Facebook is going to implement a feature that allows users to flag content as false. Aside from the obvious issue of the enormous headache that US fans of the partisan media theory, adherents of any nationalistic narrative, conspiracy theorists, and other 4chan-type mentality groups are going to give developers in tagging en-masse ideologically objectionable content, there’s the absolutely fascinating problem of figuring out how to tell if a thing is true when you have absolutely no connection to the events in question or any actor in them. In my opinion, this is one of the basic problems of the internet age.
What are the attributes of a true story – or, how does one distinguish it from a rumor? Facts can no longer be considered the main problem; the glut of “facts” available on the internet would overcome any researcher, and in any case, the narrative they fit into is much more telling. After all, how many discussions have you had in which someone admitted that they got a fact or two wrong, reviewed the syllogisms underlying their beliefs, and then reported back to you that they had changed their minds? Even supposing someone had the good will and intellectual honesty to do that, no one has the time to do it every time they hear something doubtful.
Our beliefs don’t depend on facts; our beliefs are simply the picture created by the facts that we’ve chosen to notice, attach significance to, and report as arguments. Any time one is shown to be false, another one can be chosen to take its place, or the contradicting fact can be reinterpreted to support our belief; we generally call this “spin”.
So how does one cut past the spin, disinformation, and so on? This is a pressing question; people today are almost required to have beliefs about an array of issues about which they are hardly capable of having any particular knowledge. The result is that their thinking is substituted by the thinking of a much smaller number of people and organizations who do a lot of the thinking for us, and then spread their ideas through the social networks as memes. Luckily, since the main social network today is no longer the ephemeral word-of-mouth, over-the-fence type, but the immortal-memoried Internet, these memes are recorded and can be tracked. That means they can also be analyzed, which means that any characteristics distinguishing fact from fiction are waiting to be culled from the data.
What do you think identifies something as true or false? What sets off your bullshit alarms? Can truth be conceived of as the result of the speciation of communicative goals?