When did telling lies become the norm? And why aren’t more people concerned about how much information spread today is false? I recall attending a lecture on the future of the “Information Super-highway” in the early 1990’s. The internet was a new invention. Apple computers were in demand largely because of the slick interface allowing users to ‘click’ on their screen to open programs versus discs and DOS line commands. Getting the news meant buying a newspaper, magazine, watching the nightly news, or going to the library. People still enjoyed sharing coffee breaks with a group of friends or work mates to discuss events in the news. It doesn’t seem possible that was thirty years ago. So much has changed about how news is shared today, and its quality.
I read an opinion piece by Paul Krugman discussing the difficulties Republicans would encounter if they tried to cut government programs such as Medicaid and SNAP, because many of their own base rely on such programs. My first thought was “Oh, it won’t be a problem because Republicans will tell their base it’s the fault of the Democrats and their base will believe them.” Day after day I read or hear statements made by people in the public sphere that are patently false and misleading. Yet, none of the media calls it what it is, propaganda and disinformation. In fact, even reputable news sources often simply repeat the lies and act as if somehow every position is valid and listeners will figure out what to believe or not.
It isn’t just political division in the US, it’s happening in nations all over the world. It’s long been the norm for authoritarian leaders to lie and obfuscate the truth because they fear they won’t be able to control their people if they knew the truth. But now it’s becoming the norm in even democratic nations. People get their news from social media platforms, where lies spread faster than the truth. Platforms are controlled by machine learning programs that adjust the software on your communication device in ways to keep you online and clicking. It doesn’t matter that the information is false and misleading. The end justifies the means, creating a false image of what is happening around us. We are allowing forces to fabricate a future that is out of control.
I grew up in a age when reaching the truth of any matter required thought and reflection. The benefit of a liberal education was that we learned to think about issues from different sides, to debate facts with critical thinking, to be objective not biased in our positions. It required effort to seek out and find the best sources of information. It took effort to establish a foundation of understanding upon which we could rely as we moved forward searching for insights and understanding that would enable us to make good decisions in life. We intentionally worked to become intelligent, thoughtful, and articulate people. This was the ultimate purpose of a higher education. This was the lifelong goal of the humanities.
Sadly people no longer value good information, nor do many spend any amount of time evaluating the issues from different sides. Thanks to the Information Super-highway we are flooded with information, and don’t seem concerned that most of it is bad. Today it’s about self promotion, influence, and social media power. We are living in a time when lies are more comfortable than the truth, and the narrower our views the more certain we are that we are right. We have stopped questioning the lies lest we are labeled “woke” or “racist” and simply dismissed by all our followers. Heaven forbid we question what we are being told, or try to think for ourselves!
Humans throughout history have used our minds and intellect to gather information, reflect upon it, and share our ideas in order to meet the challenges of the future. What good are our efforts to address problems when we start from false premises? Throughout human history we have faced many challenges, but the greatest danger of social disintegration was when lies and disinformation were accepted over the truth.
Teaser photo credit: By CrisNYCa – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=94532194