan political culture all the time—but I think it is a bizarre form of political amnesia. Think back again to the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. Yes, we have Fox News, but we no longer have lynch mobs. We no longer have people getting fire-hosed by the authorities because they want to ride in the front of the bus or war protesters killed on their campuses. We no longer have radical political groups with significant followings arguing for violent revolution; we haven't had a politically motivated assassination attempt in decades. We have broad public consensus on the role of women and minorities in government and the workforce. We no longer have major political figures denouncing the Communists lurking among us. Yes, the right hates the Clintons, and the left hates Bush, but the left hated Nixon just as much, and some of them hated LBJ for good measure. There is far more consensus in the country's political values than there was 30 years ago. We agree on much more than we did back then.

I admit that one thing has changed: Our political culture looks more partisan on television than it did back then, in the sense that Bill O'Reilly is more partisan in style and substance than, say, Cronkite was. But as you know better than anyone, Farhad, just because it's on television, it doesn't mean it's true.

Steven

Steven Johnson is the author of five books, including Everything Bad Is Good For You andThe Ghost Map, and co-founder of Outside.in.

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