Paolo von Schirach
November 4, 2016
Here is one big paradox for you. When the internet proved to be a truly revolutionary innovation, everybody concluded that this technology is a game changer affecting the global communications sector in a fundamental way. More specifically, many argued that the ability to see and quickly report (thanks to the internet) on facts as they are, in real time, all over the world, in many cases at essentially zero cost, would make it a lot more difficult for the bad guys to lie about anything.
Indeed, if a government, a corporation, a political party, or an interest group would tell a lie, especially if it is a big lie, hundreds, may be thousands of fact checkers would spring into action. Thanks to the internet, in almost no time they would be able to provide a true account of what actually happened, and this would expose and shame the liars and manipulators who produced falsehood for their own benefit.
It did not turn out this way
Well, this is what the hope and the prediction was. But it did not turn out this way. True enough, thanks to the ubiquitous internet, many new actors produce, post and send very valuable information that is now accessible from anywhere in the world.
But, contrary to early predictions, it is not true that serious research and scrupulous accounts prevail simply because the public seeks and prefers substance, quality and honesty.
So, here is the paradox. There are plenty of good sources of information, mostly free, that are now easily accessible through the internet. But most people simply ignore them.
They go instead to the sources that reinforce their ideological prejudices. These sources are clearly biased. Some are just propaganda. But this concerns no one. If anything, bias is a plus, as long as it is the kind of bias I happen to like.
Ignore whatever contradicts my bias
And so the internet, far from being the preferred instrument for delivering “The Truth”, is now the equivalent of a gigantic super market where people go to buy what they know they want, ignoring however all the other products on the shelves.
Here is the picture. Facts are almost irrelevant. What counts is the opinion that frames the facts in a way that reinforces what I already believe in. And I choose the interpretation of what is happening that suits my strongly built worldview. I easily dismiss any evidence that contradicts what I want to believe that actually happened, by claiming that it is not true. The other side made it up. And this proves how dishonest and evil they are.
My bias is the truth
Think about it. In this age of instant access to all sorts of reporting about any development across the globe, there is no interest in any objective description of the facts. Facts mean whatever I want to believe they mean. And I shall listen only to the news broadcasts and commentary (the two are now generally mixed) that support my prejudices.
And I shall not even take into consideration that most likely my preferred interpretation is the result of distortions, lies, made-up figures and other manipulations. I want to listen to or watch my own truth.
Easy to double-check
The internet was supposed to give anybody the opportunity to easily double-check. If I read or watch anything, it is easy enough to go to a different source and see or read what they say about the same topic. Is there a consensus? Or are they saying something else? Well, this checking is possible, simple, and in most cases cost-free. But it is not done. And this is because prejudice beats help via user-friendly technology any time.
Technology was supposed to help
To put things in context, bias, prejudice, willful manipulation, and ideological blinders always existed. This is not new. Nobody can claim that the internet created them.
But the internet was supposed to enable truth-tellers to easily counter misinformation and manipulation, along with plain errors, by telling you what really happened. Well, they do. But their impact is modest, or non existent.
The information is there. The means to check and double-check are also there. But most people prefer not to use them.
In the end, for many a solid belief, grounded on prejudice, that provides reassurance is much better than any unsettling truth.
Paolo von Schirach is President of the Global Policy Institute and an Adjunct Professor at BAU International University. A different version of this article first appeared in the Schirach Report www.schirachreport.com
The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of GPI.