When Fact is Fiction: The Erosion of Truth
“I will not die of stupid,” writes Leonard Pitts Jr. for the Tampa Bay Times. He, like many of us, is rebelling against the misinformation that floods our feeds these days. But outrunning stupid becomes a marathon in the era of alternative facts and evolving science. Everyone has (lightly fact-checked to highly suspect) COVID-19 stories, email threads, or studies to share. In the span of a couple months, the narrative has shifted from “flatten the curve” to “follow the science.” But with leaders who tell us to ingest Lysol and science that is still so inconsistent, looking for facts is like finding a needle in a haystack. Even the Surgeon General (who for the most part has been a beacon of hope in this) backtracks on advice. The concept of hard fact starts to become murkier than it ever has been. In real time, we’re witnessing the erosion of one of the most important commodities we have: the truth.
We’re at a tipping point where fact can easily sour and turn to fiction. But this erosion of truth began way before COVID-19. Since 2016, “fake news” and “alternative facts” have sat none too quietly next to actual facts, the cacophony so loud it’s hard to recognize what the truth even sounds like anymore. And we all witnessed the nation’s most respected paper receive a new title: “The Failing New York Times.” What we didn’t realize at the time was how deeply comments like these might reach a saturation point, the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.
After years of the President’s commentary on media credibility, studies show that most Americans are now highly skeptical of our news sources. The President’s continued critiques have broken down our ability to believe the press, creating mistrust in a group of people that are supposed to act as neutral middlemen. And to add to our growing trust issues, we find ourselves unable to pin down the ever-changing truth around COVID-19. The continued use of “fake news” and “alternative facts” now contends with the media’s impossible task of reporting on science that changes every single day. What’s true in an article on Monday could be widely dispelled by Tuesday.
So if we don’t go to the media for truth, where else can we turn? In the past few months, we’ve become friendly with a specific cast of characters: Surgeon General Jerome Adams, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Deborah Birx, and supporting local government officials. Their communications present us with a new setting where we can search for truth. I look forward to the daily briefings from Gov. Gavin Newsom and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. But turning to political press conferences in search of new developments can cause the same whiplash as reading the news. We can, of course, all remember the President wondering if injecting disinfectant might cure COVID-19, then later reframing these comments as sarcastic. This back-and-forth makes it hard to tell what’s real. Just to recap, here’s a breakdown of some truths, untruths, and half truths so far:
Masks were not recommended, but now they are required to enter many places
It’s important to stay home, but states like Texas or Iowa are relaxing their laws already
Tests will be hard to come by, but rapid tests have been shipped to all 50 states
Widespread home testing can help keep people safe, but the FDA rolled back its approval of these tests
Test results can take up to a week, but some test provide results in 5 minutes
FDA is too lax in allowing for inaccurate antibody tests, but these can be vitally helpful
At a time when the truth is under assault, our new climate of slowly evolving science hastens its demise. There is the growing fear that “alternative facts” are now a reality. With all facts under attack, what is even true anymore? Who can we believe? Who do we trust?
What was once regarded as analytical and rational is now malleable, changing, and opinion-based. The science behind COVID-19 is revealing itself slowly — a huge problem for a world that demands a minute-by-minute news refresh. Our automatic feeds were not designed for a slow roll. When faced with the need for carefully assessing and not taking every “hot take” at face value, we become confused. Our algorithms conditioned us to reward reactionary behavior, not to calmly process or evaluate.
The erosion of truth has turned us all into armchair journalists. We’re searching for truth everywhere — on our feeds, from our favorite pundits, from friends, or even “cousins who work at the CDC” — in hopes that we’ll be able to uncover the answer, the right thing to do, the way out of this mess. In absence of truth there is no authority, or worse we’re all an authority. In a world that values rapid reaction, polarization, and speaking in absolutes, it may be time for a new approach. As we all try not to “die of stupid,” maybe we should take a page out of Forrest Gump’s book and remember: stupid is as stupid does. Perhaps the best thing we can do is to not react, to take things more slowly. The only fact we have at our disposal is a simple one: the truth may not be revealed every second we hit refresh.