That saying “history repeats itself” is haunting me right now. Explicitly the version said by George Santayana, who stated “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about the dark ages and the enormous loss of science, culture, and art that happened in that time period.
Historical accuracy aside, because there is definitely a ton more nuance to the original dark ages than I’m giving credit here, I’m haunted by history repeating itself because it feels like we are slouching towards our own digital dark ages.
Sometimes the news doesn’t seem real. People are seriously burning down 5G towers? They actually think that Covid-19 is a massive government conspiracy?
For starters, anyone who buys into the idea of a massive government conspiracy has never done project management. These conspiracies would require extraordinary levels of competence not seen anywhere in real life. Especially in a government office.
Putting aside whether any of us believe humans can seamlessly cooperate and keep secrets at scale, this really gets under my skin because these growing conspiracy theories result from how hard it has become to find reliable, trustworthy information today–and how easy it is to become convinced of complete nonsense that seems credible.
In one of my undergrad biology lectures, we did an exercise where we compared popular science magazine articles (Popular Science, Scientific American, Discover, etc) covering new study results to the actual paper in a peer-reviewed journal.
This isn’t easy, there’s a lamentable trend in scientific academia to write as if you want to obscure your point as much as possible. With the help of our professor to untangle the densest parts of each paper, we dug in. Surprise surprise…the articles in the pop-sci mags barely represented the actual findings in the peer-reviewed papers outlining the study results.
Sometimes (often) they were completely wrong or even made claims the journal articles never remotely concluded was a possibility.
This is why you constantly see fluff pieces claiming a glass of wine is good for you and protects you from a laundry list of diseases. The actual studies these fluff pieces refer to? They used concentrated resveratrol extracts in animal models and found limited antioxidant effects. Big difference between “worth looking into further based on data in mice” and “chug that pinot noir, babe”.
There are deeper issues in academic publishing, as showcased by the Sokal Hoax and the Grievance Studies Affair, and these just throw down more layers of obscurity over what little truth (and trust) is left in the world.
You might be thinking, “ok I know not to believe every claim with “studies show” stamped on it but at least I can trust the news. Sure, it’s slanted right or left depending on which site you go to, but journalism ethics and standards is a thing….right?”
Wrong, and I’m about to throw a “studies have shown” on this (right after I talked shit about the recaps not matching the study) so…yea, once that irony sinks in let’s get into it.
Because journalists are hooked on Twitter, they often (constantly) write news stories about things that happen on the platform.
This is a huge problem: Something happens on Twitter; celebrities, politicians, and journalists talk about it, and it’s circulated to a wider audience by Twitter’s algorithms; journalists write about the dust-up.
They often present the subject as a debate roiling the country, when it’s really just an argument taking place inside that journalist’s Twitter feed. Regular people are left with a confused, agitated view of our current political discourse and in many cases of their fellow Americans.
This study had some…interesting results:
“Our results indicate that the routinization of Twitter into news production affects news judgment,” the researchers write. “For journalists who incorporate Twitter into their reporting routines, and those with fewer years of experience, Twitter has become so normalized that tweets were deemed equally newsworthy as headlines appearing to be from the AP wire. This may have negative implications.”
Among those implications, they argue, is that journalists can get caught up in a kind of pack mentality in which a story is seen as important because other journalists on Twitter are talking about it, rather than because it is newsworthy.
Louder for the people in the back who are just skimming the headers!
A story is seen as important because other journalists on Twitter are talking about it, rather than because it is newsworthy.
That is not news, this is reporting on what’s happening ON A SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORM. My heads about to explode but I’m here for you so I’m going to keep going…
I hardly know where to begin with this one because it is a well worn soapbox around here but…let’s say all the people in your neighborhood still get a newspaper each day. You went for an early morning walk after the paperboy made his rounds, and noticed as you went by each house that each headline was totally different. One leaned left, one leaned right, and one was all photos of unlikely animal friendships.
How would each of your neighbors view the world after taking in those headlines that reinforced their beliefs?
Very. Freaking. Differently.
The more each person sees headlines and content that reinforces their worldview, the more these worldviews become fixed. It becomes harder to empathize with others and see the world from someone else’s perspective. We get stuck in our own navel-gazing echo chamber.
I wrote last week about performing online and wondered how many novels aren’t being written because too many people are so distracted consuming online they don’t take the time to create. Someone not putting their creative energy out in the world because they’re too busy brainlessly scrolling is textbook digital dark ages behavior.
And Now We Have Trust Issues
What results from all of this is a general distrust of…literally everything. We know academic papers are written too densely for the average human to understand them, and we know that journalism is having a rough time trying to get ad blockers and click-bait to tango, and we know that we probably shouldn’t believe what we read on social but…
If not these sources where do we find truth? What is our shared common experience as a human beings, and how do we find it?
We no longer have a common, shared experience of life as a culture like we did when we all watched the same shows or read the same pamphlets. Instead, we get deep on the internet and dive down rabbit holes that lead us to very interesting conclusions about the world and how it works. LiKe AdReNoCHrOmE, and Tom Hanks, and celebrity cabals, 5G, anti-vaxx, flat-earth….the list goes on.
Sure, I was trained to look deep on a website or in a paper for accreditation and ways to make sure the source was verified, most people weren’t. There is no user manual for navigating the internet.
I have also been hired by supplement companies to write articles about how their products might help make your life better in “xyz” ways because studies have shown (there it is again)….and while I know everything I said was in alignment with FTC and FDA laws I accept that in some ways I am part of the problem.
Just looking for information online to learn a new skill or answer a burning question is messed up. How many pieces of sponsored content should I have to sift through to get to something that will actually help answer my question? My experience has suggested it’s about 5-6 articles plus avoiding at least 1 free webinar to “get the scoop”, and even then it’s a crapshoot. This is exhausting, and I am someone who is pretty good at internetting.
The Future is…Dark?
So, tell me friends…does news as we knew it still exist? How do we find a common truth in this age of information overload? Is it too late to turn off the internet? (ha)
Apparently, younger generations naturally accept that nothing online is real. Maybe it’s the millennial in me but I can’t comfortably accept that we have to go through life in a state of “who knows!” That doesn’t work for me, especially being raised on the X-Files. THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE, SHEEPLE. (sorry not sorry, couldn’t resist)
The next innovation we need online isn’t another social platform that will put us in lonely boxes with self-centered newsfeeds that reinforce our insecurities & desires, it’s something that will help us find the truth–whatever that is. Maybe it’s regulatory, maybe it’s something innovative, heck maybe it’s our planetary magnetic fields reversing and knocking out cell phones and wifi for a while so people can unplug long enough to pull their heads out of their peaches.
Let’s not have this generation be looked back upon as a dark age where mistrust and a lack of truth ran rampant because we had technologies that we couldn’t handle. Where the most culturally significant “creators” were Instagram influencers and reality tv stars with surgically enhanced trout pouts. Or where we lose our trust, and respect, for our own government and undermine the unity of our country as a whole because…Twitter. Oh crap, looking at this maybe we’re already in a dark age and it’s time to yank ourselves out.
The truth is, I have no idea what we need to do to find truthful conclusions online consistently. The real truth, the trustworthy truth that can be believed and held as a standard for connection, collaboration, and action. But, if we keep accepting that we can’t find it (or that the garbage rants we read on conspiracy websites are true)… we’re in trouble. If we keep prioritizing sounding smart (looking at you scientists) over writing for comprehension, we’re left open for mockery and slowing down our progress as an innovative species. And FFS if we keep looking at Twitter as (and for) journalism we are in a world of hurt.
Let’s figure this out and find & spread the truth online, because I don’t live on a flat earth.