In the Trump era it may seem like posturing, showmanship and fake news are more prevalent than ever before. In reality, we’ve always been drawn in by the power of bold narratives and dubious, yet entertaining, storytelling. All that has changed in recent years is the speed at which lies can spread.
The nineteenth century preacher Charles Spurgeon famously said that “a lie can go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.” Now, thanks to internet technologies, this statement has never been more true.
With so much emphasis now placed on attention economics, the ad-funded internet has become the perfect platform for hyperbole, with carefully researched facts and nuanced arguments rarely proving an effective source of clickbait. Fake news however, is a different story.
The irony of all this is that, in the early 2000s, the internet was pegged as a force for transparency, with politicians and internet pioneers claiming that greater access to information would inevitably strengthen the legitimacy of the truth. In reality, the opposite has occurred. Information overload has made it harder than ever before to wade through the misinformation, with the truth often being buried in a landslide of lies, propaganda and poorly researched opinions.
While it has been argued that the internet makes it easier to fact-check sources, in many respects even high-profile fact-checking sites have become yet another platform for one-sided debate. Only when we’re attempting to prove somebody else wrong do we find ourselves triple-checking the facts. When it comes to our own, pre-decided opinions, our interest in fact-checking sites declines.
In the face of growing infobesity, this constant reinforcement of existing ideas is only set to get worse. With more and more conflicting information available, many of us simply don’t know what to trust. As a result, we are more likely than ever to double down on our existing beliefs and simply stick to what we know.
The result is that, rather than increasing the variety of sources through which we can learn and challenge our opinions, the internet simply provides us with more sources to validate our existing beliefs. Now, as technology evolves and becomes more sophisticated, this problem is only set to get worse.
Already, the availability of low cost photo editing platforms has helped to fill the internet with falsified imagery and fake news. In many cases these images are being distributed as viral memes, once again being used by those who have already made up their minds as further ‘evidence’ for their unwavering beliefs.
Looking forward to 2019, photoshopped images will be the least of our concerns, with new AI-powered ‘Deep Fakes’ (highly convincing falsified video footage) set to become an increasingly common reality.
Already, Deep Fakes have included the creation of highly convincing falsified newscasts, fake political speeches and even fake celebrity sex tapes. As this technology becomes more intuitive, and available to the public at large, it will not be long before anyone can create their own falsified videos. Once this technology is mainstream, the potential for misinformation will be unprecedented.
So just who’s to blame for this new age of forgery?
As with so many things in modern life it would be easy to blame Donald Trump for the rise of fake news. The current Whitehouse administration has both discouraged trust in professional fact-checking and spurred on a culture in which brash assertions and ad hoc posturing are just as valid as continuity or hard facts.
Similarly, it would also be easy to blame Silicon Valley for failing to restrain the spread of misinformation on social media. Having built their algorithms on the basis of attention economics, it seems fair to say that the social media giants have done more to aid the spread of misinformation than anyone else in recent history.
While all these institutions need to be held to account, the reality is that we as individuals must also bear some degree of responsibility. As a society we have normalized fakery, allowing fabrication to seep into every aspect of our digital lives.
From adding filters to our Instagram photos to carefully curating our Facebook profiles, we have grown accustomed to editing reality in favor of a more palatable fiction. Our social media profiles, which were designed to log our lives in photographs, are now nothing more than a carefully curated collection of falsified memories. Soon Deep Fakes will do the same for our home movies.
All of this points to a collective disingenuousness, a willing acceptance that the truth does not matter as much as the stories we want to tell. It is this disingenuousness that is spreading to our politics and our engagement with the news. While social media sites, and even presidents may rise and fall, until we as individuals accept that the truth is not something that can be switch on and off at our convenience, the issue of fake news will never truly disappear.