I used to argue that the Internet acted like truth serum: No matter what someone on television claimed, eventually someone would dig up the truth. Then, because it was the truth, it would eventually float up to the surface. It forced me and other writers to be more rigorous about our assertions, lest some expert eventually reveal that they are myths.
The Internet is still a medium that favors nonfiction over made-up stories. While we may watch Netflix dramas over the Internet, the writing and videos populating the Web are mostly factual -- in spirit, at least. A tweet or Facebook update goes "viral" because there's a piece of truth or gossip in it. From the Arab Spring to Charlie Sheen, the most contagious Internet memes tend to be nonfiction moments. We don't tweet as much about TV characters as we do about stuff the actors playing them have done or said.
What has taken me longer to realize is that no matter how fact-filled the Internet gets, without context there's no way to really evaluate any of these supposed truths. A purported fact will spread more for its ability to inflame than its relation to the truth. On the Internet, information streams can be isolated, almost meaninglessly decontextualized triggers -- or, worse, as elements in a feed algorithmically configured by a social media platform to keep users clicking and spreading.
Where news organizations may be trying to assemble a version of truth for their readers, social media platforms care only about views, clicks, favorites and retweets. And in such an environment, the most inflammatory triggers -- the most outlandish claims to truth -- easily surpass the boring old truths we need to address. A video of a decapitation gets more play than the exodus of a million desperate refugees. The unfounded accusation that Jersey City Muslims cheered the collapse of the World Trade Center spreads further than the real fear Muslims have of an America increasingly hostile to their existence here.
That's because without anyone else to contextualize these claims, we fit all these loose facts into our personal, almost dreamlike mythology for how the world works. It's a disorganized, impulsive and unconscious set of connections we draw -- and the perfect palette for those depending on the darker side of human nature for traction and their personal gain.
Meanwhile, the speed and ethereal quality of these platforms -- some, like Snapchat, actually erase messages after they've been read -- keep those who spread the worst rumors from being forced to defend their claims. If one false story is getting challenged, they simply unload a bunch more. By the time a real truth has surfaced, the lie is buried so far down in the stream it doesn't even matter anymore.
Douglas Rushkoff, a media theorist and professor of media studies at the City University of New York's Queens College, writes a regular column for CNN.com. He is the author of the book "Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now," and of the forthcoming book "Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity" (March 2016, Penguin).
H.W. Brands: Why the tolerance for lies?
It is almost certainly the case that political candidates lie less often today than their predecessors did in generations past.
This is not because they are intrinsically more honest but because lies are easier to catch. Nearly everything a candidate says is recorded by someone and can be fact-checked at leisure. In older times if a candidate was caught in a falsehood, the candidate could deny having said it, and no one could prove the opposite. In addition, candidates today speak less often through proxies than they did in the past. Before radio and television, a candidate's spoken words carried no farther than the candidate's voice. To reach other voters, candidates enlisted proxies, who could prevaricate with the impunity that came from knowing their words could be disavowed by the candidate if the words caused problems.
Yet the current campaign, especially on the Republican side, demonstrates a remarkable tolerance for misstatements and outright lies. The tolerance appears to reflect a dual disdain for t