Oceania was at war with Eastasia: Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia. A large part of the political literature of five years was now completely obsolete. Reports and records of all kinds, newspapers, books, pamphlets, films, sound-tracks, photographs — all had to be rectified at lightning speed. . . . Within one week no reference to the war with Eurasia, or the alliance with Eastasia, should remain in existence anywhere. — George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
Winston Smith, the protagonist of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has a difficult and completely unnecessary job: he alters historical records to show that the government has always been right. If Big Brother says that the price of corn will rise, and the price of corn ends up falling, Winston goes through all of the historical records (which are kept in a centralized location) and makes sure that Big Brother said that the price of corn would fall. Hey, it’s a living.
Conventional wisdom says that modern society could never control information like this. It is just to diffuse. Billions of people have access to the Internet, anyone can post, access, and archive information. Even if a totalitarian regime wanted to alter the historical record, it would never be able to do so. We are safe, at least, from that dystopia.
Conventional wisdom, as usual, is wrong.
Orwell missed a lot of things when he tried to imagine modern technology. But he missed very little about human nature and its essential willingness to disbelieve any facts that get in the way of the ways that it has chosen to perceive reality. Truth is, if not entirely irrelevant to our understanding of the world, at least infinitely malleable in the service of the stories about the world that we want to tell.
In 1948, Orwell could well of hypothesized that, if 98% of the people in a country carried pocket devices capable of connecting them to an exhaustive storehouse of accurate information, it would be difficult for the government to lie to them effectively. How can an organized state spread patent misinformation when anybody can verify the accuracy of that information in a matter of seconds.
As it turns out, it isn’t even that hard.
Let’s take a recent Twitter communication from our president:
It is a disgrace that my full Cabinet is still not in place, the longest such delay in the history of our country. Obstruction by Democrats!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 8, 2017
Here we have an easily testable claim of historical fact: that this is the longest delay in approving a cabinet that our country has ever experienced. How does this claim stand up to 30 seconds of Googling? Not well at all. This tweet is dated February 7. Here are the dates of the final confirmation of the cabinet picks of the last four presidents:
- George HW Bush: March 17
- Bill Clinton: March 11
- George W. Bush: January 30
- Barack Obama: April 28
Noticing anything? Yeah, me too.
But, to a very large portion of the American electorate, it doesn’t matter at all because the fact that the president said it is all they need to know. And he said it on an Internet platform that limits every message to 140 characters. And this sums up what has become the greatest problem in modern politics.
The Internet, the great modern storehouse of deep human knowledge, is also an even greater facilitator of shallow communication. 140 characters is enough space to make an assertion. It is not enough space to support that assertion or to give valid reasons to believe it. We have never seen a better demonstration of Marshal McLuhan’s axiom that “the media is the message” than we do with a social media outlet that is only capable of broadcasting unsupported assertions and unspecific anger.
Social media is by and large a good thing. And users of Twitter have discovered that it can be used to do many things well—a list, however, that should not include things like conducting foreign policy, engaging in serious policy debate, or conducting the official business of the President of the United States of America.