The World’s Most Dangerous Question
I recently read one of the most dangerous questions I’ve ever seen a journalist put into print.
Farhad Manjoo, the technology columnist for The New York Times, recently wrote a well-researched piece on how Twitter feeds “fake news.” He shows how it is easy to create armies of “bots,” or automated scripts, that give the illusion of many users retweeting a story or idea.
This is how much “fake news” is created: you use Twitter bots to make a false idea go viral, then real journalists pick up on the “story.” He quotes a technology expert, Renee DiResta, who says, “If you can make something trend [on Twitter], you can almost make it come true.”
Mr. Manjoo ends his piece with the question, “If that’s the case, why believe anything?”
These three words have haunted me ever since. Why believe anything?
Over the past few years, I’ve been impressed with Mr. Manjoo’s “State of the Art” column. He does a good job reporting on the trends in technology, and what they mean for society. He is serving as one of our most important voices in the critical technology issues of our time.
Which is all the more reason that ending a column with that question — why believe anything? — is so troubling, particularly from a respected journalist. Here’s why.
Cynicism and Apathy
“Being exposed to constant, relentless irradiation by that funhouse reality, forever aswim in a sea of lies … made people lethargic and apathetic, cynical and fatalistic.”
— Michael Specter, “Life Under Alternative Facts”
Michael Specter was also a staff reporter for The New York Times, running the Moscow bureau during the 1980s. In a recent piece for The New Yorker, he talks about the relentless disinformation campaign the Soviet government inflicted on its own people during the Cold War. (It’s a quick read.)
“Everyone knew that everything said on the radio or on television … was a blatant lie,” he remembers. Think about that for a moment. If everything you read was a lie, if everything on the news contradicted what was so clearly true, what would be the long-term result on your attitude?
Side effects would include:
- A general sense of, “I don’t know who to believe”
Now, look around you. Aren’t we seeing the same attitudes take hold of the American people? When we’re bombarded with “fake news” that seems to be true, and actual news that is claimed to be fake, aren’t we constantly doubting everything we see and hear?
If that’s the case, why believe anything?
Lie + Virus = Lirus
As Mr. Manjoo’s column illustrates, there are sophisticated actors running disinformation campaigns on social media, and we are falling for it.
It is easiest to think of these disinformation campaigns as a kind of virus that spreads through the American population. Since they are essentially lies, let’s call them a “lirus.”
The lirus gets started with a network of social media bots that all retweet each other. If they’re lucky, the story becomes a trending topic. Since the legitimate news media relies on Twitter as a source of leads, they write a story, and the lirus spreads.
Even if a story is to show how the lirus is clearly untrue, introducing the lirus — talking about it at all — is to introduce the lirus into our collective brain. Even if I prove to you that it is clearly ridiculous that Angela Merkel was once a man, I’ve now introduced that idea into your head.
Now, every time you see a photo of Angela Merkel, you start thinking to yourself, Well, she does have a square-ish jaw. Is that an Adam’s apple? Whatever Angela Merkel is actually saying is beside the point: you’re just thinking about the hormone therapy.
The lirus is insidious because it’s invisible. Maybe we’re resistant the first few times we hear this nonsense, but after repeated exposures, the lirus begins to take hold. It begins to infect us, in the form of doubt and distrust, which in the later stages harden into cynicism and apathy.
The motto for a person infected with a lirus might be just three words: Why believe anything?
Why Believe Anything? Here’s Why
It is so clear to me that we are in the middle of a propaganda war. Forget whether the Russians influenced the election: they’re influencing America, right now.
We think of disinformation and propaganda campaigns as tools used by Communist leaders or dictatorships, but here they are, right now, in America. (And Fox News is our state-run TV.)
This is why Mr. Manjoo’s rhetorical question isn’t rhetorical at all, but a critical question for journalists and truth-seekers everywhere. Why should we believe anything?
There is a difference between truth and lies. If a criminal tells you he did not rob a bank, yet we have security footage of him robbing the bank, and all the money is found in his car, he robbed the bank. I believe there is truth, and I believe there are lies.
Trust is a cornerstone of society. We trust institutions like The New York Times because they have shown their commitment to the truth over a long period of time. We trust them to operate in the best interest of the public. I believe that society functions through shared mutual trust.
There are higher ideals. The pursuit of truth. Art. Beauty. Humility. Respect. Wisdom. Love. These are ideals that make us better, however imperfectly we strive for them. Our leaders should also strive for these ideals, because a country tends to become like its leaders.
Why believe anything? Because it’s critical that we hold on to our highest beliefs. To resist the lirus, our immune system has to remain strong. Great things were never accomplished by those who were cynical and apathetic, because they stayed in bed.
And if you’ve already caught the lirus, then believe that better times are ahead. That’s what I believe.
You might also enjoy my book Mind Hacking, because it shows you how to strengthen new beliefs.