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Technology Has Destroyed Reality

The truth doesn’t fit into that mold.

The truth is a piece of work with unruly and messy details that nevertheless require attention and never fully add up. It is usually much too complicated to be entertaining, and it may not be to everyone’s liking at all. It may not make things easier or more efficient — quite the opposite, in fact. If truth is not a marketable item, like clean environments or livable neighborhoods, the platforms that manage digital communication seem to show little interest in maintaining it, letting broken news propagate.

As a result, fake reports, digital rumors and conspiracy theories have moved from fringe to mainstream. They have also created a new reality. As I write this, a mob is marching through the East German town of Chemnitz, yelling anti-migrant slogans and chasing nonwhite people. They are not brandishing pitchforks; they are more likely to wield cellphones.

After all, in Germany Facebook activity correlates with white-supremacist violence. Racist gatherings are organized in a matter of hours on social media, and algorithms built into platforms amplify social division and benefit extremist organizations. Digital technology augments authoritarian movements, and the digital native segues seamlessly into the digital nativist.

Facts, on the other hand, are often quite unspectacular. They will not improve, and may even deteriorate, if they are “liked” or shared. And both facts and the truth rely on strong institutions, not consumers, to defend them: judiciaries, scientific communities, an independent press. It is no coincidence that all those institutions are being undermined in many countries around the world — see the rioters in Chemnitz fuming at the “lying press,” the defunding of scientific research throughout the Western world or attempts at the partisan realignment of judicial institutions, such as Poland’s Supreme Court.

There are many short-term solutions to help prevent the further onslaught of broken news. Challenging or regulating monopoly platforms is one of them. Making their algorithms transparent and open to public assessment, legislation and debate is another. We can ban bots and anonymous accounts from social media, and strengthen institutions with durable and tested rules to establish and confirm facts.

But we cannot have our factuality cake and eat it too. Truth will rarely be popular or profitable. To expect its popularity to correspond to its veracity is not even artificially stupid, but just stupid.