If you’ve ever been brave enough to delve into the roiling human cesspool that is Reddit, you might be familiar with phenomenon of “Ask Reddit,” a section of the site where someone can pose a question and have the legions of “redditors” respond.
Questions can be about pedestrian matters, such as tips for getting a job, or they can be oddball and fun, such as asking people to re-imagine world history as a film. The most fascinating, though, are those that ask for personal anecdotes, especially the lurid ones: your most embarrassing sexual experience, or why a revelation from a significant other made you break up with them on the spot.
Scrolling through these stories, you get lulled into a certain credulousness. “Isn’t the world a funny place,” you think to yourself after reading yet another tale of parents walking in on teens mid-coitus, never stopping to wonder at the veracity of anything you’re reading. It happens all the time, in those “inspiring” posts that your friends and family share on Facebook that bring a tear to your eye as you thumb through your feeds. One forgets: these online fora in which people gather—not just Reddit, but Twitter, Facebook, and the others—have a strange tendency to meld news and anecdote, fact and fiction, all within the same space. Much more so than with TV or print, as the web conflates my experience of both fantasy and reality, I frequently find myself asking: wait, is any of this actually true?
That Reddit and other social spaces are filled with the made-up is incontrovertible; there’s even a section on Reddit called “That Happened,” which pulls out highly improbable comments left on the site just to make fun of them. Yet, when you’re reminded that not only are some comments simply invented, but also that it’s a common phenomenon, one’s experience of the thing becomes decidedly odd. Rather than an experiment in the democratization of news, it suddenly feels quite plausible that half the web is just a grand experiment in the writing of fiction interspersed with news, jokes, and porn.
That co-mingling of truth and invention can (and often does) have the healthy effect of stoking skepticism in readers. An incredible photo is posted to social media and, shortly after, some sharp-eyed person yells, “That looks ‘shopped to me!”—and it turns out they’re right. If within the same space you find both the verified and the not, skepticism is just sensible.
Yet that difficultly in parsing what’s true took a decidedly darker turn recently, when 4chan, that notorious den of trolls, decided to try to discredit feminists with fake accounts suggesting we “#endfathersday.” Though the trolls were outed, and a counter-campaign of “#yourslipisshowing” quickly followed, the incident was nonetheless disturbing. To the average observer, the fake accounts looked convincing, due in no small part the relative lack of context. If you were already inclined to agree with the falsehood that feminism is out to ruin things, having these tweets roll across your timeline was just fuel for your beliefs.
The web isn’t alone in its capacity to peddle fabrications that look like truth. If radio could fool people into believing an alien invasion was occurring, or TV could convince some that our pasta came from the spaghetti harvest—or, more simply, that FOX News or MSNBC can so easily play to their viewers’ biases—then it’s clear that the ways in which we recognize the true have a lot to do with authority and context. It’s often the frame in which “truth” is presented that lends it credulity.
The Internet, however, helps destabilize that context, making the frame harder to see. Firstly, the barriers to entry are almost the same for tricksters as they are for professionals, so confusing authentic and parody accounts is easy thanks to the regularity with which they pop up. What’s more, as we sift through news and information, we often get not only firsthand accounts of what’s happening, but also expert opinion and specialized knowledge from random people across the web—some historian or scientist with a Facebook account who happens to be at the right place at the right time—making absolute authority a much tougher sell. Then there are the simple aesthetics and philosophy of digital: when the medium itself is so easily manipulated, changed, and invented, that neat line dividing empirical evidence and truth from invention and falsehood becomes fuzzier, more prone to the occasional moment in which we stop and wonder, “Wait, why do I believe this?” The shape and form in which web pages and apps present truth is such that recreating or reshaping it is comparatively simple—and sometimes, the simple fact that manipulation is at all possible is enough to sow the seed of doubt.
What I want to say in response, then, is that we’ll all become assiduous media critics, constantly evaluating things according to a new, ever-changing literacy of truth. But not only does that assume far too much about our willingness to work—witness this study that says facts don’t change our false beliefs—it also ignores how the changing presentation of truth online has arisen alongside changing notions of truth generally. If it starts with the adolescent notion that “all truth is subjective,” it still ends at a place in which, in the 21st century, we have to acknowledge that reality really does look different depending on who’s seeing it. It’s not just that digital makes ascertaining truth more complicated, but that, at the same time, we are also more consciously and openly fighting to assert competing versions of that truth. Do we live in a meritocracy? Is unfettered equality best for society? Is human action destroying the environment? We spend most of our lives disagreeing about what we “know” to be true.
That’s not to say we should thus abandon ourselves to chaos. There are experiments afoot, such as Trooclick—dubbed a “truth layer for the web”—that highlights falsehoods, contradictions, and disagreement with other sources on the web page you’re visiting. It’s conceptually intriguing, and its meta-ness is perfect for the virtual age. To wit, truth is a virtual thing, found in the messy amalgam of differing, contrasting facts, and only something that scrapes multiple sources will ever help.
Still, I can’t help but feel that the digital technology I so valorize is—in the manner in which it’s both situated in and creates contemporary culture—making the idea of what is true harder to get at. I suppose that might be positive—to do away with this now-outdated notion that truth is singular or easily accessible. Except for those incontrovertible empirical facts, what is “true” in terms of culture and morals and politics is mostly about belief, and maybe a daily confrontation with that difficult reality will deepen our understanding of the machinations of life—and pull us away from this simplistic notion that there is one truth, and all we need do is convince others of it.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been repeatedly listening to spoken-word-turned-rapper Kate Tempest’s Everybody Down. There’s a charming rawness to the disc, which in part comes from that fire of a mind that is still young and untainted yet surely brilliant. But on the second track, “The Truth,” Tempest meditates on what’s true, and repeats that too-easy idea that all truth is relative—only to then demand of the listener, “What’s true about you?” Maybe, when the way in which we experience truth becomes so much more complex, seeming to constantly skitter on the edge of certainty, the only thing is to turn the question inward—to ask and then reaffirm what we already believe.