I can give you a lot of examples, ranging from folks who rightly advocate honesty as the best policy (like Chris Brogan) to folks who tell you it’s the only approach that will work in social media. There is a myth gaining momentum that the social web possesses a set of antennae that are deadly accurate and can locate liars, phonies and self-promoters without fail.
Well, I, too, believe in and advocate for honesty. But I think it is important that facts and falsehoods can turn out to have equal power, especially online, contrary to what everyone posting about social media—especially folks in marketing and advertising—keep repeating over and over.
Consider this: The Harris polling organization, a reasonably trusted source of public opinion research, recently took the highly unusual step of measuring the public’s affinity for the manifestly false. Looking into what people understand about President Obama’s health care reform proposals, Harris found that huge portions of supposedly grown-up Americans believe a wide variety of things that simply aren’t true. (For a PDF of the Harris survey results on public beliefs about health care reform, click here and download Many People Are Confused or Misinformed on What Is, and Is Not, in Health Reform Proposals, September 21) One example from the poll, taken during the week of September 8, tells the tale: “A quarter (25%) of the public believes that the president’s plans would ‘promote euthanasia to keep costs down,’ and only 56% believe this is untrue.”
The first point is that there isn’t any natural or easy way to distinguish the truth from a lie. The second is that lies may spread faster and farther than truths, especially if the lies are constructed to conform to someone’s preconceived ideas and prejudices. For example, most Americans are now primed to believe almost anything bad about ACORN or Goldman Sachs (to pick two extreme examples). And that means there will be more lies circulating about both.
We live at a moment when anyone with a keyboard and an internet connection can be a major media force. This is also a time when the old arbiters of truth in the mainstream media are losing ground (as well as money), when opinion is becoming more important than information and when promoting rage is becoming more popular than inducing calm. So we’re seeing a big uptick in lies. It’s inevitable. In this moment when the power to publish widely is available to anyone and everyone, it will not do to simply advocate for the truth. We have to go further and work diligently for the truth at all times. We have to worship the facts before we formulate or accept opinions. We will have to correct one another’s information when necessary. We will have to take our collective obligation to the truth seriously.
If we do this, we actually will receive some great benefits from the democratization of publishing that social media offers. But if we don’t, the chaos will get worse and worse until no one will be able to know what to believe.