Truthiness and the Dark Side of New Media

True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society by Farhad Manjoo. Wiley, 2009

The Internet is cool, and it is easy to mistake coolness for goodness. So for every few new-media optimists I read, I like to pause for a quick a dose of counterbalancing pessimism.

The latest dose for me comes from Farhad Manjoo’s True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society. Manjoo is the technology columnist for Slate magazine and, I infer, an Internet enthusiast. His book, however, is not as much about the new media per se as it is about the interaction of new media with the psychology of belief.

Manjoo acknowledges that the fragmentation of media is good, in so far as it allows a diversity of views to be aired. But, he argues, it is bad in that it allows people to choose to hear only those viewpoints that reinforce their own beliefs. Instead of reaching out for truth, society is willing to settle for truthiness. (For those who are unfamiliar with the word truthiness, here is Manjoo’s definition, paraphrasing that of the word’s progenitor, Stephen Colbert: “the quality of a thing feeling true without any evidence suggesting it actually was.”)

To illustrate the rise of truthiness, Manjoo walks us through a variety of examples from the political spectrum: the Swift Boat Veterans, 9/11 conspiracy theorists, amateur analysts convinced that the 2004 presidential election was stolen, Lou Dobbs and his abandonment of objectivity, and PR video clips passed off as straight TV news.

A common thread in all these examples is Manjoo’s belief that the decline of traditional mass media has enabled all of these deceptions to achieve much greater public exposure than would have been the case two decades ago. As he says,

“. . . the Swift Boat campaign points to a critical danger of what you might call the modern infosphere. People who skillfully manipulate today’s fragmented media landscape can dissemble, distort, exaggerate, fake–essentially, they can lie–to more people, more effectively, than ever before.”

The decline of mass media, Manjoo says, means we have lost our “real gatekeepers and authority figures” that controlled the flow of news to us. He compares the network news anchors of old to  “particularly attentive and imposing hosts of a national dinner party,” who “guided their guests, the American people, to whichever topics they considered worthy of our attention.”

In the election of 2004, one of those traditional mass-media hosts, Dan Rather, was embarrassed by bloggers who were able to show that Rather relied on a false document in a report critical of George W. Bush. This episode is often celebrated as an example of the value of blogs in actually uncovering the truth. But for Manjoo, it’s a rare exception, “sui generis”, that simply proves his point:

“It’s easy to catch a news anchor’s phony memo, but all the bloggers in the world cannot prove to the satisfaction of a dyed-in-the-wool Fox viewer that Fox is wrong about global warming. . . . Whatever competition it faces, Fox and its audience can live safely in the comfort of the lie . . . .”

Manjoo does not really propose any way to reverse or mitigate the trend toward truthiness. As his subtitle suggests, the best we can do as a society  is learn to live with it.

For the most part, Manjoo looks at these issues from the point of view of content consumers.  How should we, as content producers, regard them? Knowing that, as Manjoo demonstrates, readers tend to go to niche products for confirmation of their views, what is the right role for B2B? Do you simply reflect and reinforce the predominant attitudes of your audience, or, depending on the facts you find, challenge them?

B2B producers have always had to struggle with the temptation to pander. True Enough suggests that this temptation will only get more intense. For producers, the dark side of new media is that truthiness sells. Can you learn to live with that?

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  1. Pingback: Do your readers want the truth? | B2B Memes

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