The problem is not new. But it’s gotten much more complicated.
The question of whether of not we can know anything for certain has plagued philosophers for millennia. Plato seems to have come to the conclusion in the Thetatus that we cannot know anything. In his cogito, Descartes quite famously notes that we cannot trust our senses at all, and that the only thing we can be sure of is what we ourselves think.
Empiricists, on the other hand, seemed quite sure that we can know stuff. The scientific method suggests that there is a real world out there, that we can observe and study it, that we can conduct verifiable tests, and that we can affirmatively say, “Yes, this seems to be true. At least for now.” It’s not quite that simple, of course. Opinions vary on whether any of those things are true. Nevertheless, much of the contemporary world has operated on the assumption that we could take certain things as true. Gravity. Electricity. Disease and drugs. The aerodynamics of flight.
Photographs. For a while, our ability to manipulate photos was limited. We collectively took them as a mirror of the world. Granted, philosophers still argued about how an image is manipulated, how what is left out is as important as what is included. Even so, we held them as some version of the truth.
Film. This one is tricky. Much of early film was actually exercises in trickery. Stop motion films and double exposures and post coloring (among others) all served to alter “reality.” Even so, many films also tried to show us the world as it is, from documentaries to nature films. But these days, we comfortably sit and watch films that have been created entirely digitally.
Television. When TVs entered into more and more homes, they further stretched veracity and our acceptance of whatever we saw on our screens as “true” or “real.” Scripted TV tries to replicate or to construct some version of reality, while “reality TV” bears little resemblance to it at all.
Computers. With the advent of the personal computer, we became more and more able to alter the truth. From approximately 1984 on, we could take an image of the world — that mirror we once held to be true — and we could alter it in subtle and overt ways. Quickly thereafter, we could alter digital videos, as well. Now, we can watch concerts “performed” by Elvis or Michael Jackson.
Internet. The Net and the many apps that have been developed seem to have broken the truth. Now, we can create deepfake porn and deepnude substitutes. We can watch Obama make speeches from a cave with bin Laden or a video of Trump dancing naked.
Recently, I’ve been watching the House Impeachment hearings. All of this questioning of the truth seems apropos. When we can put any words into any citizen’s or politician’s mouth with ease, when we can create a realistic video that bears no resemblance to actual occurrences, when we can disseminate and repeat an outright falsehood to millions of people on a daily basis, what does truth mean? What does it matter?
Ambassador William Taylor, Ambassador Marie Yavonovich, and George Kent have suggested that getting to the truth of what happened is important — vital — for foreign service to work. For government to work. Citizens need to have some level of confidence that what the government tells us has happened has, in fact happened. Planes fly into the World Trade Center. The government tells us who did it and why. But are they telling the truth? Are they hiding a darker reality? People start dying of respiratory illnesses, and the government tells us that it’s a supplement added to knock-off vapes. Is that true? Are we safe? Are e-cigs safe? Are they covering something up? What would our evidence be for evaluating that “truth?” Photos? Nope, not reliable? Phone conversations? No, too easily faked. Video of someone stating that they had done it? No. It’s all just fake news plated by foreign nationals, or the deep state, or political rivals. Around 90% of all climate scientists tell us that the Earth is warming as a result of human activity. Should we take action? No, because it’s all fake news.
It used to be that only the delusional, the paranoid, and the conspiracy-minded questioned these things. That doubt has become more and more mainstream. It’s why Alex Jones makes a killing. It’s why a significant number of people believe that the Sandy Hook shootings were faked. It’s why way too many people believe that the Earth is flat. It’s why Donald Trump remains in office.
It’s just not healthy. And it’s not sustainable.
Ritch Calvin is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of Feminist Epistemology and Feminist Science Fiction and editor of a collection of essays on Gilmore Girls.