A Crisis of Facts

How do you know what is and is not true?

I mean, how do you know?

It’s always been a tough question, but it seems even more difficult of late because of the explosion of fake news and information sources. How does one separate the wheat from the chaff?

I’m not sure I have an answer to this critically important question.

In the past we’ve been able to rely on what some would call “traditional sources”, or perhaps “mainstream media”. Certainly prior to the internet the number of such sources was limited, and those we would choose to trust relatively agreed upon. The New York Times was, by-and-large, trustworthy; The Weekly World News, not so much.

Even at their best, traditional sources have always been accused of bias, mostly because it’s true. The bias was often made relatively clear on their editorial sections, and could be seen to impact their information delivery to a predictable, and perhaps reasonable, degree.

It seems that of late, however, that degree – while perhaps still predictable – has grown to extreme proportions. Even if it has not, the perception is that it has, and particularly in the case of information delivery perception is reality. The perception of exactly how biased an information source might be has a direct and dramatic impact on how easily it will be accepted – particularly by those naturally inclined to disagree.

Today it’s not at all uncommon to find that two sources of information generally considered “relatively objective” might present diametrically opposed points of view on exactly the same issue or incident. If they’re truly being objective, that simply shouldn’t be. And the problem, of course, is that that extreme polarization prevents any thoughts of acceptance by those on opposite sides.

But it gets worse.

Today anyone and everyone has a voice. In fact, anyone can look like a trusted source, either through intentional deception and mimicry of an established source, or simply by acting as if they already were one.

When everyone has a voice it’s nearly impossible to determine who’s truly being objective, or exactly how information is being colored by existing biases. At its worst, disinformation itself has become an industry.

So where does the responsibility for truth really lie any more? I dont’ know. Ultimately it’s fairly clear that by and large people don’t trust traditional sources of information any more, and it’s hard to argue that they should. Unfortunately this has many flocking to alternative sources that are generally even less reputable, if not outright misleading.

The attraction? Confirmation bias. People generally feel an affinity for sources that confirm what they already believe. And that path leads only to risk of further manipulation and polarization.

Ultimately we, the consumers of information, have to shoulder the burden. The responsibility of confirmation, of determining exactly what is and what is not “true” is ours. Sadly not everyone cares to engage in the thought that this requires.

And even if they were, there remains an unsolvable problem, as far as I can tell: exactly how to do that in an environment where every source of information is suspect.