Truth Lies Here
How can Americans talk to one another—let alone engage in political debate—when the Web allows every side to invent its own facts?
This past August, the left-leaning San Francisco–based Web site AlterNet posted a remarkable scoop: members of a group calling itself the Digg Patriots were banding together to promote conservative-leaning online stories and to drive down the rankings of stories that the group felt showed a liberal bias. Digg, founded in 2004, was one of the first social-media sites, and it remains the largest one devoted to disseminating news stories; its primary function allows the “collective community” (to employ the optimistic phrase Digg uses to describe its participants) to promote stories it likes and/or deems important and, until recently, to bury stories it dislikes.
Further, the AlterNet story alleged, Digg Patriots were creating ghost accounts whereby they could muster “bury brigades” with far more influence than their actual numbers permitted. “One bury brigade in particular,” the article said, became “so organized and influential that they are able to bury over 90% of the articles by certain users and websites submitted within 1-3 hours.” The effect of this burying was to prevent other Digg users from finding those articles and rendering their own opinions on them, effectively coming as close to censorship as is possible in the social-media sphere. After the AlterNet article was posted, the Digg Patriots user group was taken down, and Digg eliminated the “bury” option on its site; Digg also began an internal investigation into AlterNet’s claims.
The article received little attention outside a few tech-oriented blogs—in part, one suspects, because Digg is no longer the agenda-setting monster it was a few years ago, when many establishmentarians saw it as a threat to the editorial functions of major news organizations. That issue has long since been argued and decided, and Digg itself has been superseded by far more popular services such as Twitter and Facebook, which cannot be gamed in the same way.
But the episode raises an intriguing, and disturbing, question, especially coming on the heels of a number of similar incidents. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said (or is famously reputed to have said) that we may each be entitled to our own set of opinions, but we are not entitled to our own set of facts. In a time when mainstream news organizations have already ceded a substantial chunk of their opinion-shaping influence to Web-based partisans on the left and right, does each side now feel entitled to its own facts as well? And thanks to the emergence of social media as the increasingly dominant mode of information dissemination, are we nearing a time when truth itself will become just another commodity to be bought and sold on the social-media markets? Or, to cast it in Twitter-speak: @glennbeck fact = or > @nytimes fact? More far-reachingly, how does society function (as it has since the Enlightenment gave primacy to the link between reason and provable fact) when there is no commonly accepted set of facts and assumptions to drive discourse?
While Breitbart unapologetically conducts his information warfare à la Sartre via Malcolm X—by any means necessary, including blatant falsehoods—Assange uses “truth” as a weapon while assuming that context will be provided by the commons (or, in the case of his massive July leak of classified documents relating to Afghanistan, three international publications).