A post-truth era? Why Americans may be better-informed than ever

I’m sure everyone has heard the Mark Twain quote “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” But I think it should be reversed to “A correction can travel halfway around the world while the lie is putting on its shoes.” Both sides, but I think especially the left, bemoan that we are living in a ‘post-truth era,’ but is there any truth to this? The evidence would seem to suggest the opposite: that although public figures lie, their lies are debunked faster than ever thanks to fact-checking, much of which is decentralized and online. Decades ago, before social media and sites such as Twitter, it took days or even weeks to refute lies, and usually only the large or important lies (such as Watergate), but with so much fact-checking by either side hoping to score ‘wins’ against the opposing side, lies, half-truths, misconstructions, and omissions, are debunked and corrected in record time, no matter how small the stakes are.

The Twain quote made sense in an era when the transfer and control of information was centralized by major media companies (such as radio, TV, and print), but social media allows anyone to be a fact-checker. Astute readers can immediately find the logical inconsistences and errors of stories or of other comments, pointing out the errors in the comments, which are up-voted and promoted to the top of the comments section and easily visible. Given the popularity of Twitter and Reddit, there are enough subject-matter experts and smart people, no matter how esoteric the topic, that lies and falsehoods tend to be debunked quickly, and comments that debunk or offer clarification tend to get a lot of up-votes and are algorithmically pushed to the top and thus made visible, so everyone reading can see the correction without having to scroll much.

Whenever Trump or AOC tweets something, without fail, fact-checkers from opposing sides pounce, but such fact-checking is not limited to just the opposing team. For example, when AOC demonstrated that she apparently does not understand how tax credits work in regard to her opposition of Amazon’s proposal to build a headquarters in New York City, it was Bill de Blasio, of all people, who fact-checked and corrected her, within hours of her tweet. AOC was also corrected for not understanding the difference between weather and climate change, within minutes or her tweeting about it.

Additionally, with the rise of real-time fact-checking, lies are debunked in mere minutes on sites such as Vox, New York Times, Snopes, or the Washington Post, instead of having to wait weeks for an editor to post a retraction or having to wait for the lie to be dunked days or weeks later. So as Trump is debating Biden, these sites will fact-check on a minute-by-minute basis as the words are coming out of their mouths, which is unprecedented in the history of journalism or fact-checking.

Just a dew days ago, the White House was forced to retract a statement that Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Coney Barrett is a “Rhodes Scholar”, when she actually only attended a place called Rhodes College. So that falsehood lasted less than a day, and although it is trivially easy to verify the source of the confusion, it shows how quickly falsehoods are debunked and corrected in the era of social media.

And in 2004, there was the infamous Killian documents controversy, in which documents purporting to show Bush’s misdeeds during his service in the Texas Air National Guard, were revealed to be a hoax, thanks to an independent investigation by fact-checkers who determined through typography analysis that the memo was not from 1972 as originally claimed, but instead produced on a desktop computer using modern-day word-processing program. The story of the memo possibly being fake went viral, forcing a retraction by CBS just a day later and the eventual resignation of Dan Rather.

It is not just the news, but debunking and fact-checking also applies to organizations. The reason why Scientology (and other cults) thrived in the 20th century was not because people were more gullible, but because there was no cost-effective way to debunk such cults, and while Scientology is profitable, debunking it isn’t, so this means that pro-Scientology messages will tend to prevail over anti-Scientology ones. But fast-forward to the 2000s and it costs next to nothing to put up a webpage debunking Scientology, whereas public service awareness ads are expensive and was the only option 50 years ago. Now anyone can Google ‘Scientology’ and a bunch of negative stuff pops up. Unless the public service ads are run constantly, much like those anti-tobacco ads in the 2000s that were funded by litigation, the odd are pretty high that many people will not see the ads unless they tune in to the radio or TV constantly, but Google search results, unlike ads, are close to permanent and not ephemeral.

Even if lies are more prevalent now than they were in Twain’s era, I think the means and tools for debunking them are more powerful than ever, which means the likelihood that someone will get the ‘correct version’ of the story are much higher. For all the talk of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ I would posit that the average person who follows the news, thanks to fact-checking and speedy corrections, is better-informed than someone from generations ago in terms of having the correct version of a story. Politicians and other public figures will continue to lie, but the truth at least stands a much better chance of prevailing, even if, of course, there is no guarantee it will.