Go ahead and search for “fake photos on the Internet” or “fake facts,” and you’ll find dozens of examples showing the proliferation of altered images, blatant lies and other misrepresentations of reality. As much as I love the notion of Teddy Roosevelt riding a moose, that widely circulated photo is just not accurate (although it is an interesting historical artifact demonstrating that images have routinely been manipulated long before the dawn of the digital age).
We are all attempting to determine the nature of truth, rumor, lie and error in our information-rich, always-on culture. What once seemed easy—“I know it’s true because I saw it in the newspaper”—is now endlessly called into question. Political candidates spin tales based on their own interpretation of facts, and those tales get spun again by the media and again by your friends (or in-laws) on Facebook. Celebrities of all types use their social media channels to promote their favorite causes, and our kids interpret their endorsement as a substitute for actual fact-checking.
All of this creates a high degree of ambiguity in the world around us, and makes me ever more skeptical of everything I see and read. Having been trained as a social scientist, I’d like to think I’ve developed a pretty good sense of the difference between hype and fact, or at least between science and speculation. However, I am not sure I can say the same for the generations raised on a steady diet of the Internet.