I have a friend who was born in Aberdeen – I’ve seen his birth certificate – and he is a mine of information on Nirvana, the north west music scene and on Seattle’s other musical godhead son Jimi Hendrix. Yet, recently, reading comments on one of his Facebook pages, I saw the most bizarre thing: people simply declaring, on no basis whatsoever that he was lying about his place of birth. A complete stranger could declare, on instinct and cobbled together (and irrelevant) data, that my friend hadn’t been born or lived in Aberdeen, Washington. It was a telling moment for me: the Internet era (essentially 1994-2018 and ongoing) has brought us to a place where it’s harder than at any point in history for an individual to ‘slip off the radar’…While simultaneously making it easier than ever for strangers to claim authority over one another’s reality.
While Hollywood projects the possibility of vast corporate or governmental entities able to forge near anything given current technology, the vast majority of this kind of anti-truth approach is far less sophisticated. Ever mislabeled a photo accidentally? Fine, it happens. Now it’s possible to mislabel a photo and for that mislabel to be projected across the entire world with one batch of people using it to reinforce their cause and another lot claiming it’s a conspiracy while the more boring voices point out “it’s a mislabel!” only to be shouted down, told they’re wrong, tagged as conspirators or simply not noticed. As an example, a while back a Facebook page posted a photo claiming to show Kurt Cobain stood next to “his killer”…When in fact it was a mislabeled photo from 1993 of Cobain stood with some random dude. Any correction will have only a limited impact because the photo (with caption) will now become part of the lexicon of mistakes repeated forever.
One positive is that, ultimately, the sudden importance of online fact-checking like this is an indication of how placid most people’s lives are. It used to be of no relevance, day to day, whether what someone said was the absolute truth or not – who cared? Life was too full of one’s day-to-day needs and the real threats to one’s existence (poor medical care, minimal dental care, no nutrition, limited hygiene, little money, etc., etc.) to spend time weaving stories online. It did mean, sure, that people were more subservient to authority in the sense that the flow of information was heavily governed and ran down restricted channels (local authority figures, a limited number of media sources, word of mouth) but on the other hand it was all less observed and fewer people could intervene in your day-to-day life.
Ultimately, now, we’re all exposed to a higher number of interactions with other people’s opinions than ever before. By the same virtue we’re exposed to an astronomically higher scale of negative and positive interactions – but the former play on the mind more because day-to-day life isn’t a sea of insults, verbal aggression, confrontation, argument, challenges to self…
Anyways, there we go. The further we get from a historical situation (i.e., Nirvana as a living, breathing band) the more one version of the truth is solidified and simplified, while the space opens up below for ever more wild thoughts to fly about with no authority recognised and the possibility to just say “nope! Don’t believe you,” when faced with open questions, unknowables and/or things people just want to refuse. The potential has always been there in humanity, now the infrastructure exists to allow it to happen.