My first visit to the Aspen Ideas Festival was as enriching and exhausting as I imagined it could be, filled to the brim and them some with stimulating dialogue, intriguing people, and provocative ideas. It’s enough to make your head spin. The closing session on my last day was a real ringer, featuring first a conversation between Common and Arthur Brooks, and then Cass Sunstein on stage interviewing Mark Zuckerberg.
Let’s just go ahead and call them Cass and Mark, because now I feel like I know them both. Plus, it makes it much easier to relay the substance of what they talked about. Cass pushed Mark on all the topics you’d think he might, all the reasons Facebook has been publicly under fire—privacy, use of data, propagation and facilitation of false information. Mark is clearly a master of the art of the talking point. Not to say, in quite so many words, that he was evasive, but he did have an agenda and a message.
Before the last couple years, was the concept of ‘fake news’ something we really considered as a populace? Did we ever doubt our abilities to discern between the true and the misleading? Serious and satire? It could walk the line but ultimately we felt confident in our capacity to know the truth, and to trust our own minds.
It’s unsettling to suppose we’re all being had by the networks we now rely on daily for interaction and access to information, to say nothing of our faith in traditional journalism. As storytellers, we need to suppose that our readers are coming right along with us, and that if we provide citations or data that those are given the benefit of the doubt as being true.
When I was in law school, an unwavering rule was to rely only on primary citations and sources. The depth and breadth of the internet does make that a little harder. But we owe it to ourselves to dig a little, and to trust that the information we’re consuming is serving our best interests. If you disagree with the facts, well, that’s entirely your prerogative. But disagree with the direction of the argument, not its inherent veracity.
The larger point is this: at what point does face value lose all meaning? How exhausting to have to be skeptical of everything, always.
What can we all do to ensure the continued survival of the truth? Be careful about what we read, and be careful about what we share. Follow the rule that primary sources govern. Assume that extreme viewpoints are frequently just that. Read all the way to the end of the article. Read books. Get your information from a variety of sources. If something is important to you, take the time to know the data. Respect each other and try to find the one point of common agreement amid the disagreement.