Despite its transformational benefits, many of us worry that the Internet has become a societal sorcerer’s apprentice, corroding our communal sense of truth and estranging Americans from each other. A recent study by the Pew Research Center captures our unease.
The Pew study confirms the widening gap between how Republicans and Democrats perceive such important issues as race, immigration, and the role of government — indeed, reality itself. As troubling is the burgeoning distaste of partisans for each other – in the last 23 years, the number of Republicans and Democrats who hold negative opinions of the opposing party has nearly tripled.
Critical is the decline in respect for mainstream media — outlets with journalistic standards — in preference for divisive social media, which can take mendacity viral in seconds. Equally problematic, self-selected virtual communities are supplanting actual relationships between people of differing views and backgrounds, accelerating the tendency of ever more Americans to view each other as virtual enemies.
The very impersonality of the Internet invites falsehood and vituperation, exponentially amplified within our communal bubbles. As steering mechanisms increasingly channel congenial information to the like-minded, these bubbles become less permeable, their occupants more susceptible to misinformation and manipulation. And so the Internet erodes our capacity for critical thought.
A major casualty is a belief in fact as a basis for political discourse. In its recent study “Truth Decay,” the RAND Corporation decries our increasing disagreement about facts and their interpretation; our blurring of the line between fact and opinion; and our elevation of unalloyed opinion over fact. Causes include the abysmal failure of our educational system to keep up with changes in our information ecosystem.
All this commends Pew’s report “The Future of Truth and Misinformation Online,” which includes a survey of experts on cyberspace. While some specialists believe that we can curb the spread of falsehood, the skeptics offer a compelling demurral.
First, the very speed of technological innovation outraces our ability to control it. As one analyst remarks, “Algorithms weaponize rhetoric, making it easier and faster to influence people on a mass scale.” Another says: “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.”
More intractable yet is human nature. Fake news feeds our inherent preference for the reinforcement of existing views. The less we know, the less we can discern what we do not know. As our societal agreement about reliable sources and objective fact erodes, so do our tools of resistance.
Nor are we wired to keep up with accelerating technology. And so — as Russia taught us in 2016 — the information environment is ripe for misuse. Identifying falsehoods becomes time-consuming and exhausting — even for the skeptical and well informed.
Most Americans are neither. Many young people lack the tools to question and discern — or even a basic civic education about the principles of democracy. The rise of Donald Trump did not occur in a vacuum, but in a fact-free environment that supplied him with a credulous audience of all ages unwilling, and unable, to know or care about his constant lies — or the institutions and traditions of civility he held in such disdain.
Indeed, the omnipresence of cyberspace aggravates our inherent laziness, our limited attention span, our need for stimulus, and, most of all, our instinct for tribalism. Disinformation becomes addictive; we lose our will to resist. Thus do Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” become an alternate reality.
That lotusland has its own institutions — like Breitbart and Infowars — creating its own informational ecosystem. Business Insider traced the genesis of one preposterous myth – that the CIA gave the stolen DNC e-mails to Wikileaks, then framed Russia — a 48-hour path through conservative radio, Breitbart and, finally, that journalistic exemplar, Sean Hannity. For the habitués of fantasy, this was their special truth.
The result is not just social division, but also a class system of the mind, separating those able to identify reliable information from those who cannot. And like other class divisions, this perpetuates itself.
There is no single cure. But some active measures would help. Schools should teach not only civics but also Internet literacy — the ability to question and research. In a time when resources for good journalism are shrinking, building strong nonprofit news sources must become a philanthropic priority. Hardest of all, we must renew our interest in what has always bound us: real communities, and the actual people who live there.